Detroit--Where Life is Worth Living - Part 3
In 1915, the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau put out a lovely brochure touting the many highlights of the city. Part of the brochure covered industry.
Did you know that in 1915, Detroit was #1 in the United States in the production of:
Okay, enough with the stats—suffice it to say that Detroit was a city on the move!
“Detroit—Where Life’s Worth Living” (Part 2)
The People of Detroit
In 1915, the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau put out a lovely brochure touting the many highlights of the city. At the time, Detroit was the seventh-largest city in the country. The population was estimated at 645,000, up from 465,000 in 1910. (A 39% increase in 5 years!) As a point of comparison, the 2010 census puts Detroit at 713,000 today--a 25% decrease from 2000 and the lowest number of any official census since 1910.
In 1915 Detroit:
The southern migration had begun with Ford’s “Five-dollar day” in 1914. (Up to this point, most unskilled laborers made a little over a dollar a day.) The five-dollar day sparked the growth of the middle-class, creating for the first time a large group of people who could afford to buy cars and eventually move out of the city centers where they worked. In that way, Ford first was responsible for a large part of Detroit’s growth and then for the decline of the city as those who could afford to leave did.
"Detroit--Where Life is Worth Living"
I've been perusing the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau's 1915 brochure. They used the above slogan for the city, which was taken from this poem:
by Edgar A. Guest, Poet Laureate of Detroit
In Detroit, life's worth living.
In Detroit, we are giving,
In Detroit, it is true,
That our skies are always blue,
There's a smile for me and you,
Blithe and gay.
In Detroit, life is cheerful,
All the while,
For our people soothe the tearful,
With a smile,
We've a helping hand to lend,
To a stranger, foe or friend,
And our resting time we spend,
On Belle Isle.
In Detroit, we have pleasures
By the score;
And the rarest of our treasures,
Yes, and more,
Is our river, Oh! so bright,
Cool and restful, day and night,
Source of infinite delight,
O'er and o'er.
In Detroit, life's worth living,
Folks are gentle and forgiving,
If you stray,
In Detroit may I be,
When God's angel beckons me,
O'er the silent unknown sea,
I've spent a lot of the last three years trying to imagine Detroit as it was in 1910-1913. Walking the streets, studying photos, reading about the culture, entertainment, everyday life, and commerce, I thought I could just about see it. Now I wonder.
I can see the buildings and parks, the river steamers and mansions, but I don't think I can feel what the city was like back then. I don't know that any city in the twenty-first century could have the power and vibrancy of Detroit a hundred years ago. Now, I don't think people have changed much, and the have-nots always outnumbered the haves by a gigantic margin, but I think even they had a hope that is not evident in the city today, except in a few individuals who believe Detroit can rise again. My hat is off to those folks (who include my daughter Nicole).
In future posts I'll share some of the interesting info in the 1915 brochure, which is what I had intended to do with this post until I read "In Detroit." Will anyone--ever again--look at Detroit as Eddie Guest did once upon a time?
Killed in the press
The Detroit Electric Machining Room circa 1910
I had no idea how often something like the scene at the beginning of The Detroit Electric Scheme happened in real life. (Not the murder part, just the press "accident" part).
Two men at one talk this winter told me about their experiences, one at a Chrysler plant, the other at a Buick plant. One of the men had to clean out the press after a repairman had been working on the press from the inside and it stamped him. He was completely pulverized. Nothing left but liquids. The other knew a machine operator who had been leaning inside the press and put his hands up on the side of it to lever himself out. His head was still inside when one of his hands hit the switch.
Last night at the Cromaine Public Library, one of the men in attendance said he used to work at Fisher Body, and he told me about the evolution of these press accidents and the attempted solutions by management. He had to clean up after one man was crushed in a press and paid close attention to it from then on.
Initially there was one man at the control (single switch) while four other men would put the metal in the press, align it, and remove it when it had been stamped. When the man at the switch got distracted or hit the button accidentally , any of the four could lose a hand, arm, or head, depending on what they had in the machine at the time.
They went to a two switch system, so the button couldn't be pushed accidentally, but they still had the problem with the distracted operator. Also, machine operators for whom pushing two buttons was too much effort would push in one button and wedge it in place with a toothpick, so he'd just have to push one button to start the press. Additionally, men were losing legs because they would put their leg up to stretch at just the wrong time.
Next came all four men having to stand on certain spots or all hold onto a bar outside the press in order for it to work.
In the meantime, hundreds (thousands?) of men were maimed or killed by these machines. Think of the outcry today if something like that was happening (in this country. I'm sure there are similar problems in sweatshops around the world, but we don't hear about those.)
Life was cheap in the U.S. in those days, particularly when the men were easily replaceable and there wouldn't be publicity problems for the company. It was just the cost of doing business. Of course, the families of those men wouldn't feel the same way.
Batteries & Cost
In 1911 you could order a Detroit Electric with Thomas Edison's new nickel-steel batteries. Edison had been promising his new batteries for a decade and unsuccessfully tried to manufacture them numerous times before, but by 1910 he finally had them ready to go. For electric car manufacturers, this was the moment they'd been waiting for. The average mileage on a charge would go from 50 to 100! With the roads being what they were at the time, 100 miles would take you just about anywhere you wanted to go.
In fact, Detroit Electric ran a mileage test in the fall of 1910 with Edison batteries and set a mileage record of 211.3 miles on a single charge. (Chronicled in The Detroit Electric Scheme.) And then Baker Electric one-upped them in December with over 243 miles!
A 1911 Detroit Electric cost between $2,000 and $3,500, depending on the model. The Edison battery added $600 to the cost. Ouch. As a contrast, a Model T roadster cost $600 for the whole car! Of course, it was nothing - at all - like a Detroit Electric. Still, the average cost of a new car in 1911 was $1,130.
Unfortunately, batteries, whether nickel-steel or lead-acid, didn't get significantly cheaper. Gasoline automobile prices kept diving, driven by intense competition and improvements in manufacturing efficiency. The electric car companies never gained that advantage, and their prices stayed very static.
The price gap kept growing, and the self-starter for the gas cars eliminated the greatest advantage the electrics held--easy starting. By the time "The Great War" began, electrics were on the ropes. By 1920 they were all but gone. (Although, believe it or not, Detroit Electric was in business into the 1940's!)
Who killed the Electric Car?
Electric cars were more popular at the turn of the 20th Century than gasoline cars, but by 1920 they had almost entirely disappeared. Was this due to a conspiracy between Henry Ford and Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller?
I wish. Sexy conspiracy theories are always more exciting than the truth. I find it interesting that most of the issues that dogged electrics a hundred years ago are the same problems they have today. Hoping that someone else finds it interesting as well, I will post a series of entries on the reason the electric car died. First . . .
The American Man and the Art of Touring
The automobile opened up this country for exploration. Previously, if a person wanted to travel they would either hook up the horse and wagon or take a train. They could direct the horses wherever they wanted and weren't limited by a schedule, but horses couldn't cover a lot of ground in a day. A train traveled faster and further, but they were limited by the tracks and the train's schedule.
With an automobile a traveler could cover a lot of ground and go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. And the automobile was so doggone manly. With his scarf trailing behind him in the breeze, his goggles fixed firmly in place, and the woman he was courting on the seat next to him, a man could travel the countryside. If he was lucky, he could stop in a secluded area for a picnic and perhaps a bit of romance.
Cars were an accessory to a "manly man." The cooler the car, the cooler the man (or so the men thought. Sound familiar?) Cars were also expensive. Few people could afford one until the 1920's. In the early part of the 20th century, owning a car signaled to all that you were wealthy.
Touring became the rage, the pastime for the rich. It was the primary reason most men bought cars. This was a problem for the electric.
Steam-powered automobiles ran on water, so the boiler could be filled practically anywhere. Gasoline-powered cars could be driven anywhere gas could be delivered, which, as the internal combustion engine grew in popularity for things like tractors, was virtually anywhere.
Charging an electric required electricity--something not readily available in the country. Well into the 20th century, most rural areas didn't have electrical service. Those that did most often didn't have a facility designed to charge an electric car. If a man took his electric out for a tour, he might not get back. In the early 1900's electrics got an average of about fifty miles on a charge. Who wanted to take the chance of getting stranded?
So if electrics were the third choice for touring, who bought them? Mostly city folk, who drove only in the city. There were a few dandies who didn't mind being seen behind the wheel of an electric car, but they were purchased most often to be driven by women. And the vast majority of women didn't--and wouldn't--drive. The second most common customers were city doctors--house calls, you know. Starting quickly and easily was important in a life or death situation. Electric delivery trucks were also a fairly common purchase during this time, for things like coal, ice, and milk--products that were delivered within a relatively small geographic area.
The purchase of purely electric cars was limited to a tiny part of the population: people who could afford to buy a car just for city driving. (And remember, this was before the rise of the middle class.) Given that few men bought cars to drive around a city, this was strike one against the electric.
Next time--Battery Technology and Cost
Did you ever wonder why we call one of the rooms in our homes a "Living Room?" It always seemed strange to me. The room's not alive. Yes, we live in it, but we live in all the other rooms as well. The story behind the name is an interesting one:
Traditionally, when a family member died the family would display the body in the parlor for services. In Detroit in the early Twentieth Century, if you were rich enough or well-connected enough, you could get the Detroit United Railways Funeral Train, via the streetcar rails, to pick up the body at your house to transport it to the cemetery. If you were like most of us, you would have your mortician provide a wagon or carriage to do the job.
But on to the Living Room.
"Professional Mourners" had been around for a long time, but they really became popular in the early 1900's. By 1910, the year in which The Detroit Electric Scheme is set, these "Funeral Parlors" were popping up all over the place. People wanted the bodies out of the house. As the funeral parlors grew in popularity, the word "parlor" became associated with funerals. Since "parlor" was associated with death, a new name caught on for the parlor that was everything "parlor" was not. It was . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . the "Living Room." (This one turned on a light bulb over my head.)