Montreal Auto Show. 1914. McCord Museum photograph
Roads trips. They have been a staple of life in North America for over one hundred years and it all began around 1910 in American and Canadian towns.
In big cities like New York or Montreal there was little need for an automobile, what with the streetcars and subways. As silent film footage from the era shows, the city roads were preposterously chaotic.
But, in the towns during the warmer months, anyway, an auto was both useful to get around and quite the status symbol for the well-off professional man.
Case in point: Dufferin Street in Richmond, Quebec, a leafy stretch lined with red-brick homes in the Queen Anne Revival style.(1)
In 1910, the Skinners, the Nicholsons and the Montgomerys are neighbours on the north side of Dufferin.
Floyd Skinner, a dentist, buys his first auto in 1909. So does Nathan Montgomery, a man in his forties who is already retired. (2)
Margaret Nicholson, my husband’s great grandmother, living in the pretty house called “Tighsolas” between them, doesn’t think much of these extravagant testosterone-fueled impulse purchases. She writes this in a letter to her husband, Norman, who is away in Northern Ontario working on the railroad:
“Mr. Montgomery is going to buy an automobile. He is getting rid of his horse. Don’t you think he’s foolish? I would not want one. They are too dangerous.” (3)
Norman and Margaret Nicholson, daughters Edith and Marion and Aunt Christine Watters.
The Nicholsons, you see, never, ever, get to own an automobile. In 1910, they are house-rich but cash poor. They cannot begin to afford a ‘motor’ because in 1910 autos can cost as much as a fine house, in the 2,000 to 4,000 dollar range. (4)
If Margaret Nicholson is very wary of the newfangled horseless carriage, her daughter, Marion, my husband’s grandmother, is not. In fact, she accompanies the Montgomerys on their 1909 auto-buying excursion in Montreal. Marion, a teacher in the city, tells her mother about it in a letter but wrapped in a little white lie. “I bumped into the Montgomerys on the street. He is buying an auto and she is in for a shirtwaist suit.”
I suspect this is a lie because in the Nicholson family album there is a photograph of Marion and Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery posing in front of the Motor Import Company of Canada on Atwater and St. Catherine. Marion likely had planned to meet the Montgomerys all along.
Marion, left, caught in the act of accompanying her neighbours on an auto-buying excursion.
If Margaret felt autos were dangerous, her eldest daughter, Edith, also a teacher, clearly did not. In the summer of 1911, Edith traveled all the way to Montreal by motor with the Skinners. Here’s how Edith described her trip in a letter to her dad:
“As you will see by the address, I am in Montreal. I came in with Dr. and Mrs. Skinner in the motor Friday. Left home at 10 am and got to Waterloo at 12.30 had dinner. Saw all we could of the town and left at 2 for Montreal, got here at quarter past six. Without one break down. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed every minute of it.
I will name the places we passed through so you will know the country we passed through. Melbourne, Flodden, Racine, Sawyerville, Warden, Waterloo, Granby, Abbotsford, St Caesar, Rougemont, Marieville, Chambly, Longueil, St. Lambert, Pointe St Charles.
Don’t you think I was a very fortunate girl to have such a trip?
1911 itinerary. 6 ½ hours for 93 miles. The speed limit in the city was 8 miles an hour and 15 miles an hour in the country.
The Eastern Townships is a very hilly place so this pleasure trip must have been quite the roller-coaster ride for Edith and possibly a bit hard on the, ahem, lower body, especially if Edith was wearing a tight corset under her ‘duster coat.’ (5)
In 1910, autos were considered toys. Motoring was considered a fad, a pastime. The preface to the special insert promoting the 1910 Westmount Horse Show in the Montreal Gazette claims, “The automobile will never replace the horse in Man’s affection.” (6)
Although it was wealthy males who kick-started the automobile revolution, it was women and teenagers who had the most to gain from it. They were free at last to travel far and wide on their own.
Free at Last! Margaret’s youngest daughter Flora and friends on an automobile ride in the country circa 1920.
So, here we have three houses on Dufferin Street in Richmond, Quebec – and already two automobiles.
Still, if you pay attention to her actions and not her words, it is clear that Margaret Nicholson doesn’t really hate autos. Margaret often allows Mr. Skinner or Mr. Montgomery to take her to the mail to post letters to her husband.
What she says to Norman in her letters is to soothe his prickly pride, that’s all.
To make things worse, just around the corner on posh College Street live Isabella and Clayton Hill, Margaret’s sister and brother-in-law. Clayton is a prosperous stone-mason and, much to Margaret’s chagrin, he owns an especially fine automobile.
Magical Mystery Tour Car. Clayton’s Auto. A Pierce Arrow, perhaps. Very expensive at about 5,000 dollars.
Margaret is always feuding with Clayton and her sister mostly over the care of her elderly mother.
She remains bitter about her relations’ good fortune. In another letter to her husband she writes: “Clayton’s auto has broken down again. Isabel says the repairs are costing a fortune. Aren’t we lucky not to have one.”
Then, again, she accepts rides from her brother-in-law on occasion.
In 1910, there was no resisting the lure of the motorcar. The swanky male ‘toy’ was already proving to be indispensable even to its most vocal female critics.
Tighsolas as it looks today.
- Richmond was a railway town, on the decline, between Portland, Maine and Montreal, Quebec. Queen Anne Revival style homes had irregular roofs, turrets, and lots of gingerbread moulding.
- On the 1911 Canada Census
- Nicholson Family Letters. Author’s collection.
- This was all changing with the Model-T Ford, and mass assembly. In 1910 Ford claimed his factory was putting out 1,000 autos a day. And he paid his people good salaries so they too could buy an auto. Soon, average middle class families could own a motorcar at around 400 to 600 dollars.
- Duster coats were long affairs meant to keep women’s clothes clean. Cars with an internal combustion engine were notoriously dirty. Steam driven cars were dangerous and noisy. Electric cars, clean but slower-moving, were aimed at women in advertising, and, maybe, just for that reason, they did not catch on, at least until 100 years later.
- Magazine articles of the era were already pointing out that ‘the Billion Dollar Toy’ was creating significant waves in the economy, a sign that the auto wasn’t merely a toy but here to stay. By mid-century automobiles and automobile parts were the driver of the US economy.