in the development of the business of this company Mr. Hendrick’s inventive genius and marked ability along mechanical lines have had full sway and are seen at their best. No mechanical problem is too difficult for him to undertake, and he spares neither time nor money until he has accomplished everything he sets out to do along these lines, his tenacity of purpose and perseverance being marked characteristics.1
Hendrick would need those characteristics as the owner of an early automobile. His letterpress copybook in the Hagley Library collection containing his outgoing correspondence (1899-1903) is a surprisingly wonderful resource for examining the rise of the automobile in America.
Hendrick is quite representative of early motorists in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, businessmen, doctors and engineers led the automobile revolution in America.2 Though they were drawn by its promise of efficiency and its fascinating technology, just as many wanted to be at the leading edge of contemporary fashion. Hendrick wrote, “If a man wants an automobile at all he wants it when they first come out, before the fad is worn out by his friends all having one before him.”3 The automobile was a fitting accessory for the successful modern man of the Progressive Era.4
Electric, steam or gasoline? At the time Hendrick purchased his car, sometime in June 1899, the three types enjoyed about equal popularity, with steamers and electric automobiles slightly in the lead.5 From the beginning, most automobile manufacturers had more orders than they could possibly fill, and Hendrick had to wait about a year for the delivery of his car.6 As the delay grew Hendrick went from hopeful optimism, “[I] shall expect it everyday until it arrives;” to biting sarcasm, “I expect you shall redeem this promise of shipping it Wednesday, and if you do it will be the first one. I shall be astonished;” to outright antipathy, “When you found you could not build it in any decent time you should have told me and let me get my goods elsewhere, but you chose to keep promising month after month when I now know you had no more expectation of fulfilling those promises than I have of being a woman.”7 The car finally arrived between May 22 and June 11, 1900. Hendrick’s troubles were just beginning.
“If there is anything that is more exasperating and a nuisance than an automobile, I don’t know what it is,” Hendrick complained.8 Early motorists not only had to learn how to operate the new machine, they also suffered through unrealistic expectations, broken parts, and the ignominy of getting stuck. Hendrick wrote,
Yesterday, I went down to the valley four miles and got stuck on my return. I got out and pushed, and enlisted a cordon of boys and men to help me along until I struck a butcher’s shop where I telephoned to my coachman to bring horses, carriages and ropes to tow me in. I was certainly a nice spectacle being towed by my carriage. I felt as guilty as though I was being towed to the lockup by a policeman.9
Hendrick ultimately found the electric automobile unsatisfactory and decided to purchase a steam car from the Boston Automobile Company.
At first, Hendrick had no better luck with his steamer, “I have a steam carriage that does not suit me, built by some Maine Yankee who entirely disregarded instructions and orders. Said yes to anything that I asked, but gave me nothing that I wanted.”10 Hendrick found his background as an inventor and manufacturer especially helpful at this point. He could repair and improve his automobile as he saw fit with parts from companies such as the White Sewing Machine Company and the American Bicycle Company.
I have tinkered with it more or less making changes and think I have it in pretty good shape now. At all events I like it much more than the electric. When I get through tinkering with it and find out just exactly what I want I think I will build one or have one built that exactly meets my views…I can buy the engine, boiler, body and all the gearing and have it put together here, and perhaps get what I want.11
Aside from automobile manufacturers there were few concerns dedicated solely to motor cars. The automobile was comprised of parts that had other uses and a mechanic was often a person used to working on other types of machinery such as farm equipment.12 Hendrick enjoyed the process of experimentation, developing and improving products and processes. These qualities stood him in good stead as he met the challenge of the automobile.
Despite the problems Hendrick had experienced, by 1903 he could finally enjoy his labors. He wrote to his brother,
I have an automobile and spend a good deal of time about the country. Pennsylvania roads are not the best, but still I extract a lot of fun in sailing around over the hills and stony roads. I intend to ship the machine to California about the first of December and follow it about the first of January. The roads in California are far superior to Pennsylvania roads and I anticipate a lot of fun out of the machine there.13
Hendrick could be caustic and impatient, but maybe he can be excused for his brusqueness in light of his passion for the automobile. A man made heartbroken over the late shipment of tires, perhaps deserves more sympathy than censure.14 It was not easy to be an automobile owner in the early days, but that didn't deter Hendrick and others like him who, once having fallen in love with the automobile, could no more rein in their obvious enthusiasm than they could turn back time. Automobile culture would change America. The automobile craze would improve roads, transform the landscape, and modernize manufacturing. Through the pages of Hendrick’s letterbook, we can be transported to the point where it all began, to the start of the automobile age in America.
Danya Pilgrim is a graduate student at University of Delaware. She completed an internship with Hagley's Digital Collections Department in the Fall.
1 Horace Edwin Hayden, Alfred Hand and John W. Jordan, eds., Genealogical and Family History of the Wyoming and Lackawanna Valleys, Pennsylvania, (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1906), 2:95.
2 James J. Flink, America Adopts the Automobile, 1895-1910, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970), 70-71.
3 Hendrick to American Electric Vehicle Company, May 22, 1900.
4 This Fabulous Century, 1900-1910, ed. Maitland A. Edey, (New York: Time-Life Books, 1969), 38.
5 Flink, 234.
6 Ibid., 294.
7 Hendrick to American Electric Vehicle Company, May 5, 1900; Hendrick to American Electric Vehicle Company, May 15, 1900; Hendrick to American Electric Vehicle Company, May 22, 1900.
8 Hendrick to International Automobile Vehicle Tire Company, September 25, 1901.
9 Hendrick to American Electric Vehicle Company, June 18, 1900.
10 Hendrick to American Bicycle Company, March 8, 1901.
11 Hendrick J. G. McKinney, January 14, 1901.
12 Flink, 295.
13 Hendrick to Edmund Hendrick, November 4, 1903.
14 Hendrick to Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, September 1, 1900.