Now a symbol of progress and the future, at the turn of the 20th century EVs were one of the most popular types of vehicle — they even outsold gasoline cars at one point. So why didn't EVs win back then? Why has it taken us 100 years to learn EVs are better?
When the automotive industry began to flourish in the early 1900s, it was a race between gasoline, steam and electric power. We now know how that story played out: gas cars dominate the industry and have done for decades with little competition – that is, until recently, with EVs being the next big thing.
Many people talk about electric cars as a new technology that will be the future of motoring, but they were at the top of the market at the end of the 1800s.
EVs had been outselling gas cars in America for a number of years, the 1899 US census recorded a total automobile production of 1,575 electric vehicles, 1,681 steam-powered vehicles and only 936 gas burning cars. In 1897, the Pope Manufacturing Company’s Columbia Motor Carriage was the best selling vehicle in the US, and yes, it was powered by electricity. But as time went on, gas cars caught up to and overtook EVs.
Gas cars of that time came with a number of downsides, though. They gave off an unpleasant smell of exhaust and pollution, their noisiness and the manual labor required to start the vehicle with a hand crank, made them cumbersome to drive. However, they also offered many advantages over electric cars of the late 1800s. Gasoline cars could generally drive further and faster and even do it over rough terrain. EVs, while quiet, clean and user friendly, were limited on range, struggled to drive up hills and suffered the lack of charging infrastructure. Not to mention, they needed heaps more maintenance, as batteries needed checking very regularly to ensure they were operating safely.
Parts of that story sound all too familiar. Back then, drivers of gas cars would carry extra cans of fuel with them on long journeys to improve their range, but EV drivers couldn’t do the same. The EV industry faced problems with infrastructure and range – it’s an issue we still face today, but it was even more pronounced back then. With most families, even wealthy ones, lacking electricity in their homes, it was inconvenient to own a car that was so difficult to drive far.
That said, people were proposing and exploring solutions to save the EV, but none of them stuck. The author of “The Electric Automobile: Its Construction, Care and Operation” E. Woods, suggested a pay-per-use network of chargers that would make it possible for drivers to go from New York to San Francisco, stopping every couple of hours for a meal and a charge. The idea, of course, was never fully realized due to the lack of standardization among EV plugs but is eerily reminiscent of our modern approach to the problem.
One notable attempt to reinvigorate public interest in EVs came in 1899, when a joint venture between politician William Whitney and automaker Pope proposed building thousands of electric vehicles to be used as cabs. Called the Electric Vehicle Company, it quickly began raising the funds necessary to pursue expansion. However, the venture was poorly managed and ended up making no profits. This resulted in public backlash towards electric vehicles and associated them with accusations of dishonesty and fraud. It was like a 19th century Kickstarter campaign.
The discovery of oil in Texas further exacerbated the situation. With a plentiful supply of oil on its doorstep, gasoline-powered motoring suddenly got a lot cheaper in America. It was cheaper than electricity at the time and made the choice between EV or gasoline much simpler.
At this point, as EVs began to feel the effects of the scandal, buyers began to realize that gas cars were, from a practical and financial point of view at least, a superior form of transport. It seemed that the end was nigh for EVs, but EV advocates and makers had one last idea to save the burgeoning vehicle.
Electric vehicles such as this one dwindled in popularity, and gas cars began to take over.
In the early 20th century, motoring was considered a solely masculine activity. Let alone making cars for women, no one even considered if they wanted to drive. Men largely dismissed the designs of gas cars as impractical and inappropriate for women from the get-go. Dirty, smelly, loud, fast, dangerous – these were all thought of as too much for a woman to handle.
But that wasn’t true. Of course, women wanted to drive and wished to experience motoring in the same way men did. But their desire to get behind the wheel was seen as taboo. Women increasingly demanded for it to be normalized and not seen as inappropriate. While women weren’t banned from taking to the road, the expectations and structures of society made it near impossible for a woman to have access to driving on her own. Usually, a woman’s husband would have to buy her a car and would naturally have a significant say in how she uses it.
The conversation around women driving was illustrated exceptionally by what was published in the media at the time. In 1905, the automobile magazine Motor, published a fictional series called “The Wonderful Monster”. Driven around by her chauffeur, its protagonist, Lady Dorothy Beeston, longs to take the wheel. Her love for driving is shared by the chauffeur, and their shared passion for automobiles is presented as infidelity within the story.
The story doesn’t have a happy ending. As Lady Beeston swears off driving altogether after her chauffeur is killed in car crash, she promises her husband to forgo “the frivolous pleasures, the follies and vices of the new century”. The story is never clear as to who exactly is driving the car – Lady Beeston or the chauffeur. The author clearly blames Lady Beeston’s love for fast driving as the reason for the disastrous events of the story.
With driving presented as a wild passion that women should avoid, one Victorian traditionalist declared that women “...are wholly unfitted to pilot ships, command armies, or operate automobiles, through no fault of their own. They were born that way”. As ever, women found themselves facing a battle when it came to entering a space that men had claimed as their own.
Motor didn’t just publish stories that presented women driving as some sort of demonic and illicit affair. The magazine did, in fact, push the boundaries and question the gender divide in motoring, launching an essay contest that explored the debate over if it was appropriate for women to drive. The winning essay resolutely stated to “give her the road”.
Much to the chagrin of conservatives everywhere, women wished to take the wheel. But the physical problems of gas cars remained. They were smelly. Traditionalists everywhere argued, how could a woman be expected to deal with that? Society was firm in its opinions: it was inappropriate for a delicate woman to drive such a beast.
Meanwhile, EVs were lagging development of gas cars was moving on and gasoline was getting cheaper. Electric vehicle makers were searching for an audience to keep selling to. And that’s when Pope Manufacturing Company devised a marketing strategy to target EVs as the perfect automobile for “well-bred women”.
Pope’s marketing strategy was soon emulated by various other EV automakers. Victorian ideals still dominated society and the notion that gas cars were for men and EVs were for women fit perfectly into the neat little boxes of masculine and feminine. EVs were noiseless, clean and didn’t require the same manual labor to start that a gas car did. They were also smaller and slower, and often enclosed as well, unlike many gas cars at the time. Positioned as the perfect vehicle for women, they also appealed to husbands who didn’t want their wives to have too much mobility.
A postcard advert of the Woods Electrics carriage, circa 1912. Credit: https://chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com/
EV automakers ran with the idea. Detroit Electric published an ad for their vehicles stating that for women, “The Detroit Electric has a particular appeal. In it, she can preserve her toilet immaculate, her coiffure intact. She can drive it with desired privacy, yet safely – in constant touch with traffic conditions all about her”. Despite aiming their products at women, the ads were often directed to men and husbands. The Anderson Electric Car Company urged men to buy its EV for “your bride-to-be, or your bride of Junes ago”.
People began paying attention. For wealthy women looking for transportation around the cities they lived in, EVs were certainly useful. Men did listen to the ads and purchased their wives the appropriate transportation that EVs companies touted. Henry Ford, who created the widely popular Model T gas car, bought his wife a Detroit Electric. C.H Claudy, a staunch advocate for electric vehicles supported women’s use of them. Dismissing gas cars as an option, he stated that electric cars were perfect for women to fulfill the household tasks required of them, all the while staying within the lines of feminine propriety. It was also perfect for mothering, declared Claudy, allowing a mother and child to safely travel in what was essentially a “modern baby carriage”.
While women driving EVs had support, with many viewing it as the perfect solution to the whole ‘women-want-to-drive' conundrum, it was still very much oriented around keeping women ‘in their lane’. “No license should be granted to anyone under eighteen,” wrote The Outlook writer Montgomery Rollins, “and never to a woman, unless, possibly, for a car driven by electric power”.
Men however, spurned the idea of driving EVs themselves, the cars now firmly attached to femininity, they would only choose gasoline. The slower speed and shorter range of EVs made them impractical for what men wanted to do, naturally. The marketing strategy wasn’t completely ignored – it did have some short-term success in bumping EV sales. But it didn’t last.
Unsurprisingly, most women didn’t want a slow car with a short range. Once they’d got a taste for motoring through EVs, they realized the limitations of electric power and the opportunity more freedom can bring: they wanted gas cars. They wanted to be afforded the same mode of transportation and freedom as men.
Claudy, who had previously declared EVs the perfect vehicle for women, wrote with surprise that women now wanted gas cars with the same range and speed as those driven by men. He advised women to accept the faults of the EV, as “women had no need for speed”. Funnily enough, women didn’t listen to him.
Ultimately, EVs became too impractical. For women who needed to travel greater distances, EVs would never be able to transport them adequately. In the rural town of Tucson, Arizona, 23 women owned automobiles in 1914. Twenty-one of them were gas cars, and out of the 402 vehicles owned by men at the same time, none of them were electric.
Outside big cities, where roads weren’t paved and flat like in towns, EVs were practically useless. Furthermore, the introduction of Henry Ford’s cheaper, more affordable and effective Model T gas car in 1908 made EVs seem like an unnecessary expense. Electricity was also much more expensive, relegating EVs to the upper-class women who could afford them but wouldn’t use them as often.
Women didn’t want a car with short range and slow speed. They wanted the same kind of transportation as men.
Marketing electric vehicles to women was a last-ditch attempt for their makers to find sales in a dying genre of vehicles. But it’s not hard to see why it failed. EVs were at that point the lesser vehicle. And by leaning into the idea that EVs were perfect for those who were thought of as physically weaker, less adventurous and faint of heart, EVs effectively doomed themselves for the next century. They were not developed in the same way gasoline vehicles were, they remained expensive, hard to maintain and suffered from a lack of infrastructure.
As the need for equality revealed itself, most women scoffed at the idea that somehow cars were gendered. “Give her the road”, Motor proclaimed, and that didn’t mean with a vehicle that could only travel 20 miles. It meant a real car, like what men had, it meant a gasoline vehicle.
Today, EVs are a solution to a problem that was in part created by gasoline. As the automotive industry found its feet 100 years ago, many different types of power were offered. But by today’s standards, the wrong one won out, which makes the ‘what-ifs’ of EVs versus gas cars that much more painful. Would the world still be facing a climate crisis, had 20th century opinions swung in favor of the quieter, cleaner and less labor-intensive electric car? Or was our reliance on gas simply inevitable, as technology was not yet far enough advanced in the 1900s for electric cars?
We’ve come far in the past 100 years – to a point where most women can drive without question, and cars are not relegated to one gender. And yet, there is still miles to go in terms of equality and welcoming diversity into a certain space or profession.
Today, our world once again faces a turning point, as new energy sources vie for dominance. EVs are much more efficient, their range growing, their torque and power the envy of the car industry. And in an echo of 100 years prior, for EVs to survive on the road and be seen as the best option, they need to be driven by everyone.