Auto-touring in 1904

Main_Street Windsor VT 1910

Main Street, Windsor, Vermont, 1910.

Back in 1904, travelling by “motor” (automobile) was an adventurous thing to do. For one thing, the roads were unpaved. For another, they were un-numbered and unmarked. It wouldn’t be until the 1920’s that a road system designed for cars came to be a commonplace. When Lydia and Fred (Maxfield) Parrish decided, as recorded in Lydia’s diary, to travel by motor to Annisquam (Cape Ann, Massachusetts) and then to Dublin, New Hampshire, the roads were little more than dirt trails casually linking far-flung farms with villages. Muddy roads were not just messy–they could spell disaster.


Participants in the 1904 run to the St. Louis World’s Fair. Note the rear tire, equipped for muddy conditions.

The lack of road signs and paved roads led to the formation of a group dedicated to raising public awareness of the need for highway improvements. They called themselves the American Automobile Association. You may recall receiving a TripTiks package in the mail from AAA, back in the day, complete with routes highlighted in yellow. Well, AAA began as a sort of early Mapquest, publishing booklets with route descriptions (see below). If you wanted to drive from one town to another, you looked it up in the book (and hoped the route was in there!). Then you followed the description, which was nothing more than a listing of landmarks. There were few road signs.

1917 road directions dublin

1917 road directions.

Compounding the difficulties of motoring, of course, was the notorious unreliability of the machine itself. The new, pneumatic (air-filled, as opposed to bone-jolting solid) tires had a ridiculously short useful life. Get a flat tire, and you’re on your own. AAA’s roadside service would not exist for many years, and gasoline “service” stations were few and far between. Get stuck in the mud, and you’ll likely have to endure the laughs of the local Good Samaritan as he pulls your vehicle out with his team of reliable horses. In 1904, being on the bleeding edge of travel technology could be very frustrating.


An early pioneer of the automobile, going nowhere fast. Note the license plate number: 012.

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