Saturday, March 12, 2011

Electric Runabouts

For at some time or other during the evening, everyone visited here; the neighbors down the way, the people across the street; Miss Fern and Miss Roberta humming by in their electric runabout, giving Tom or Douglas a ride around the block and then coming up to sit down and fan away the fever in their cheeks.

That's the first appearance of the electric car that features in Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. It is an odd device, as it triggers two contradictory thoughts about Green Town in the readers mind. First, it reminds us that Dandelion Wine is set in the past, where machines and vehicles were more primitive and somewhat more quaint than they are now. Second, though, it sets the stage for the idea that significant change is happening, both to the town and to the protagonist, Doug Spaulding. I always found it interesting that Bradbury didn't go for a conventional, petrol- (gas-) powered car, but went for something that seems more exotic and much more modern: an electric car.

What I hadn't appreciated was that, in the early days of the horseless carriage, electric cars genuinely vied with cars based on the internal combustion engine. This was simply because the early petrol-powered cars were quite inefficient and quite dirty. Lady drivers, in particular, were drawn to electric cars because of their cleanliness and their lesser need for maintenance. So it seems Miss Robert and Miss Fern were not nearly as far-sighted as I first thought; they were simply going with what was the norm for when Dandelion Wine is set. The image on the left, showing a Baker Electric Car, is typical advertising from the early twentieth century, with the female driver clearly being targeted.

There is more information on the marketing of Baker cars in this post from the Bobbins and Bombshells blog. And for more in depth discussion of the history of electric cars for ladies, there's this academic article.

Finally, here's Jay Leno with his own 1909 Baker electric car!

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