The Auto Fiend as Icon

In my first post on this blog, I examined a forgotten automotive risk, the possibility of gas headlamp fires. If you want to understand how people tried to control dangers, I argued, you must understand their worries. I also believe that, very often, you must understand how historical actors, who were trying to decrease hazards, thought about other people. In an article I'm writing, I examine four successive efforts to regulate the automobile, from 1900 to 2010, and how each effort contained a different picture of human being, or at least human psychology.

During the automobile's first few decades, perhaps no image of risky automobile drivers dominated American culture as much as the Auto Fiend. But understanding who the Auto Fiend was and what he (and the Auto Fiend was always a he) meant requires some unpacking.

Source: Warshaw Collection-National Museum of American History. Photo by author.

In the first years of the 20th century, when the character of the Auto Fiend emerged, the automobile was a tool and—perhaps mostly—a toy of the rich. People knew that the automobile was dangerous. Danger was part of its appeal. The first recorded death from an automobile in the United States didn't come until 1899, when an electric-powered auto taxi ran over and killed Henry H. Bliss in Manhattan, but the vehicles had been part of a culture of speeding since the first (gas-powered) one was built in 1893. Auto culture was built on the back of the bicycle craze and its culture, including groups like the League of American Wheelmen. As such, automobilists focused on speed, races, and daring feats of masculinity. 

Popular culture of the day basically centered on two kinds of risky drivers: young, typically wealthy, men, known as "scorchers," who used their cars for thrills, and working-class chauffeurs who drove for rich, more respectable auto owners.  The automobile emerged in the context of class struggle. On the one hand, reputable car owners often blamed auto danger on untrustworthy and low chauffeurs, unknown men who wiled their way into the polite world only to speed about in their employers' cars. On the other hand, average citizens, who mostly didn't own cars, pointed their fingers at the "scorchers," the rich, young men who cared only about fun and not at all about the safety of the common people. The scorchers were the Auto Fiends. 

Often, people believed that there was something tempting and evil about the technology itself, and they called cars "Devil Wagons." Nor were cars the only technology during the time to have users that exhibited fiendish behavior. "Kodak Fiends" were camera fanatics who prowled around beaches and other locales, hoping to grab a photo of something juicy.

The word "fiend" has Germanic roots. The Oxford English Dictionary points out that "fiend" already had multiple connotations in Old English, referring variously to supernatural demons, human enemies or foes, or persons of "superhuman wickedness." (The Hebrew word "Satan" is often translated as "the adversary," which might suggest that some cultures often use words that refer both to supernatural entities and to enemies.)

All of this suggests, I think, that, in the United States, the automobile arose in a culture with a traditional metaphysical and moral worldview, which included evil forces and people who fell prey to those forces. As an icon, the "Auto Fiend" was meant to be funny, but it was also a symptom of people reaching out to traditional ideas to explain problems in the world around them.

Source: Warshaw Collection-National Museum of American History. Photo by author.

Source: Warshaw Collection-National Museum of American History. Photo by author.

The Auto Fiend could be found throughout popular culture in the first decade of the 20th century: in jokes, such as this one from, Life magazine, "First Auto Fiend: How was Europe? Second Auto Fiend: Rough. But better than Asia." Or this one from the Christian Advocate, "First Auto Fiend: This is Sullivan County. Second Auto Fiend: How do you know? First Auto Fiend: I can tell by the way the dust tastes."

There was even a poem about the Auto Fiend, written by Ernest Bowden and published in his book, Our Destiny and Other Poems (1911):

"Isn't it glorious? Simply Grand! Here we go scampering over the land. Bicycles, horses, clear out of the way! Honk! You pedestrians! Honk it! I say.

Look at the farmer! What's wrong with his horse? He or the creature is crazy, of course. Puppies and chickens, old women and brats—Send them all flying! And death to the cats!

See yonder cyclist. With terror she grips hard at the hands, and wobbles and slips. If you've an eye for expressions grotesque ride in an auto. It's most picturesque. 

We are the people. Five thousand we've paid, for the right to make horses and women afraid. So away we go speeding, adventures to find, and leave all the fear-stricken mortals behind."

But my favorite representations of the Auto Fiend are the postcards I found at the Smithsonian Institution, when I was a fellow there last summer. And this is my favorite Auto Fiend postcard of all:

Source: Warshaw Collection-National Museum of American History. Photo by author.

Source: Warshaw Collection-National Museum of American History. Photo by author.

Taking account of the postcard at the top of the post and the one just above, we can see that a few recurrent images accompanied the icon of the Auto Fiend. Both have cars, of course, but they also feature riding gear of the day—goggles, gloves, and a cap. They both have horns, a central symbol of early automobility. (From the journal, The Motor, in 1902: "It was here that an automobile fiend, pressing his horrible squeaker [read, horn], came on heedless of everybody and cooly ran into the back" of children.)

Both have gasoline cans, though I'm not sure I fully comprehend the importance of the gas can. A too simple answer would be that the automobile was the first technology to rely on gasoline, and so the gas can was new and associated with early automobilists. But you don't have to be a Freudian (those gas cans are very phallic, especially in the top image) to suspect that there is probably more going on. 

Both renditions of the Auto Fiend also contain representations of speed records, which I noted earlier were an important part of early auto culture. The top image claims "3362 Miles Per Hour," while the bottom one lists the fiend's accomplishment at "2487 Miles Per Hour" (it's behind the fiend's back to the left). The bottom postcard is more fun, especially because of the trail of dead and injured the fiend has left behind, because of the accident register he is holding (21 dead, 74 injured), and because of the nice poem.

So, what happened to the Auto Fiend? Why did he disappear? Well, one explanation is that the image only worked when automobiles were solely associated with socially distant, wealthy people. When mass ownership of the car emerged after the rise of the Model T (first released in 1908)—that is, when most people at least knew someone who owned a car if they didn't own one themselves—then the idea that temptation and moral degeneracy caused most accidents became less appealing. There might be some truth to this idea. The Auto Fiend wanes during the 1910s, when Model T sales were going through the roof. 

Another explanation might be that the Auto Fiend was displaced when the "scientific" ideas of psychologists and other experts, such as the notion of accident proneness, took hold in policy circles in the 1920s. There might be something to this idea, too. Yet, Arwen Mohun's recent book, Risk, is in part a meditation on how "vernacular" or folk or common-sense ideas of danger remain alive in the population even when experts try to suppress and replace them with scientific ones.

I guess that, following Mohun, I like to think that the Auto Fiend has lived on, as an idea if not a name, and that part of him resides in the heart of later images, such as the "nut behind the wheel" or even the idea of "road rage." But I will return to this theme another day and wouldn't want to ruin the fun.