Courtesy of Prewarcar.com
We came across this fantastic article about the first American woman who got her driving license in 1900 and never had a dent. Anne Rainsford French Bush was the first official woman licensed to drive an automobile in America. On March 22, 1900, she received a Steam Engineers's License (Locomobile Class) issued by the City of Washington, D.C. Her unofficial title was, how can it not be, Miss. Locomobile of 1900! The article is full with anecdotes from her and also gives a good idea of the issues and way of thinking in the early days.
The interview is a delight to read. Originally published in Life Magazine, on September 8,1952 and written by Milton Lehman. Enjoy!
'Next to the mother-in-law and the farmer's daughter, the lady driver has long been the weariest butt of male American humor, which assumes that women always make left-turn signals when they plan to turn right, wigwag to pass when they plan to back up, and will crunch 85% of the fenders damaged in the U.S. in any given year. This libel, however, definitely could not be applied to Mrs. Walter M. Bush, who was the first licensed woman driver in the U.S. She has never made an improper signal; she has never dented a fender; she has never exceeded the speed limit; she has never been scolded by a cop. Mrs. Bush, however, does not provide a complete answer to anti-feminists on the road. She stopped driving in 1903.
Recently I bucked the swarming 1952 traffic from Washington, D.C. to South Brooksville, Maine, to visit her at her daughter's summer home. While we talked, her grandson Lincoln Smith worked in the backyard, hip deep in the random parts of his 1949 Ford convertible, which he had just bought with the proceeds from raking blueberries. Sitting on the front terrace overlooking the blue waters of Bucks Harbor, Mrs. Bush was delighted to recall the days when she was Anne Rainsford French, a belle of Capitol Hill, a licensed steam engineer and Miss Locomobile of 1900.
This month the vigorous Mrs. Bush will return to Washington in person to help the American Automobile Association celebrate its Golden Jubilee as the motorist's best friend. At that time, the District of Columbia Fire Department had promised, she will be able to indulge her whim to ride in a red fire engine down Pennsylvania Avenue. The Department will thus repay a long-standing debt. More than 50 years ago Anne French and her father conditioned the city's fire horses for the horseless age.
This takes a little explaining: Mrs. Bush's father, William Bates French, was one of Washington's most noted doctors, and among his duties was being physician to the District Fire Department. Dr. French decided on a drastic treatment. He and his daughter would drive their hissing steamer to the firehouse and sit there, while the horses snorted and reared, until the Locomobile noisily blew its safety valve. After several such treatments the horses calmed down and Dr. French was able to pronounce them cured of their automotive phobia.
While Mrs. Bush rejoices in her pioneer role, her experiences have never made much of an impression on her grandchildren. When she told Lincoln, a high-school pitcher and hotrod pilot, that the District speed limit was nine miles an hour and htat her father was once fined for going 12 miles an hour, Lincoln advised her that when he tried to get his convertible down to 12 miles an hour, the motor stalled. Her collegiate granddaughter, Rachael, was more aroused by grandma's driving costume than by her mechanical skill "If the car broke down," Rachael asked, "couldn't you get a boy friend to fix it?" "Certainly not," said Mrs. Bush "I knew more about the engine than they did!"
"Just try to get across the young folks how we felt!"she said, settling back in a canvas deck chair. "We don't seem to speak the same language. It's not that I'm a slowspoke." Mrs. Bush added.
"About 15 years ago, my younger brother drove me down to Washington in his heavy Chrysler, and our cruising speed was 90 miles an hour. I loved it and I didn't do any back-scat driving. When I got to Washington my sister took me up in a sightseeing plane over the city. I had a fine time and I'd do it again. But the old Locomobile was much more exciting than that."
As Anne Rainsford French, the first-born of the respected Washington physician, she lived in a handsome, well-staffed house on then-fashionable East Capitol Street. Her family was among the city's well-born and took an active part in local and national affairs. Uncle Benjamin Brown French, an Army major, had been clerk of the House of Representatives and a friend of President Lincoln. Another uncle was the famous sculptor, Daniel Chester French; Anne often posed for Uncle Daniel - "draped, of course," her mother always said - and became, among other things, the model for two figures of a group in front of New York's old Custom House, an angel in a Boston cemetery and George Washington's legs.
The French household entered on Dr. Bill, a redheaded, redbearded physician, who took time out from delivering babies and tending the ill to conduct experiments in bacteriology. With one of the first privately owned microscopes in the city, he carried out tests for Dr. Walter Reed in the study of typhoid and yellow fever. Anne sometimes helped him at the microscope, making drawings of what they saw on the slides. Only 20 years his junior, Anne called her father "Bill" with his approval.
"Bill had two ideas that were rare for his time, " Mrs. Bush recalled, "First, he believed that girls could be useful as well as ornamental, and second, he genuinely disliked horses. They would always rebel, he said, if you gave them half a chance. Actually, he wasn't a very good horseman. When the Locomobile people opened their agency on Conneticut Avenue in 1899, he could'nt wait to get there.
The Locomobile was a later name for the "Stanley Steamer," product of F.E. and F.O. Stanley, Maine farm boys and identical twins, who wore identical bears, identical clothes and signed their names with identical scripts. In the 1890s three substitues for the horse were being tested - the electric car, which depended on the continuous recharging of its storage battery; the "explosive" or gasoline engine, which traveled with a trail of noxious fumes and much clanking; and the steamer, which relied on a water boiler heated by gasoline. In 1899 it seemed the most practical of all, Henry Ford's mass production and the gasoline age were still in the future.
So on September morning in 1899, Dr. French declared, "Annie, let's go see this steam contraption." As Mrs. Bush recalls it, their view of the Locomobile was love at first sight. " She was a beautiful thing" Mrs. Bush observed, "She stood there in sleek black dignity with her Stanhope body on four pneumatic bicycle tires. Her dashboard was all patent leather and the whipsocket was still in place as insurance that the buyer who might have to hitch up his horse on occassion. Bill objected only to the whipsocket - he couldn't see any point to it. But the miracle of her was concealed like the ankles of a self-respecting lady. Bill made the salesman lift up the seat to see the engine."
There was only one Locomobile in the showroom, a demonstrator model, which the salesman presented with a quiet sales talk. He sited the new company's watchwords: "Reliability, Safety, Comfort, Simplicity, Speed and Low Cost." He pointed out the hand lever that controlled and admitted steam to the cylinder; the longer lever for steering; the acetylene lamps; the foot brake; the gong to warn pedestrians. "Would you like to ride her, Dr. French?" he suggested.
"Of course," the doctor declared. "You wait here, Annie, till we get back."
When the Locomobile returned to the showroom, after a trip of several blocks, Dr. French was sitting confidently at the lever, his blue eyes shining, and the salesman was taking his first order. Mrs. Bush still remembers their one-way conversation. "This means the end of the horse," Dr. French announced. The Salesman nodded. "Everybody will want one."The salesman agreed. "Noboy knows where this will lead us." "That's right, sir." said the salesman.
The French Locomobile arrived early in December (price: $600). Thereafter, Dr. French refused to have any close relationships with his horses. Since his wife was still somewhat alarmed by the new machine, Dr. French took Anne with him on his first drives and on professional calls. When it rained they covered themselves with slickers and rubber blankets, and Anne, demonstrating here usefulness, held an umbrella over the doctor's head. Meanwhile she mustered all her resources to argue her right to drive. In what was probably the first family battle for the family car, the daughter won.
Anne pointed out that the Locomobile, left untended at a patient's house, would quickly lose its head of steam and then require several minutes to get up pressure. If she could drive, however, she would keep the carriage in motion, running it very carefully around the block until the doctor was ready for his next call. If and when the boiler went dry and the doctor was obliged to fetch water, she would stand by to guard the machine.
Against such reasoning Dr. French argued weakly that no one could drive intelligently until he had mastered the principles of steam engineering.These principles included tearing down, reassembling and naming the parts of the engine. So on Sunday mornings Anne calmly followed her father out to the nearby barn where he kept the steamer. She watched him take down the engine, lay out the parts on a clean cloth, wipe, polish and oil them with a feather. While she looked over his shoulder, Dr. French named and explained the cylinders, pistons, connecting rods, sprocket and chain. One morning he shook up the parts in a blanket and ordered her to put them together. She did. After that he drilled her in the rules of driving an let her try her skill.
"Turn down the power before you put on the brake," he warned. "Don't seize the steering lever, but handle it gently. It's not a chicken's neck. When you come to the curb to stop, slow down first and use your brake gracefully. And always remember to be courtous to the less fortunate." The less fortunate, as Dr. French saw it, was everybody who didn't own a Locomobile. Anne passed this last test, and became her father's part time-chauffeur."
At that time, horseless vehicles in Washington were limited to nine miles per hour on main avenues, seven on side streets, five at intersections and four on turns. Whenever the driver of a horse and carriage showed signs of alarm, the horseless carriage would have to back out of the street. Washington was somewhat more lenient than other localities. Boston excluded all horseless carriages from the parks between 10.30 a.m. and 9.30 p.m. and promised arrest for motorists who failed to sound their gong at every intersection; New York State law required every steam vehicle to be preceded at least an eighth of a mile by "a mature person" to warn the horses; a federal law specified that no one could take a gasoline automobile on a ferry without first draining all the gas out of its tank; some cities were even considering laws requiring motorists to stop every 10 minutes and shoot off Roman candles.
Up until November of 1899 no licenses were required in Washington for drivers of any horseless carriages. But the District commissioners, evidently swayed by the people who felt steam-driven cars were dangerous, ruled that operators of these vehicles would have to be licensed. Operators of stationary steam boilers were licensed, they observed, and, obviously, the new Locomobiles were simply portable boilers. Therefore they ruled that steamer drivers should apply for a steam engineer's license and pay a $3 fee.
" I don't think the examiners were happy when I applied," declared Mrs. Bush. "They certainly weren't looking for female engineers. They were very polite, but they didn't know what to ask me. I was all prepared to take down the engine and put it together. They said it wouldn't be necessary and just asked me to name a couple of parts. Before I was finished, I drove all the commissioners around the square to show them how safe it was. A few weeks later I got my beautiful Steam Engineers's License, Locomobile Class."
The Washington newspapers wrote up Anne French's accomplishment, but they noted that she was the "first duly qualified woman engineer in the Capitol City, "not that she was, in fact, the first licensed female driver. The Washington Post graciously added that "she is of medium height, plump and pretty, with a dazzling complexion and fathomless blue eyes. Her shoulders are absolutely flawless from an artistic point of view."
That naturally led her younger brothers to nickname Anne "Old Fathomless." Most of her family, in fact, was upset by her daring. But the greatest opposition came from the Frenches' Negro mammy, who had been with them for two generations and was a jealous custodian of the family's reputation. Miss Annie's will to drive shook her deeply. "We always obeyed Mammy," Mrs. Bush said. "When she solemnly announced, 'The Frenches don't do like that!' - We didn't. At least not until the Locomobile.
Mammy approved whatever "Dr. Willie" did. "It was fine and proper for him to have a steamer," said Mrs. Bush, "or anything else he fancied, because he was the favorite of the many children she'd raised and bossed. But it wasn't at all fine for me. As she helped me dress for a drive, she'd stand by muttering dire threats and prophesy: 'I ain't gonna have you settin' up on top of that fire ingine, and it liable to bust any minute and blow you out in the street, dead, and then everybody be seein'yore laigs!". Mammy was sure no gentleman would be interested in "any lady that don't stay where she belongs and act like one." Actually, however, the Locomobile improved, rather than hampered Anne's style. Her beaux were delighted to ride with her. Whatever their manly pride suffered as she drove and engineered the car, they were always consoled by the fact that the steamer was a two-seater, While the Locomobile drew considerable attention and had an open top, it was a modern improvement over the horse-drawn with plenty of room for the chaperon.
Never before nor since was the American girl more abundantly clothed, Mrs. Bush reminded me. A young lady's dress extended from the base of the chin to the soles of the feet, with a long train trailing behind. Although such clothing tended to hamper a steam engineer, Anne learned to handle her train without snarling it up in the foot brake and warning gong. "The steering lever was simple and didn't require much arm motion, and of course we didn't have arm signals then. Ladies were supposed to keep their hands folded quietly in their laps."
When she was not chauffeuring her father, Anne's trips alone at the lever were strictly within city limits - journeys to a cousin's house 10 blocks away; visits to the Marine Barracks where a girl friend's father was commandant; "errands" to Velati's, the candy store. She was not allowed to drive to Georgetown alone and even Dr. French never ventured as far as Baltimore, 40 miles away over a utted, mud-clogged country road. "He might have managed, getting farm horses to haul him out when he got stuck," Mrs. Bush declared. "But then, my father wanted as little to do with horses as possible. He felt the Loco should stand on its own wheels."
Dr. French believed that his steamer was a responsibility, if not a crusade, and insisted on good manners at the steering lever. "He'd tell me," Mrs. Bush recalls, ""If there's anybody in sight, give them room, give them room!' I don't remember hearing anybody shout "Get a horse!' but I don't suppose people would say that to us. Once I saw a little boy on the curb getting ready to shout something, but then his mother drew him back and said, 'Hush, child, that's Dr. French!'
"Of course, we had little trouble when we had to back away from a horse," Mrs. Bush went on. "The Locomobile people hadn't figured on backing up, and our brakes didn't work in reverse, so we had to back up slowly and stop ourselves at the curb. Bill often complained that we drove more miles backward than forward because of the horses. He felt that humans were the main reason horses got jittery. 'If the horse drivers didn't tense up, neither would the horses,' he'd say."
The doctor was redheaded and had a hot temper. But he always managed to keep it under control while educating people in the advantages of the Locomobile. Mrs. Bush still remembers one of the few times he was really aroused by pedestrians. "We were coming down East Capitol Street as two young ladies in their long dresses were about to cross," she said. "My father came to a full stop and motioned them across, but they just stood there. Then they deliberately stepped out in front of the Locomobile, snickering at us, Bill didn't say a word. He just drove straight across their trains."
Anne's younger brothers Rainsford and Morrison had a fully equipped machine shop to keep the Locomobile in repair. Since there were no garages in those days, the brothers gave service without pay to friends. With their father they also devised several unsuccessful schemes for improving the automobile, among them an early notion for blowout-proof tires.They inflated the thin bicycle tires with heavy blackstrap molasses, as well as air, reasoning that the molasses would ooze out slowly and enable them to get home for repairs. Despite their experiments the molasses gurgled out, often on the premises of outraged property owners, who obliged the young inventors to repair the tire and clean up the mess immediately.
Like most motorists at the turn of the century the Frenches subscribed to The Horseless Age, a new periodical devoted to their hopes, interests and problems. But since their own driving experiences had been serene, they were suprised at the many grim accounts written for The Horseless Age by early motorists.They snorted at one sad report called "A Steam Carriage Experience," declaring that the author would undoubtedly have got himself into trouble on a bicycle. On his first trips, the author complained, he caught his overcoat several times on the throttle. Once he feld himself getting "uncommonly warm and moist about the legs. This phenomenon proved to be due to a smart leakage of steam at the throttle." When the safety valve popped, he forced it back with a stick. Finally he forgetfully tried to light the fire under an empty boiler. The boiler went back to the factory. "These varied experiences," the author concluded, "have led me to wonder if I had not plucked an unripe fruit, which time might improve. "
Dr. French had no patience with such ineptness. All the time he had his Locomobile he had almost no trouble with her. "In three years of driving, we had only two accidents," Mrs. Bush recalled. "Once a youngster playing blindman's buff ran into the dashboard head on. The dashboard was slightly cracked. Another time, when we were parked near Woodward and Lothrop's'store, one of their horses chewed off the corner of the dash. We weren't insured then, but Mr. Woodward paid for the repairs himself."
Dr. French was never disturbed by such calamities. What troubled him was the municipality's desire to tax motorists without providing decent roads or services. In 1903 he was inflamed when the District commissioners ruled that all automobiles should henceforth bear a license tag. "I don't propose to have us tagged like dogs!" he stormed.
He summoned all the automobile owners in the District to a secret meeting at his house, determined to "trash this thing out." "About 20 men showed up," Mrs. Bush recalled. "They parked their steamers in the street like angry beetles and joined father in the living room. They petitioned the commissioners, with no result. After several weeks my father gave up the fight and applied for his license number. When the commissioners issued him No. 9, he got furious again, feeling slighted that they hadn't reserved No. 1 for him, the first car owner in town.
"I was married that year and went off to Springfield, Mo.," said Mrs. Bush. "There were no cars in that town. Until we moved to Baltimore, 10 years later, we didn't own a car."
In Baltimore Mr. Bush invested in a new Paige, but he always drove it himself. Occasionally, on Sunday rides with their two children, Mrs. Bush would remind him mildly that she was the nation's first licensed lady driver. Mr. Bush was not impressed. "Driving is a man's business," he would tell her. "Women shouldn't get soiled by machinery." Mrs. Bush would quietly nod her head and say, "Yes, Walter."