In the early 1900s, electric vehicles catered to high-society women, becoming their preferred mode of transport in urban areas.
In 1900, electric vehicles held a significant market share (38%), particularly favored by the urban upper class.
These EVs, free from manual labor and complex operations, aligned with societal norms for women and offered refined independence.
Despite their eventual decline due to technical limitations and rising popularity of gasoline cars, early EVs shaped women’s mobility.
In the year 1900, amidst the cacophony of steam engines and growl of gasoline cars, an unexpected hero quietly glided into the automotive scene: the electric vehicle (EV). The EV claimed an impressive 38% of the U.S. auto market, surpassing gasoline’s 22% and falling just shy of steam’s 40%.
Now, you may be wondering, why were EVs so popular? They were the poster child of simplicity, cleanliness, and refinement. While their petrol- and steam-powered counterparts belched smoke and demanded strenuous hand-cranking to start, EVs provided a tranquil, pollution-free, and user-friendly alternative.
The clientele that flocked to these vehicles? Women of the upper echelons. Now, that’s not to say they legally “owned” these vehicles, given the limitations on women’s property rights back then. But they were often the primary drivers and greatly influenced the buying decisions. Companies like Pope Manufacturing Co. and Baker Electric Vehicles catered to these high-society women with their sleek electric buggies.
Here’s why EVs were the perfect fit for the ladies. At the time, cars were luxury items, not workhorses. The need to drive long distances was rare, especially in cities where everything was close by. The short-range limitation of EVs (usually 20-30 miles) hardly mattered in this context, maybe except to limit one’s mobility radius… Instead, the argument was, what did matter was ease of operation, and EVs had this in spades. No messy and hazardous hand-cranking, no gear shifting, just smooth, silent motoring.
Plus, societal norms played a role. Manual labor, such as hand-cranking a gas engine or dealing with sooty fuels, was deemed unseemly for women. EVs, on the other hand, allowed them to retain their sophistication while granting them the freedom and independence of mobility. For social calls, shopping trips, and school runs, the EV was the refined choice.
However, EV dominance didn’t last. As city boundaries expanded and the call of the open road beckoned, the limited range and long charging time of EVs began to pinch. The discovery of abundant oil reserves in Texas coupled with Henry Ford’s assembly line made gasoline cars affordable and plentiful. The invention of the electric starter in 1912 was the clincher, making gasoline cars as easy to start as EVs.
So, by the 1920s, the EV found itself on the periphery, and the once-prominent electric chariots became relics. Yet, today we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in EVs. With the looming threat of climate change and leaps in battery technology, the electric dream is alive once more. As we look back, the early 1900s offer a glimpse into an alternative automotive history and a reminder of the enduring allure of EVs.