Automobiles in Old Family Photographs

Sometimes we take certain things for granted. We often don’t stop to realize what life was like for our ancestors. We may have skills that our ancestor did not possess. Recently I stumbled across some old photographs that made me stop and think.

In 1905 the automobile was a novelty. Very few people had ever driven one, much less owned one. After looking at a couple of photographs, I realized that most people did not know how to drive in those days.

Today most adults are familiar with driving automobiles. However, 100 or more years ago, that was not true. In fact, the idea of someone driving an automobile was so unique that commercial photographers of the time often took advantage of the automobile to sell more photographs.

Photographers have long kept props for use in photographs. For years, even today, commercial photographers often have kept clothing, hats, and more for use in photographs. During the U.S. Civil War, most commercial photographers kept an inventory of rifles, swords, and even uniforms so that soldiers would pay for photographs that showed them adorned with those props. One hundred or more years ago, some enterprising photographers kept automobiles for the same purpose.

For instance, here is a photograph take around 1905 along the boulevard in Revere Beach, Massachusetts. The photo is courtesy of the Library of Congress research archive as published on the Shorpy.com web site (at http://www.shorpy.com/node/18518?size=_original).

Click on the photo to view a much larger image.

You will note the clothing of the time, the swimmers in the ocean to the right and horse-drawn carriages traveling along the street. There is not an automobile in sight.

Now look at the sign above the entrance of the tintype photo parlor. Here is a close-up of that entrance.

Notice the sign hanging above the doorway: “It’s the Fad. Your Picture in an Auto.”

Those who did not own automobiles and, indeed, did not know how to drive, could have their photo taken showing them behind the wheel. In fact, newsletter editor Pam Cerutti has an excellent example of just that. Here is a photograph of her great-grandfather John Sellers, taken in England. (Details about the people in the photograph are given in a footnote below.) Pam believes this photograph was also taken around 1905. It appears the British liked to have pictures taken in an automobile in the same manner as the Americans in Revere Beach.

Click on the image below to view a larger version:

You can see John Sellers, his wife, their eight children, some friends, and the niece of Mrs. Sellers in the photo. Notice that John is intently staring ahead, obviously focusing on his driving. That is a bit amusing as John never learned how to drive!

When looking at old family photographs, keep in mind that not everything is what it seems to be. Older photographs were often “staged” to represent something that never happened in real life. However, they were almost always entertaining, both for the people in the photograph as well as for their descendants.

Your ability to own and drive an automobile is something your great-grandparents would have envied.

Footnote: In the photo of John in a car in front of the George Hotel, Cliff Sellers believes the children shown are, from right to left: Arthur, Walter (with the ‘stache), 2 friends, Jack, Daisy (Eva), Hettie, Emma, and Eunice. Cliff believes the other woman in the car with Mrs. Sellers is her niece.

Daisy is the grandmother of newsletter editor Pam Cerutti. She was known by the nickname of “Daisy” all her life, thanks to the entertainment she gave patrons at her father’s pub by singing a popular song of the time about a girl named Daisy on “A Bicycle Built for Two.” If John Sellers hadn’t taken this opportunity to have his family photographed with the car, it’s likely that no picture of them would ever have been found.

18 Comments

Yes, why would people know how to drive?
There is a tale that back in the early 1900s the fledgling American Automobile Manufacturers Association commissioned a study by a noted economist into the market potential for their ground-breaking new products. He said it was clear that no more than 10,000 could ever be sold. Why? Because it was inconceivable that any more than 10,000 people would ever want to be chauffeurs.

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Love this story, as it combines my two hobbies of family history and old cars. Anyone wanting to have an old car identified in family photos can send a copy to Hemmings Motor News (https://www.hemmings.com/ ) for identification of year, brand, model, etc.

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There are a number of Facebook groups/pages that can help with the identification of olde cars which can help in dating a photo. Search for groups such as

Cars Of The 1900’s to 1930’s
1920s antique automobiles, brass era cars, orphan makes
Pre-war automobile classics
great old classic cars

Roger

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You mentioned that a “new” skill picked up by us since the “old days” was driving a car. To which, we might add typing, playing basketball, using a smartphone, and manipulating six remote controls.
But, you might also subtract skills lost: ability to ride a horse, women to cook from scratch, women to sew an article of clothing from scratch using a pattern, including how to use a sewing machine, many girls and not-so-few boys in “olden days” were taught to play a piano, which was actually in the home, and none of my grandchildren can read my birthday notes in cursive hand-writing.
I predict of the “new” skills our generation has acquired, listed above only playing basketball will survive beyond two generations from me.
And the beat goes on….

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In the 1930s, my father and his three cousins, all born in 1915, went out to Coney Island. They had their picture taken on a wood cutout car with four ovals to pock their heads through. In 1975 or 1985, at a birthday celebration, the old picture was brought out and a picture of the three in my mother’s 1936 Ford Phaeton (her father had bought it new) was taken with the four sitting in the appropriate seats to match the cutout holes.
I have the car now along with the picture from the celebration; I with I had a copy of the old one.

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I love looking at old photos and especially the details that describe how life was in those times. I also like to compare the view from long ago with a current view, and Google Maps Street View provides the opportunity to see how things have changed. For the view of Revere Beach I have put together the comparison, viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/86912410@N07/42172064511/in/dateposted-public/.
Mike P.

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My dad born in 1898 in New York City grew up with trolleys, horse and carriage. He did not learn to drive until we moved to New Jersey suburbs in 1942 and was never enthusiastic about it. I do still cook from scratch and know how to use a sewing machine, sew clothes from a pattern etc. Of course at almost 79 I am not the young generation!

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Good information. I’ll be adding the reference sources to my data. Law enforcement also used hats in the early 20th century to help look for people. I don’t know how widespread the practice was, but our sheriff had a booklet. A copy is at our historical society.

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Interesting column! and thanks to some of the commenters for further car-identifying sources. I have a photo of my father at about age 15 proudly sitting in a car in the early ’20s. Will be fun to identify it.

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You would enjoy chapter 29 in the John Steinbeck 1952 book “East of Eden,” about a Ford purchased for the family in that story.

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I suspect many family snapshots from the 1920s and 1930s were taken with the family car as a background. I know we have many such pictures.in old albums.

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One of my favorite family history pictures was taken in 1915-16 when my 54 year old great-grandfather got his first car (a Ford Model T, top down). He is very proudly standing a few feet from the car with his mother outside his farmhouse. (I believe the car was delivered to the farm by the salesman.) About 15 of his children and grandchildren are in the car, climbing on the sideboards, and standing around the car – obviously very excited! One of his sons wrote that the next morning his father was afraid to put the vehicle’s transmission in reverse. So he called 2-3 of his sons to come outside. They pushed the car into the road and pointed it towards town. Then they crank started the engine and my great-grandfather was off to town.

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I have a photgraph of my father, born in 1913, in a Studebaker with his family in front of the Studebaker Garage in our home town. His dad was a partner in the garage (I don’t know when the business began) My dad’s family and his partner’s family lived in apartments above the Garage and my dad grew up knowing how to drive. His uncle let him steer the car when he was a toddler sitting on Uncle’s knee. As expected, dad was always interested in old car museums.

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    Studebakers are our favorite old cars, we’ve had two and one truck from various years. And members of the family had really older ones as drivers, ours of course are pampered now. No winter driving:)

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