Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI displays trains, planes, and automobiles that reveal the history of their technical evolution. On display are early vehicles—including steam and electric powered cars—some made by the many auto companies that died out early on. Walking through the exhibits one can see the many false starts, detours, and economic pressures behind the current automobile industry, but the genius of the museum is that it also presents a history of how the automobile was incorporated into society as people found new uses for it.
This social history can be read in many of the old advertisements for automobiles that are found throughout the museum. Some of the earliest ads targeted doctors, showing how a sedan could serve as an ambulance. Others targeted the elderly, claiming that with the automobile, old age was no longer a barrier to freedom of movement. My favorites were the ads that targeted women: One ad from the 1920’s targeted the “new women” and showed the automobile as an investment. Other vehicles were depicted as easy to use cars that were specifically designed for women. But the ads that I find most interesting were those that linked the automobile to the ability to discover nature.
Henry Ford himself built motorized campers that he used to tow his friends and servants into the wild on long vacations. He lent another camper he owned to Charles Lindbergh, who used it to see America and write. The museum shows how the idea of using the automobile to escape from cities into nature grew increasingly popular amongst those who could afford cars—embodying the American notion that a car and the frontier are synonymous with freedom. Looking at these documents, I perceived that the invention of the car was essential to Americans beginning to widely care about and appreciate wilderness. It also helped them bring their homes (sometimes in the form of RVs and sometimes in the form of suburban houses) further away from cities and to help cultivate the ideas of wilderness and home (not always complementary concepts) as retreats from human pressures. The irony that struck me throughout this exhibit was that the automobile helped created our appreciation for nature, even as it unintentionally began to destroy the very environments that it allowed us to appreciate.
Today, many of us live suburban or small town lives that we value because they provide space for families, quiet neighborhoods, and affordable prices in which we can build our own house/retreat. All the better if our homes located against a scenic backdrop. And yet, like the travelers who first ventured outwards, our ability to sustain this life is also predicated upon the use of the automobile and its pollution. As Mormons, we place particular cultural value on the notion of the home as a calm sanctuary, but it seems worth reflecting on the fact that in order to produce structures that physically embody these ideas, we might well be harming the world around us.