1909 Advice for Lady Motorists, in Pictures

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 20 2014 11:40 AM

1909 Advice for Lady Motorists, in Pictures

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Dorothy Levitt raced cars in some of the sport’s earliest years, entering her first contest in 1903. In her association with Napier & Son, an early British automobile manufacturer, Levitt maintained a rigorous racing schedule and held several speed records during the first decade of the 20th century.

As historian Julie Wosk writes, an executive at Napier “recognized that if customers witnessed a woman driving an automobile, they might be convinced of the ease of handling a car.” So Levitt began to do outreach for female motorists, appearing in advertisements, writing columns for the newspaper the Daily Graphic, and publishing The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook For All Women Who Motor Or Who Want to Motor, the 1909 book containing the photographs below. The book is available on Google Books, and is a fascinating read.

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C. Byng-Hall, who wrote the “personal sketch” that prefaces Levitt’s text, dwells upon her prettiness, youth, modesty, and timidity, assuring the reader (as though there might be any worry), “She is the most girlish of womanly women.” Levitt’s own writing whiplashes between self-consciously “weak” (she admits breaking down in tears at some unexplained car trouble) and utterly confident in her own abilities as motorist and tinkerer.

Most of the images below were taken by H.W. Nicholls, who would later be appointed as an official government photographer during World War I, where part of his duties involved documenting women’s work in service of the war effort.

This studio image of Levitt, showcasing her stylish clothing and giving the impression of forward motion, was the frontispiece of the book.

A chapter on costume came early in Levitt’s book, though advice is geared toward practicality rather than fashion. Wear shoes, not boots, she advised. In wintertime, add high gaiters, “almost up to the knee.” Avoid “lace or ‘fluffy’ adjuncts to your toilette—if you do, you will regret them before you have driven half a dozen miles.” Shun leather coats in favor of “thick frieze, homespun, or tweed, lined with ‘Jaeger’ or fur.” Wear kid gloves, and avoid rings, bracelets, and bangles. Stash an overall, to be used during repairs as necessary.

Levitt told readers to use the drawer under the car’s seat to store gloves, a handkerchief, powder puffs, a hand-mirror, and some chocolates, adding that they “are very soothing, sometimes!”

The mirror was to be used for safety purposes. “Sometimes you will wonder if you heard a car behind you,” Levitt wrote. “[Y]ou can, with the mirror, see in a flash what is in the rear without losing your forward way.” (The first purpose-built rear-view mirror was used in 1914; Levitt has been credited with coming up with the idea.)

Levitt also advised keeping a revolver in this compartment, to use for protection as needed.

On the intricacies of the motor, Levitt wrote: “An engine is easily mastered. A few hours of proper diligence, provided you are determined to learn, and you know all that you have to know.” Many of the procedures that are automated in our own cars were, then, manual. Levitt tells readers how to test the gas and oil levels (using a clean stick), try out brakes before going on a run, and turn on the battery.  

“Your troubles with a car may be nil—they may be a-plenty,” Levitt wrote. Things a lady motorist could fix on the road included a faulty sparkplug, a drained battery, an empty petrol tank, or water in the carburetor.

The one operation that Levitt did not think was worthwhile for a female driver to carry out was the replacement of a flat tire. She wrote: “It is possible for a woman to repair a tyre, but I am sure I am correct in saying that not one woman in a thousand would want to ruin her hands in this way.” Instead, she advised driving as slowly as possible to the nearest village, where a repairman could handle the problem.

Levitt’s chapter on “Motor Manners” is among the book’s most fascinating. Her advice is a mixture of legal (“[J]udgments in recent cases declare that it lies with drivers to keep clear of pedestrians”) and ethical (“Drive slowly past any one driving or riding a restive horse and, if necessary, especially if it should be a lady or child riding or driving, stop the engine”).

In the 1900s, the Automobile Association employed scouts that would ride bicycles up and down roads, note locations of police speed traps, and warn passing motorists, for which service they expected a small payment. This may be the “information” that this caption obliquely references.

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