A Mobile Makeover: The Limits of American Automotive Freedom, 1918-1939

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



When Henry Ford presented the original Model-T to the public in 1908, he vowed to "build a motor car for the great multitude" and thereby usher in a new democratic social order with opportunities for individual fulfillment and enjoyment of leisure and nature. This dissertation details the powerful links of mass automobility in interwar America with ideas of freedom and exposes the limits of that freedom experienced during this period. In the context of the machine age, a wide range of experts emerged to define the problems of mass automobility and offer solutions. In presenting the promise and the limits of automobility to the public, experts drew on American political language, especially the discourses of freedom and democracy, thereby shaping understandings of automobile consumption and its more undesirable unintended consequences. As the inspiration behind a modern mobile makeover, the automobile taught Americans a series of powerful lessons - how to be good consumers, safe citizens, and modern subjects attuned to the pace and rhythms of modern life.

While it took half a century for Ford's promise of nearly universal automobile ownership to be realized, the assumption of democratic mobility through automobile ownership undergirded many of the policies and planning of the interwar period, thus exposing the power of the automotive promise and the limits and contradictions of automotive freedom. Never before had a private consumer good created such immediate and widespread public problems or required such a plethora of regulations, restrictions, and education on how one should enjoy the good. In this dissertation, I argue that mass automobile consumption in the interwar period revealed recurring tensions between individual freedoms and the public good. Driving allowed citizens to express a kind of freedom through individual mobility, choice in the marketplace, and increasing privatization and control over their time, schedules, and associations. Cars were also seen as fundamental to American progress and civilization by solving urban problems, providing hopes for a revitalized machine-age civic life through new forms of communication, and energizing the national economy. Detractors instead viewed the automobile as antagonistic to older forms of sociability and civic-mindedness once thought necessary for democracy as it fueled consumption, individualism, and suburbanization. Rather than offering real autonomy or community, the management and control of the public problems encountered by mass automobility instead opened up private life to the reach of commercial and government interests in ways that increased mechanization, control, and hyperregulation of both drivers and non-drivers. Moreover, mass automobile use in cities led to the privatization of urban spaces and the sorting and separating of citizens by transportation class in ways that limited opportunities for the realization of a truly democratic republic of drivers.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Andrea Friedman

Committee Members

Margaret Garb, Iver Bernstein, Wayne Fields, Bret Gustafson, Nancy Reynolds


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K78S4MVT

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