The Vinson Collection contains about 120 years of automobile literature. From an 1893 catalog on bicycles and gasoline automobile models to 2010 model year catalogs, Mr. Vinson was dedicated to collecting as much automobile literature as possible including the rarest pieces of literature. Among his collection are catalogs dated pre-1900, which he writes about on page 63 of A Collector’s Life: An Autobiography:
I rather think of these as the incunabula of automotive literature, and, of late, have taken an interest in them. The French refer to cars of this era as “Ancetres.” Thus far, the oldest item in my collection is an 1893 Peugeot catalogue on bicycles, the last page of which shows two “voitures á gasoline.” I have the 1894 version as well. The oldest catalogue devoted purely to cars is a Panhard catalogue dated July 1895. My collection also includes, from 1896, an informative Amedee Bollee folder, an E. Roger folder, and a Panhard catalogue dated December 1896; folders on the Darracq and Gauthier-Wehrle cars from 1897 or so, and a lovely but incomplete 1898 Panhard catalogue and electric auto sheet. In age these are followed by an American item, the 1898 Barrow, then back to France for the 1899 de Dietrich, Mors, and Delahaye catalogues and a Decauville folder of the same vintage. Just making the 1800′s is a Peugeot catalogue dated November 1899.
The French dominated the early period of automobile literature. Though Karl Benz, a German, holds the distinction of inventing the modern automobile, the French were enthusiastic about producing cars and advertising literature. One American example (which will be the subject of a later blog, so stay tuned!) falls in just before 1900, but otherwise there are only French materials represented in this early era. The oldest piece of literature, dated 1893, contains specifications for both Peugeot bicycles and motor carriage models. Providing few images, but lots of specifications, this trade catalog seeks to explain the principles behind the new mode of transportation being advertised. Bound together with an 1894 version of the same catalog, both represent the transition from manual bicycles to motorized, independent transportation.
As Mr. Vinson mentions above, his oldest piece of automobile literature solely advertising motorized automobiles is an 1895 Panhard catalog. With a dark green cover, gold lettering, and plenty of descriptive specifications, this piece of literature provides a look into how the French were advertising this new technology as well. These early automobiles were also incredibly expensive, and manufacturers had to describe in their literature why this new technology was needed. In short, they had to make the automobile appealing, approachable, and attractive to new consumers and to the industrializing world.
Robin Valencia is the Graduate Assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.