Treasures: Oldest American Item

Click to view the entire catalog in the Hagley Digital Archives.

Back in January, we brought you a post on Automobile Ancetres that highlighted some of Mr. Vinson’s earliest French treasures. Today, we bring you the promised post on the lone American item. We’ll start off with Mr. Vinson’s description of these pre-1900 items once again to refresh everyone’s memories:

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. – A Collector’s Life: An Autobiography, page 63.

Mixed in with the mostly French pre-1900 catalogs is an American example. Buried in the middle and given a short phrase, “the 1898 Barrow” catalog was considered by Vinson to be one of his treasures. He doesn’t elaborate further on why it is a treasure beyond the fact that it dates pre-1900. Is there anything special about this American example besides its date?

The Barrows Vehicle Company published the above mentioned catalog in 1898. The catalog is very straightforward in its design with a light yellow cover, white pages, and simple black illustrations. On each page are models that vary from two to four-seaters to light delivery vehicles. All of the models shown contained electric engines, taking advantage of the electric technologies of the era.

Barrows specialized in battery powered engines and interchangeable body styles. The consumer could purchase a Power Equipment package and then choose which body style they wanted to attach. Calling their style of automobile, “practically a mechanical horse,” Barrows attempted to provide consumers with a tangible metaphor so that they could understand the new technology of self-propelled vehicles.

Click to view page 7 of the catalog in the Hagley Digital Archives.

Automobiles were new to the market in the late nineteenth century. Utilizing the image of a “mechanical horse” and comparing the cost and use of a horse to an automobile allowed consumers to understand what an automobile was and why they should purchase one. On page 7, Barrows points out “No cost when not used. Unlike horses, the Batteries eat only when they work,” giving an advantage to the Barrows automobile. This comparison runs throughout the whole of the catalog presenting evidence of the superiority of the electric automobile over the horse.

Though other companies didn’t use this exact metaphor to describe their vehicles, many companies used similar marketing methods. Likening automobiles to motorized bicycles or simply calling them self-propelled vehicles created an understanding that this new technology was a new method of transportation and could soon to replace the contemporary horse and carriage. Though the Barrows Vehicle Company only survived for four years (1895-1899), its literature represents the early era of American motoring and its place in the emerging automobile industry.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of The Automobile (2 Volume Set) Volume 1: A-L; Volume 2: M-Z. Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000.

Robin Valencia is the Graduate Assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

One thought on “Treasures: Oldest American Item

  1. Taylor was a close friend of mine and I am especially pleased his collection is being well preserved and disseminated for many to enjoy. This was his hope.

    Thank you.

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