An old picture of a woman charging her vehicle in 1912 is making rounds online as a reminder of the past when a third of all cars on US roads were electric.
The car depicted in the picture appears to be an electric Columbia Victoria Phaeton model, which launched in 1905 and “speedily became the most sought-after light electric carriage in the market,” according to an old promotional brochure published 118 years ago.
The car was a best-seller, with the entire production for the year sold out on advance orders, with makers stating it was “the smartest, fastest, most up-to-date and the most reliable” electric vehicle at the time.
A new Victoria Phaeton was priced at $1,600, an amount equivalent to approximately $44,000 in today’s currency. A two-seater, it had “de luxe” appointments and was powered by 24 battery cells, reaching a top speed of 15 miles per hour.
The picture itself was part of the marketing campaign by General Motors, which produced the charging station.
It was taken in 1912, two years after the car’s maker, Columbia, was announced defunct and merged into the United States Motor Company, a predecessor of Maxwell, Chrysler, and Stellantis.
While the picture evokes a back-to-the-future quality today, it was not extraordinary at the time.
According to the Department of Energy, electric vehicles accounted for around a third of all cars on the road in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. By comparison, just over 1% of all cars in the country in 2022 were electric.
The first successful electric vehicle was made in the US by William Morrison, a chemist from Des Moines, Iowa, in the late 19th century. Electric cars shot up in popularity afterward, reaching their heyday by the turn of the century.
Theodore Roosevelt became the first American president to ride publicly in an automobile in 1902, and the car he used was one of Columbia’s electric models.
Compared to gas and steam-powered cars of the time, electric vehicles were quiet, easy to drive, and did not smell, which was particularly appealing to urban residents. Automakers even marketed electric cars as “women’s cars.”
“By comfort, elegance, and simplicity of operation, it is especially appropriate for ladies’ use,” Columbia said of Victoria Phaeton in its brochure.
The popularity of electric cars led innovators to seek ways to improve the technology, with Thomas Edison working on a better battery and Ferdinand Porsche, of the eponymous German marque, building the first electric-gas hybrid in 1901.
The rise of electric cars came to a halt with the launch of Henry Ford’s much cheaper gasoline-powered Model T in 1908. The subsequent mass production made gasoline cars widely available.
Sales were further buoyed by the introduction of the electric starter, better roads, and the discovery of cheap crude oil in Texas, meaning that electric cars were all but gone from the US roads by the mid-1930s.
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