Women self-confidently conquer the automobile

Dec 5, 2008
  • The Mercedes brand is named after a girl
  • Motoring not "ladylike" in the early days
  • Women as early motifs for automotive publicity
Whereas Bertha Benz and Louise Sarazin "actively" contributed to the growth of the automobile, on the consumer side prospective female buyers quickly lined up. One of the first Benz vehicles sold went to a woman: "I still recall with great pleasure that among the first buyers was a woman teacher," we read in the biography of Carl Benz. "She came from faraway Hungary to see the Mannheim miracle with her own eyes. She was very enthusiastic, but unfortunately her financial strength was not proportionate to her enthusiasm. But an enthusiastic woman is never short of options. She managed to convince a colleague to share her enthusiasm, and he too sacrificed his savings for the car. It was an 1888 model. My son Eugen took it by rail to Vienna, but from there on was forced to drive it himself. The road to Hungary was nothing less than a via triumphalis. The car was received with great delight when it arrived at Samorin near Bratislava. Triumphal arches were raised, wreathed maidens paid homage, and to the cheers of the local populace the motor car was soon turned into a flower cart."
Mercedes is a woman
A woman's name enriched the automobile world in another way too. Around 1900, using the name of his daughter, Mercédès, the energetic businessman Emile Jellinek coined a brand name for Daimler automobiles that quickly became known throughout the world.
Driving is strenuous
It is not surprising that women drivers were invariably looked at with amazement initially, for in the early days cars were not very easy to operate. It took a lot of physical effort to steer them or simply get them started. Even in the early 20th century there were reports of motor sportsmen and taxi drivers getting bloodied hands and burns on their legs from hot oil spurting from the inadequately insulated engine compartment as a result of frequent engine overheating. None of this was considered particularly ladylike, and given that most people took a dim view of the automobile in its early years, it is hardly surprising that for many the idea of a lady voluntarily putting herself in the hands of this tempestuous monster was difficult to reconcile with prevailing ideas about what was fitting for a lady in the late 19th century.
The authors of a book entitled Frauen in Fahrt described the situation in the outgoing 19th century: "Women were rarely active in the practical technical field. The social conditions around the turn of the century, the early days of the automobile, denied educational opportunities to the large majority and discouraged their intellectual curiosity precisely in the area of the rapidly advancing engineering and natural sciences. Women's achievements were therefore focused mainly on operating the vehicles. But reports of early expeditions, long-distance journeys and sports successes do not feature the names of women drivers either – perhaps to prevent more women from getting ideas of copying others who won races or went on adventures? … To conservative types, of course, women drivers were to be regarded with caution. The newspapers and magazines of these years were full of warnings about women at the wheel."
However, this gave rise to a certain dilemma: "Carmakers and car salesmen fondly remembered the promotional value of the long-distance journey of a Berta Benz. She had proved to critics and doubters how easily and safely cars could be used – after all, as a woman she had coped with the clattering monster that continued to frighten so many of her contemporaries. The companies took advantage of the persuasiveness of this argument and had advertisers draw pictures of women behind the wheels of cars for their posters. It worked. Urged on by enthusiastic women, more and more men began buying saloons."
In addition, from the outset women were at least shown as passengers in sales brochures (for example for the "Victoria" Benz Patent Motor Car of 1895) presumably to emphasise the safeness of the car for family use.
Institutionalisation: Driving licence and automobile clubs
Duchess Anne d’Uzès is thought to be the first person to pass a driving test – in Paris in 1898. The first person in Germany was Amalie Hoeppner in Leipzig in 1909. Moreover, the French duchess was first person to be fined for speeding because she drove at 13 km/h in the Bois de Boulogne near Paris instead of the permissible 12 km/h. "Actually, it used to be much nicer to ride in a coach," she is quoted as having said. "With living horses rather than machinery and 'horsepower'! At first I was against having one of these unspeakably noisy automobiles. But then I found driving to be tremendously enjoyable."
Around the turn of the century the first ladies' automobile clubs were organised where the members jointly planned trips and thought about how to improve the cars' ride comfort and safety. So women were very quick to influence engineers and bodybuilders with regard to introducing vehicle improvements.
The "fairer sex" makes driving a profession
Despite female enthusiasm for motorised carriages, women who wanted to take the wheel of a car were still regarded with scepticism at the start of the 20th century. In 1902 the Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung wrote: "Without being discourteous, one can certainly venture to say that very few representatives of the fairer sex have those qualities absolutely essential to a good driver: calmness, a quick grasp of situations, instantaneous decision making, cautiousness, and the power to subdue every driver's latent mania for speed."
All the same, the first women taxi drivers are said to have appeared around 1905. In 1909 the Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung reported on the first professional woman driver in London, a pretty young Irish girl, who had previously worked as a nurse in Africa during the Boer War and whose services had to be hired through a garage rather than a conventional taxi control centre because of bans applying to women drivers.
The automobile also gave rise to an entirely different occupation: In 1907 the Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung reported that "in many cases elegant, single ladies are buying larger luxury cars" and are in need of a travelling companion: "In Berlin, one
Dr. von Papp, who received her theoretical training in lectures at a Berlin institute of technology and had acquired her practical driving skills from training with a garage, was recommended 'for this new occupation'. To make this driving governess socially acceptable, it was reported: 'The congenial young woman is a Hungarian by birth and had the misfortune of losing her husband, a distinguished Hungarian lawyer, some time ago'."
Fast cars as competition
Just as the car was beginning to achieve greater sense of presence and familiarity around towns and cities in the early 20th century, it also gained greatly in attractiveness in part as a result of the journey speeds it made possible. From then many women had to compete with a "tin mistress" for the attentions of their menfolk: "A fast car, the 1909 Manifesto of Italian Futurism declared, is more beautiful to behold than the Nike of Samothrake – the famous statue of the Greek goddess of victory which today stands in the Louvre. This homage to speed showed that in the automotive age mobility was never merely the ability to get from point A to point B. In the outgoing industrial age, mobility increasingly became a metaphor for acceleration, speed and modernity."
Women in advertising
In the period that followed, women enriched car advertising. Whereas in the outgoing 19th century they were mainly used to demonstrate the harmlessness of the vehicle, in the early 20th century they were more often shown in decorative poses in order to boost sales. An automotive history review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung tells us: "Much as European poster art presented females effectively as eye-catchers for light bulbs, dehydrated soups, cigarettes or laundry detergents, at the beginning of this century it was their job to boost sales of the automobile, that aspiring new means of transport, not to mention stylishly publicise all kinds of indispensable products such as petrol, tyres or spark plugs."
But in motorsport, too, successful women inspired the admen. One of the most memorable motifs of the 1920s is The Lady in Red, a design by commercial artist Edward Cucuel. "The female racing drivers of the Roaring Twenties were first class," we read in the book, Der Stern ihrer Sehnsucht. Ernes Merck, born into a family of industrialists, was one of the drivers of the Mercedes-Benz model S pictured there, which was developed from the short version (K) of the 630 model. And she drove it with very respectable results: "In the 1927 Klausen Pass race she was bettered only by Rudolf Caracciola."
New self-confidence of the 1920s
A graphic image that appeared in the magazine Jugend in 1913 still enjoyed great popularity into the early 1920s. It showed an old lady cradling a Benz automobile in her arms and is captioned, "My Benz!!" Between the two world wars, the self-confidence of women drivers was also reflected in the advertisements themselves. In 1926, the year of the merger between Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and Benz & Cie., Mercedes-Benz was advertised on a poster depicting four ladies apparently out for a jaunt and in the best of moods; the poster announcing the merger itself also showed a woman. "The advertisement establishes a trend: the woman of the world drives herself." A 1928 advert confirmed this idea: "If she could afford it, the woman of the world seized the steering wheel. Not only the change in fundamental conceptions of the role of women made this possible in the 1920s." The lady shown in the advert "flirts proudly and self-assuredly in her heavy car."
Soon afterwards a Berlin sports editor coined the expression selbstfahrende Damen, ladies who drive themselves, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung explained: "He occasionally supplied car texts for the exquisite magazine Die Dame. In 1930 he also observed that women played 'nearly as important a role as men' in buying a car, that 'countless thousands of women' already drive their cars themselves, a few of them even 'with remarkable skill and an understanding of the engine, and almost all with a prudence and sense of responsibility which its male creators unfortunately lack all too often at the wheel'."
If the ladies were not being wooed as drivers, they were the bearers of the advertising message in those days. Under the slogan "her Christmas wish" one woman whispers into her husband's ear that it has to be a Mercedes-Benz; another looks up into the sky at the "star of her desire", the Mercedes star.
"It isn't just today's women who buy their cars themselves because they would rather get roses as a present than a car," Britta Jürgs wrote in her book, Flotte Autos, Schnelle Schlitten. Künstlerinnen und Schriftstellerinnen und ihre Automobile (about female artists and writers and their cars). "Fittingly, Virginia Woolf invested royalties from To the Lighthouse, her first commercial book success in 1927, in an automobile and was excited by the way driving expanded the 'world map in her mind'."
Namesake: Mercedes Jellinek aged 11. Emil Jellinek initially chose the first name of his daughter as a pseudonym for his own involvement in racing with vehicles from Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft; it later became the brand name.
Sporting elegance: The “Lady in Red” by Offelsmeyer Cucuel for Mercedes-Benz, created and published in 1928, is one of the most striking advertising motifs of the 1920s.
Clear message: “Why we turn to ladies when it comes to matters of taste.” Mercedes-Benz advertisement, published in the early 1960s.
Car and style: Mercedes-Benz advertisement featuring a 220 SEb model, published in the early 1960s.
Direct message: A Mercedes-Benz advertisement by Offelsmeyer Cucuel, published 1926.
Winning women customers: The advertising motif “The star of your desire” from Mercedes-Benz, published in 1929.
Lifestyle: This 1936 advertising motif for Mercedes-Benz shows a 540 K roadster model beneath the Zeppelin “Hindenburg”. The airship was also powered by a Daimler-Benz engine.
Namesake: Mercedes Jellinek aged 15. Emil Jellinek initially chose the first name of his daughter as a pseudonym for his own involvement in racing with vehicles from Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft; it later became the brand name.
Sporting lady: Ernes Merck in a Mercedes, pictured during the first half of the 1920s.
She drove powerful cars with exceptional finesse: Ernes Merck, pictured here in a Mercedes-Benz. The photo dates from the second half of the 1920s.
Automotive design and architecture: Mercedes-Benz 8/38 PS Roadster (1926 to 1928). Image taken in front of Le-Corbusier House at Stuttgart’s Weißenhof Estate, 1928.
Object of desire: Advertisement for Benz & Cie. dating from 1921.
Fleet of foot: Mercedes-Benz advertising motif showing a 300 SEL 3.5 model (1969 to 1972).