In 1895, the editor of the first ever automobile periodical in the English language—Horseless Age—argued that cars would liberate horses in what he called ‘the humanitarian aspect of the case.’ According to the editor—E. P. Ingersoll—the coming of a horseless age was actually in the interest of horses:  ‘To spare the obedient beast, that since the dawn of history has been man’s drudge, from further service at the industrial treadmill, will be a downright mercy.’[1] On what was to become of these liberated horses, however, Ingersoll makes no comment.

The life of an urban cab horse was certainly no walk in the park, and even if one avoided witnessing their brutal treatment first hand, reports were available in humane publications such as George T. Angell’s Our Dumb Animals.  One such report records an anonymous driver ‘belaboring [sic] the poor beast with his heavy whip, striking him over the head with relentless ferocity.’[2] There was no doubt even in the eyes of MSPCA members that the automobile could relieve the horse of some heavier service, but the idea of a so-called horseless age was unthinkable.  The horse was endeared to man ‘with a bond of sympathy too strong for any whiz-wagon to sever.’ [3]

‘The Passing of the Horse.’ This advert for Olds Motor Works appeared in 1903, when there were approximately 22 million horses in the US.

 The term ‘whiz’ is significant as it was used chiefly to refer to the sound made by fast and dangerous objects such as projectiles (see note 3).  It was the opinion of many animal welfarists that the automobile represented a significant threat to animal life, both human and nonhuman.  Articles began to appear in Our Dumb Animals noting the increasing death-toll of the automobile, casting doubts over the supposedly humanitarian aspects of the case.  It has been claimed that, proportionately, horses caused more deaths than automobiles,[4] yet the problem with these statistics is that they only account for human casualties—ignoring the threat to other animal species.

The growing threat of road “accidents” prompted some to call for a Society for the Prevention of Reckless Automobile Driving.[5]  Automobile advocates, however, were becoming less concerned with the humane treatment of actual living animals, and more concerned with the welfare of their machines.  In 1896 the American Motor League actually called for ‘better sanitary and humane conditions’[6] for automobiles!

Many motorists were concerned that their inanimate machines received humane treatment but did not concern themselves over animals that became roadkill.  Evidence for this attitude can be found in some of the earliest examples of what is now a classic US genre—the road narrative.  Before Kerouac and the beats came the first attempts at long-distance car journeys across the continent in the 1910s.  These foundational texts in the genre have received comparatively little critical attention, and the experiences they describe differ vastly from the celebration of smooth and unhindered progress down the highway.  Their relevance to the humanitarian aspect of this case can be found in characters’ humane impulses towards their cars, and their general ambivalence towards roadkill.

In Theodore Dreiser’s autobiographical A Hoosier Holiday (1916), Dreiser recounts his 2000-mile automobile journey from New York to Indiana (and elsewhere).  He and his companion—the illustrator Franklin Booth—are driven around by their chauffeur named Speed, who is frequently concerned with ‘the wellbeing of [the] car’ (HH, 117).  They record accidentally killing several chickens and one small pig on their trip, the latter incident is described simply as ‘a smash, a grunt, and then silence.  We were speeding along quite as swiftly as before’ (HH, 508).

Sinclair Lewis’s novel Free Air (1919) charts the progress of New York socialite Claire Boltwood and her father from Minneapolis to Seattle by car.  Claire’s friendly association with her Gomez-Dep roadster results in her feeling as if ‘she were a part of the machine’ (FA, 38) and even coming to think of the automobile ‘as her old friend, to which she had often turned in need’ (FA, 131).  These humane sentiments are not extended to the chickens who are unceremoniously mowed down in the roadway, as Claire ‘absently watched another member of the Poultry Suicide Club rush out of a safe ditch, [and] prepare to take leave for immortality […]’ (FA, 46). 

Actor, author, and playwright Louise Closser Hale also recorded the journey taken by herself, her husband, Toby the dog, and their unnamed chauffeur around Virginia in We Discover the Old Dominion (1916)—originally serialised in Harper’s magazine.  Closser Hale demonstrates great concern for the welfare of their automobile, claiming that:

 ‘It makes me feel very sorry for an engine straining to do its level best, and I am impatient when they are shut up in a garage after a hard day’s run without any appreciative oil or grease or kerosene in the cylinders.  One might as well let a horse go supperless to bed.’ (WDOD, 162-3).

Although Closser Hale does not record their party hitting any animals on the road, one sentence raises some significant questions.  When staying in a particular hotel, they find a restaurant serving ‘[…] chicken in large quantities […] for the first time.  We had not met with it before except under the motor’s wheels.’  (WDOD, 241).  This suggests that they had hit and killed chickens prior to this, and yet there is not one other mention of the word ‘chicken’ or ‘poultry’ throughout the entire text.  This suggests one of two possibilities:  Closser Hale deemed the image of roadkill too unsavoury for Harper’s readers, in which case we have an example of a pro-automobile text glossing over the negative aspects — erasing animal presence from automotive culture.  Or, running over chickens is of so little significance to Closser Hale (a wealthy New York socialite) that she simply did not consider it worth mentioning.  This is certainly possible, given that Closser Hale, like Claire Boltwood in Free Air, comes from a social class that did not need to count its chickens.

Because roadkill has become such an accepted part of driving in the US (and elsewhere), these issues have gone largely unchecked.  Automotive collisions have now overtaken hunting as the leading human cause of vertebrate mortality outside the meat industry.[7] In a world where humans have increasingly fewer meaningful relationships with other animals, what does it mean to care about cars more than creatures—to love horsepower more than horses?

by Daniel J Bowman


[1] ‘The Horseless Age,’ The Horseless Age, Vol. 1, No. 1 (November 1895), 8.

[2] Our Dumb Animals, Vol. 21, No. 10 (March 1889), 119.

[3] ‘The Future of the Horse,’ Our Dumb Animals, Vol. 40, No. 4 (September 1907), 55 [my emphasis].  The term ‘whiz[z],’ defined in the OED as ‘a sibilant sound somewhat less shrill than a hiss, and having a trace of musical tone like a buzz; a swift movement producing such a sound,’ was commonly used to describe objects that were both fast and dangerous.  In all of the example uses of ‘whiz[z]’ in the OED entry, it refers to a weapon or projectile.  This is in keeping with how many humanitarians viewed the automobile, as a dangerous projectile which threatened the lives of animals. <>

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[4] Reginald M. Cleveland and S. T. Williamson, The Road is Yours: The Story of the Automobile and the Men Behind It (New York: Greystone Press, 1951), 70.

[5] ‘Wanted: A New Society,’ Our Dumb Animals, 42.1 (1909), 5.

[6] See ‘The American Motor League,’ The Horseless Age, 1.3 (January 1896), 15. 

[7] Dennis Sown, ‘Road Kill: Commodity Fetishism and Structural Violence’ in Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, ed. John Sanbonmatsu (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011), pp. 54-66, 57.