Introduction: The Cowboy and the Flapper
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i n t r o d u c t i o n The Cowboy and the Flapper In 1923 American magazines ran an advertisement for the Jordan “Playboy” that featured a woman driving an open two-seat automobile style known as a roadster. A few years later the indomitable Nancy Drew and her chums would scoot about their detective business in a roadster that followed in the tire tracks of the spirited young woman driving the Playboy as she sped across the prairie “somewhere west of Laramie.” A cowboy on horseback raced alongside but slightly behind the car. The modern woman was driving into the twentieth century , leaving the horse-riding man of the nineteenth century in her dust. The image was a powerful one, and the copy, composed by the company’s president, Ned Jordan, is considered the best early example of advertising based on promoting a lifestyle rather than the product itself. In this case, the female driver was described in freewheeling prose as a spontaneous sportswoman who was perfectly at home driving a car model named the Playboy. A blend of fin-desi ècle Gibson Girl and 1920s flapper, she was a symbol of the contemporary woman who was willing not only to take on male roles but to take on men themselves . (See frontispiece.) When the ad appeared, the horse was already history. Yet riding unseen in the passenger seat (or maybe hidden back in the rumble seat) was the spirit of the cowboy, and it would emerge when the prospective buyer entered a new-car showroom. Behind the wheel she may have been the very embodiment of the new woman, but when she (or more likely her father or male friend) went to purchase an automobile, she would step back into a retail arena that would in all respects be more familiar to her cowboy road mate than to her college roommate . Rather than buying her car in a retail store for an advertised price the way she bought her cloche hat, she or her surrogate would have to haggle over the trade-in allowance on her superannuated Playboy and quite possibly bargain over the price of the fresh new mechanical boyfriend she was buying to replace it. The persistence of wrangling over car prices is an example of a genderoriented practice that had become so deeply embedded in economic relationships that it was able to defy the historical forces that changed everything around it. While the meaning and methods of most retail sales shifted in the second half of the nineteenth century to a female-centered, nondiscriminatory, rationally modern form, auto retailing would take a different road. Car dealing continued the lead of the preindustrial marketplace haggling that characterized almost all retailing but that had been refined into a dark art by the men who engaged in horse trading. Both buyers and sellers grumbled about the lack of a one-price system in automotive retailing where neither the buyer nor the seller could know what a car would cost until they had negotiated an agreement. The bargaining often involved not only the price of the new car and the value of the buyer’s old car (the trade-in), but also the cost of financing the new car and other options, fees, and services. While negotiating is not in and of itself an irrational way to establish a price, within the context of contemporary consumer society it is an anomaly that has irritated consumers who are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with bargaining and has made car dealers and their sales staffs both angry and self-conscious at being the butt of constant jokes. Nevertheless, the system—technically rational but culturally exotic—has survived with no end in sight. Automotive exceptionalism began because men wanted to own an auto with the latest innovations and needed to trade in their current cars to offset the high cost of new ones. Dealers, under pressure from the factories, indirectly cut the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) by offering to buy back trade-ins for more than they were worth on the resale market (over-allowances). The process of swapping an old ride for a new one and making up the difference in their values with a cash payment was an established practice in horse trading. Car 2 Horse Trading in the Age of Cars buyers demanded that car sellers continue that tradition by accepting their old vehicles as partial payment for new ones. When the dealers acquiesced...


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