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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-desiècle 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 gender-oriented 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 buyers demanded that car sellers continue that tradition by accepting their old vehicles as partial payment for new ones. When the dealers acquiesced, they ensured that a form of retailing that had disappeared from almost every other product would continue with cars.

Peter Stearns has recently adopted the label “behavioral” for historians who seek to explain contemporary beliefs and actions as artifacts of past conditions.1 Stearns’s approach complements the earlier work of economist Paul A. David, who coined the term “path dependence.” Path dependence suggests that some irrational economic choices are not based on psychology (as behavioral economists would have it), but occur because initial technological decisions (such as the width of railroad tracks) become standards that no single participant can change.2 This is not to say that present decisions are slaves to the past. Behavior is affected as much or more by current conditions as by history. Nevertheless, in some cases, such as the retailing of automobiles, patterns set generations ago for reasons that may have made more sense then than they seem to now continue to shape conduct in ways that appear to defy common sense. The way men bought and sold horses became the model for the way people (mostly men) bought and sold cars—despite a multitude of reasons why it would have been more rational for cars to be retailed in the same fashion as other manufactured goods.

The history of car buying is not a history of inertia. It is rather the history of a complex set of interactions between cultural and economic forces that actively worked against the express desire of both the public and the industry to have automotive retailing conform to general retail standards. Historians confronted with long-term continuity have to respond like ethnographic field workers who are told: “We do it this way because this is the way it has always been done.” They have to try to determine if this is in fact “the way it has always been done,” and if so, to explain why it did not change. Buyers are not doomed in perpetuity to haggle over the price of cars. Powerful external forces can and do change even deeply ingrained behavior. Yet the pattern of men bargaining over the things they rode on survived the transition to the things they rode in, and it prevailed through shortages and surpluses, wars, depressions, two major bouts of government regulation, the growth of a female customer base, and most recently, online sales. Change may yet come, but the external force will have to be greater than the old century’s never-ending complaints—and even a new century’s Internet.

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