1. Horse Trading: Duping the Buyer
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c h a p t e r o n e Horse Trading Duping the Buyer It may be useful to think of the cultural history of the buying and selling of personal transportation as a meander in the river of retail history. At some time in the distant past, for reasons that are not altogether clear, men developed a pattern of playful hard bargaining when they dealt in horses. Before the mid-nineteenth century, buyers and sellers, both male and female, haggled over the prices of all marketplace goods, but male horse trading became something of a game. For many it was bit of fun in which each party sought not a fair exchange but an unfair advantage. The continuation of horse-trading forms in car retailing is a meander in the otherwise smooth flow of retailing mainstream (rather than a cutoff oxbow lake) because automobiles are such a large component in the modern family’s budget. The cost is what makes bargaining over personal transportation more than a quaint reminder of bygone behavior like hunting trips or quilting bees. Buying the family’s most expensive manufactured product is a retail transaction that still bears the marks of the gendered performance that was horse trading. Horses as Masculine Symbols When horses were the primary means of personal transportation, men judged other men by every aspect of horse ownership. If a man could not exercise his ownership responsibilities in a masculine way, then maybe he did not really own the horse, mused the New York Times in 1889—maybe the horse owned him: “The man who has bought a horse which he is afraid to ride lest he should fall off, afraid not to ride lest he should be called a coward, and afraid to sell lest he should be a loser, is literally a slave and not the master of the beast.”1 Men wanted their horses to project a public image of themselves as powerful, knowledgeable , and shrewd. “Everybody considers a compliment to his horse as fully equivalent to one to himself,” noted a Boston lawyer in 1861.2 Being a respected horseman was a multifaceted role that included understanding horses well enough to at least talk a good game. “I think I have never met a man who didn’t feel it necessary to his reputation to pretend, on occasion, that he knew something of horses,” noted Charles Dickens, who understood that men judged men by how well they judged horses.3 The idlers along Broadway would eye the rigs driving by and scorn the man who could not “‘keep it up’ in proper style.”4 Since this particular observation came from the National Police Gazette, a favorite of pool hall and barbershop loiterers, the double entendre may well have been intentional. It followed that a man who had a good eye for horseflesh was also a man who had a good eye for the fair sex, and nineteenthcentury bystanders assumed that a man driving a fast trotter was apt to have a “pretty bit of muliebrity” sitting by his side.5 Nineteenth-century men of all classes understood the symbolic parallel meanings of horses and women. A fine horse, like a fine wife, was a public representation of male wealth and power, and as sociologist Thorstein Veblen recognized , both could be forms of conspicuous consumption. Writing in 1899, just a couple of years too early to include automobiles in his commentary on upperclass wastefulness, Veblen argued that horses were more than an expression of wealth—they were also an extension of the man himself. A man’s horse, he wrote, was a means to “express his own dominating individuality,” especially when it gratified “the owner’s sense of aggression and dominance” by “outstripping his neighbor’s” horse in a race.6 Veblen’s characterization of horses conflates their masculine and feminine meanings. The feminine horse was a possession under the control its male Horse Trading: Duping the Buyer 5 owner, who could relate to it as he would to a female companion. For example, in 1868, reminiscing about his favorite horse named Vix (as in vixen), an army colonel remembered how “with an immense excitement” she fancy-stepped down Fifth Avenue so prettily that “few people allowed us to pass without admiring notice.” He recalled that their relationship “went on for three years, always together,” that they had their differences from time to time when “she was pettish and I was harsh,” but that...


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