The Automobile as an Industrial and Economic Catalyst

During the Gilded Age, many inventions came upon the public scene that changed the landscape of American society including the commercial sector. Everything about the nation was changing. One of the largest contributors to the change was the invention and mass production of the automobile. Through the popularity and growing demands for the new transportation device, the automobile became an industrial and economic catalyst.

Expanding Cities

Cities were nothing new before the arrival of the automobile. They were growing by leaps and bounds in the young nation, but they exploded when the automobile hit the scene. From how the city was laid out and maintained to the very size of it, the auto became the bomb that changed the city’s landscape. The city had grown to amazing sizes due to the advancements of the railroad and the subsequent streetcars enabling citizens to move from one end of the city to the other in a fraction of the time.[1] The result was the ability to grow businesses and still attract employees and customers. Bringing the automobile on the scene only enhanced that.

Popularity of the Automobile

The sale of automobiles began with over four hundred sold in 1901. In just three years, that number soared to over five thousand. The automobile appeared to not be a passing fancy as over two hundred companies sprang up to manufacture the machinery that was going to change the face of the American society and economy.[2] Businessmen began to see money in the venture and were willing to invest to create more of the horseless carriages.

Due to Ford’s techniques and marketing strategies, the automobile could be had by the average American family. Before Ford, the automobile was a luxury mainly for the rich who was small in number but had unlimited wealth. But as more and more people got their hands on the invention, the more potential people saw in them. As the average person began to use it, they found the “freedom to travel when they wanted to and where they wanted.”[3] Ford turned the automobile industry in a direction that changed the face of America.

More Money Means More Cars

Economically, Ford not only helped the nation by improving the buying patterns of American citizens but he helped to give them the very money to purchase the auto. He began to pay his employees over double the going rate auto and factory workers were paid during that time. By also limiting the options found on his Model T and implementing the assembly line technique, Ford was able to lower the cost of the car by seventy-five percent.[4] The automobile was now more accessible and easier to obtain.


From a social perspective, the automobile caused enormous cultural changes. As people began to have more mobility, people began to move throughout the country. The ability to relocate became much simpler, as a result, migration patterns in the nation became larger, more people were leaving their native cities to move where work could be obtained. Demographic factors became less static, and city population statistics began to fluctuate. Northern cities, especially, benefited from the ability to draw worker from all over the country. Metro areas began to grow exponentially, and places like Detroit saw an enormous growth of blue collar labor.

Pushed Cities Out

With the increase number of autos, the landscape of the city and even the country began to change. To many critical of the changes the automobile was bringing on the cities, it “undermined urban physical integrity, generated unending sprawl, and sabotaged the sense of community by emphasizing personal choice at the expense of the interest of the many.”[5] People did not have to live near transportation lines such as railroad depots. They could move out away from the congestion. That meant roads had to be built and maintained so the autos could move smoothly and quickly as they were designed to do. Businesses began to develop to support the new automobile industry and the supportive industries of it.

More Jobs

The demand for tires grew as the number of automobiles on the roads increased. That meant the need for rubber was high leading to multiple companies rose up to make the tires and sell them. Tires wore down quickly over the rough roads. While this led to development of more durable tires, it also led to the increase in the number of roads and improved maintenance of said roads. Local governments found themselves with extra expense and duties as they hired people to build and maintain those roads. To compensate for that, they “established motor fuel taxes that were used only to build and maintain highways helping the auto highway system become self-supporting.”[6] Those funds increased as the need for gas stations arose. Construction of those facilities as well as the labor to man them brought about a new industry and jobs for many locals along the newly developing highway system. That also included a need to fix the auto that might have trouble along its journey on the highway. A new industry of mechanics also rose up to maintain the automobiles themselves.

Dietary changes

One interesting development brought about by the automobile was dietary. People began to seek faster food delivery. Trying to eat and run was now a very real occurrence, meaning drive through restaurants began to spring up. A new industry emerged that would, over the next several decades, lead to a very competitive environment. The negative was dietary habits that were not always very healthy. Obesity would become a problem, and people would develop an unfortunate habit. Furthermore, people would obviously walk less, further contributing to the problem. Clearly not every change was positive for the society as a whole.


Melosi, Martin V. “The Automobile Shapes the City.” University of Michigan.

“The Age of the Automobile.” U.S. History.

“The History of the Automobile.” Colorado State Education System.

[1] Martin V. Melosi, “The Automobile Shapes the City,” University of Michigan,

[2] “The History of the Automobile,” Colorado State Education System,

[3] Ibid.

[4] “The Age of the Automobile,” U.S. History,

[5] Melosi

[6] “The History of the Automobile.”

Writer for ten years, lover of education, and degrees in business, history, and English. Striving to become a Renassiance woman.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store