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Washington Welcomes the Automobile: 120-year Romance — Part II, Adoption and Regulations

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

In 1900 there were approximately 11,000 horses in Washington, and 40 horse-shoers, and 66 commercial stables. This required a big government investment in street cleaning — $76,000 annually — which paid for 208 men, 20 horses, and 9 wagons. [1] The men worked between 17 and 25 days per month year-round.

The rapid adoption of mechanical horsepower brought some welcome changes to Washington streets. Washington was well-known for its well-paved streets, with over three million square yards of asphalt or asphalt block pavements — ranking fifth in the nation in 1905. (Another million square feet was graveled, indicative of the large proportion of the District being still-rural.) [2]

Map of the city of Washington shows streets cleaned by hand or machine, sprinkled unimproved streets, and public dumps. “Fiscal year 1901.” The daily hand cleaning area (in pink) covered much of downtown Washington from New Jersey Ave. on the east to New Hampshire Ave. on the west, R St. on the north, to B St. on the south. photo–Library of Congress, Geography and Maps Div.

 Local Enthusiasts

There were some noted automobile enthusiasts in early 20th century Washington, Larz and Isabel Anderson in particular. Their Massachusetts Avenue, NW grand mansion is now the headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati; the carriage house of their Brookline, Massachusetts home is now the Larz Anderson Auto Museum. The Anderson’s first motor vehicle, an 1899 Winton four-horsepower Runabout, is still on display there. It cost $1,000.

The Peter family of Tudor Place in Georgetown did not adopt quite as early. Armistead Peter inherited the estate in 1911 from his grandmother. Peter purchased first a 1913 Pierce-Arrow 48-B2 Vestibule Suburban and had a garage built, and in a note from October 15, 1913, wrote, “the auto arrived yesterday, It is all that could be desired.” [3]

The Peters purchased four more Pierce-Arrows: a 1914 48-B2 Touring Car, a 1916 38-C4 Two Passenger Runabout, a 1919 48-B5 Roadster, and a 1920 Town Brougham. That 1919 48-B5 Roadster (purchased for Armistead Peter 3rd by his parents), is still housed in the Tudor Place garage, and is one of the few vintage automobiles on display in Washington.

Automobiles took the place of horses in “automobile stables” in Washington but soon they would get dedicated structures. One of the first purpose-built “garages” in Washington is located at 2201 Massachusetts Avenue NW (at Massachusetts, Florida, and 22nd), and, entered through the side alley, forms part of the Miller House, constructed in 1900. The house, designed by Paul J. Pelz, of Library of Congress fame, is now a condominium known as Argyle Terrace. The garage was used for a time by Olga Hirshhorn to house her art collection. Nearby Alice Pike Barney included a garage in her new home at 2306 Massachusetts Avenue on Sheridan Circle.

Masthead from “Among the Motorists” Evening Star, Nov. 20, 1910.

 Newspapers joined in the enthusiasm for the automobile as well. The Evening Star devoted a page (or nearly) on Sundays to journalist and photographer Howard Fisk’s [4] column “Motoring,” beginning in 1909 (the title alternating with “Among the Motorists.”). Fisk published an automobile touring book for the Washington region in 1914. [5] He knew the terrain well, having been an avid cyclist before he became the Star’s automobile columnist in 1907.

Cover from Howard S. Fisk’s Fisk Road Book (L.M. Thayer, printer, Washington, DC, ca. 1914). photo–Library of Congress.

President William Howard Taft’s Pierce-Arrow 48 horsepower limousine, Washington, DC, Mar.20, 1909. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Taft -– First Motoring President

One might expect the president of the United States to have been an early adopter of the automobile. William McKinley was indeed photographed in an early motor vehicle, a Locomobile steamer, in 1899. “Now that the horseless carriage has won the approval of the Chief Magistrate, its popularity will gain a decided impetus” was the premature verdict of the industry journal Horseless Age. [6] McKinley was assassinated and his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, had an almost allergic reaction to the automobile. His carefully honed and presented self-image was that of the strenuous life, a horseman, the “Rough Rider” of San Juan Hill. Automobiles were just too elite for the patrician Roosevelt. A single White Model E steamer was the only automobile in his 1905 inaugural parade, leading the military procession. So White House adoption of motor vehicles lagged (though his daughter Alice Roosevelt was an avid motorist).

President Taft and Mrs. Taft seated in the back of their convertible with the roof down. Note the presidential seal on the door. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

This left the next president, William Howard Taft, to be the first president to fully embrace the motoring lifestyle. And that he did. Michael L. Bromley authored the revisionist William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency (2003) — a history of Taft and his administration with the automobile threaded through the narrative. His telling clears away the unfair mischaracterizations of and myths about Taft, presenting him as a vigorous, effective president (unfairly maligned by his former friend and mentor Theodore Roosevelt).

Even before Taft took office he had resolved to dispense with horses and switch to automobiles. It is worth bearing in mind that automobile use, as recorded in District of Columbia vehicle registrations, was ramping up at a quickening pace: in 1907, approximately 1,400; in 1908, nearly 2,500; in 1909, around 4,000; and in 1910, over 6,000 registered vehicles. That was an increase of 50% every year.

Taft was following the popular trend. So whatever elitist gloss was attached to automobiles, it was quickly fading. Funds for the purchase would need to be requested from Congress and presidential staff somehow came up with a figure of $12,000—a sum which they would later regret as inadequate to the task. Several automobiles were required for the President and for the First Lady.

Taft’s honeymoon with Congress had begun in January before he even took office. Congress voted the President a 50% salary increase, and the president’s salary had not been increased since Grant. But this generosity did not extend to the $12,000 for automobiles — voted down in the Senate. Discussion ensued regarding the merits of automobiles versus horses. Plus, money had already been appropriated for the horses.

If Congress started funding automobiles who knew where it would end? Wasn’t it wasteful to double-up horses and automobiles? In addition, the bill being considered was a deficiency bill, raising the question, weren’t the automobiles a new expenditure and not a shortfall in the existing appropriation? Finally, on February 6, 1909 the Senate agreed to the Deficiency Act which included the $12,000 for Taft’s automobiles.

Of course, $12,000 was not going to stretch far. More money would be available in the new fiscal year starting in July. But that June of 1909 the White House had four automobiles and one electric delivery vehicle. The first two vehicles arrived in February before Taft even took office — a White Model M 40 horsepower steam-powered touring car (on display today at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts). [7] The second was a Pierce-Arrow 48 horsepower gasoline powered limousine. Mrs. Taft got two cars, a 36 horsepower Pierce-Arrow landaulet, and an electric Baker vehicle, a few months later in April.

1922 image of auto racing at Benning race track. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.


Horses were losing ground elsewhere besides the White House stables. Benning race track saw horses replaced by automobiles. Betting on horse-racing had been abolished in the District by act of Congress in 1908. The ending of horse-race betting meant the horsepower in the track would soon be (almost) exclusively mechanical — automobiles and motorcycles. Bicycle racing had already been well established there.

By 1908 the horse was being rapidly displaced by motorized vehicles, both commercially and in the federal and District governments. In these early days there was quite a diverse assortment of electric vehicles and a few steam-powered. Gasoline-powered omnibuses were being planned to replace the horse-drawn herdics on 16th Street. [8] The same author enthused over the advances in taxicab service — with more than one hundred on the streets.

The 1909-‘10 District commissioners report gives a good indication of the progress in adoption of automobiles and type:


“The automobile board examined 2,329 applicants to operate motor vehicles. Of this number, 2,262 were granted permits, including 274 for electric vehicles, 1,686 for gasoline vehicles, 92 for steam vehicles, and 213 for motor cycles. Temporary permits were granted to 115 applicants. Duplicate permits were issued to 115 operators.

“Numbers were assigned to 186 electric vehicles, 1,698 gasoline vehicles, 62 steam vehicles, and 430 motor cycles. The fees charged for these tags were $2 each. In addition, there were also issued tags for 11 motor vehicles and 2 motor cycles belonging to the United States and the District of Columbia for which no fees were paid.” [9]

Government Reaction and Regulations

How should the government respond to these new additions to the roads? Horse-drawn vehicles existed since time immemorial, streetcars since the 1860s, bicycles since the 1880s. How would these new horseless carriages be integrated?

The Washington Post reported on November 2, 1899 that the attorney for Locomobile Company of America inquired of the District commissioners what kind of permit would be needed to operate a Stanley Locomobile. The Stanley Locomobile (or Stanley Steamer) being a steam-driven vehicle, it was suggested that a third- or fourth-class engineer’s license be required. Quite a barrier to wide adoption. Speed would be limited to that of bicycles — 12 miles per hour within the city and 15 outside. As 1899 closed, the commissioners did direct that the owners of steam-powered automobiles would need to take an exam for a license to operate the vehicle and renew it annually. Also, traffic speed regulations were amended to include horseless vehicles — limited to the same speeds as bicycles.

DC’s Automobile Board

The government of the District of Columbia was alive to the need to regulate motor vehicles very early on and in 1903 created the Automobile Board.

Members of the board included E.F. Vermillion, A. Henry Boesch, Daniel Johnson from the board of examiners of steam engineers, Walter C. Allen, W.A. McFarland, and Charles E. Foster. Foster, a patent attorney, represented the automobile community, as representative of the National Capital Automobile Club. Allen headed the electrical department, and McFarland the water department. Foster was specifically chosen to represent the automobilist community. All served without pay. District permit clerk H.M. Woodward supported the board in issuing driver permits. The month before, Foster had given an interview with the trade magazine The Horseless Age supporting the proposed regulations. [10]

The District’s regulations were quite minimalist; according to District Commissioner Henry Litchfield West, the regulations had “only two objects in view, first, the competency of the operator, and, second, the identification of each machine. . . .” With automobiling so new, every rule had to be decided. Operator age was one and the limit was set at 18 years, and applicants aged 15 and 16 denied permits, as reported by the Washington Post on August 23, 1903).

In 1906 Congress passed additional legislation regulating speed limits in the District, thereby putting a legislative stamp of approval on the regulations already in force which had been enacted by the District Commissioners. The bill was sponsored by Congressman Thetus Sims of Tennessee (who would also successfully push to end horse race betting at Benning track). The severity of the punishments spelled out in the bill (first speeding violation $5 to $50 fine escalating to a third offense fine of $50 to $250 and/or imprisonment from 10 days to one year) was the severest in the nation. Needless to say, much controversy attended the bill as it wended through Congress over the course of almost six months. The speed limits in the final bill were extremely low — 12 mph on most streets; 15 mph in the parks; eight mph at intersections; and six mph around corners.

Portion of “An Act regulating the speed of automobiles in the District of Columbia, and for other purposes,” approved June 29, 1906. document–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.


By 1909 traffic regulations needed an overhaul. Since 1879 bicycles had been governed by the District’s traffic code. Police Superintendent Sylvester proposed some important (and logical) changes. One called for the licensing of the driver of the automobile, not just the owner. He also proposed that designated parking spaces for automobiles on side streets would relieve congestion on F and G Streets, and he further proposed creating a Traffic Bureau to manage traffic issues.

Traffic Officer (perhaps J.H. Hartman) with “Go-Go” traffic signal at Pennsylvania Ave. & 14th St., NW. The Willard Hotel is visible in the background. (Circa 1916.) photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

By 1913 traffic issues had worsened, and Congress had retained the authority to set the speed limits — to Sylvester’s frustration. As of 1914, street parking for automobiles had not yet been organized; the Commissioners finally acted on Sylvester’s recommendations and restricted parking to 20 minutes in the downtown business district. [11]

In 1915 Police Chief Raymond Pullman introduced traffic signals at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue and at 9th and F Streets, NW; these were modeled on those already in use in New York City (and while Pullman was there he was able to take in a few games of the World Series). [12

Evening Star October 25, 1915 announcing the debut of new traffic signals.

Traffic regulations were modified slowly and incrementally over the two decades after the 1906 legislation. Milton Smith’s 1919 pamphlet summarizing traffic regulations still mentioned horses and their drivers. The handy, attractive, work summarized traffic rules, listed one-way streets, defined the “congested area” of the city (I Street and Pennsylvania Avenue east and west, 7th and 17th Streets north and south), and even included a little caution to women drivers to “. . . not hide behind your sex to make excuses for violating the law. . . .”

Smith had a wealth of experience from which to draw — as a professional chauffeur, member of the Washington Safety First Association, president of the Professional Chauffeurs Association, and at the time of compilation, member of the Metropolitan Police traffic force. [13]

Milton D. Smith, president of the Policemen’s Association with noise maker, Sep. 13, 1924. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.


The District Commissioners created a Traffic Bureau, and in 1925 Congress passed legislation for a Director of Traffic.[14] The 1906 act was repealed. By the end of that same year new traffic regulations to take effect in 1926 were issued, including restricting horses from the major business streets in Washington. Despite furious opposition of distinguished Washingtonians wed to livery, [15] the regulations went into effect the following January — the beginning of the end of horse transport in Washington.

The Evening Times of August 1, 1899 had offered these prophetic words, “It requires no flight of fancy to see the possibilities if enduring good in the advent of the automobile. It will not be a great while before it ceases to be a luxury and is absorbed as a necessity. . . .” By 1924 the introduction to a Congressional report stated, “. . . The automobile is here to stay and has become such a vital part of our daily life, both business and social, that to restrict or hamper its use in a radical way would be to take a serious step backward.” [16]


Zachary Schrag, Professor of History, George Mason University; Grant Quertermous, Tudor Place; Isabelle Gournay, University of Maryland; John De Ferrari, Streets of Washington blog; Jeanne Fogle of A Tour de Force.


Available by clicking here.

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.


*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.