The Social Side of the Automobile

As people used automobiles for transportation, their way of life began to change. They traveled longer distances and took more trips than in the past. Social life began to include many more activities. Shopping habits changed. Education and health care improved.

On the Road

Good roads or bad, Iowans took to the highway venturing far from home in their automobiles. One family traveled to see relatives in New Hampshire, another went to visit a brother in South Dakota. Carloads of summer vacationers headed for Lake Okoboji and even to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, camping along the way and cooking their meals by the roadside. Most people had lived their whole lives within a few square miles, acquainted only with a few neighbors and those in the nearby town. These same people could now travel to visit faraway relatives. They could also travel to other areas of the country to see firsthand how others lived.

The choices seemed to end only at the ocean's shore. By the 1920s motor outings and vacations had become a national activity, and Iowans jumped into their autos right along with the other travelers.

Weekends Were for Travel

Weekends became a time for travel as well. People began to look forward to Sunday drives into the country for sightseeing or picnics. People who before had lived too far away could now enjoy an afternoon of baseball, and hometown games attracted larger crowds. Saturday night became shopping and fun night, especially for farm families. People drove to town, listened to the band, met their friends, shopped (some stores stayed open until midnight), and saw the latest movie.

Iowans had been isolated from one another on farms or in small towns. Now they could easily meet to exchange ideas. Often they met to learn something new or to solve a community problem. Automobiles provided an important chance for women to leave their homes for a few hours and still get their daily housework finished. For women who worked outside the home, automobiles provided a wider choice of places to live. No longer did the rural schoolteacher have to board with a family near the school—she could live in a nearby town and drive to work.

Born to Shop

Before automobiles appeared, Iowans planned a few major shopping trips a year. Usually, they traveled to a city to stock up on things they needed. The rest of the time people shopped by mail or in the nearest small town. With a car, shoppers could choose to shop in one of several towns— not just the nearest one. At one time it had taken all day to travel ten miles, shop and return. With a car a person could travel 60 miles in the same amount of time. Because shopping habits changed, long established stores in smaller towns lost business as people chose to drive on to a city to trade. But while some businesses disappeared, new ones were established to meet the new needs of motorists.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “The Way to Go,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 2 (November 1982): 2-6.