Automobiles Bring Change

Automobiles brought many changes to the way Iowans live, learn, and work.

Easier Access to Schools

Because it was possible to travel a long distance in a short time, access to education improved—especially for students living in rural areas. For many years children attended country schools within walking distance of their farms. These schools, however, only went through the eighth grade. High schools were most often located in towns, and the chances of attending them were much better for town children than for those living on farms. Students from farms often boarded in town which meant they could not help out at home. There was also the expense of board and room. With an automobile; students could live in the country, drive to and from school every day and still help on the farm.

Even before automobiles, rural schools had begun to consolidate. This meant the students needed to be transported several miles from home to the consolidated school. Horse-drawn wagons served as the first buses, but before the end of the 1920s faster motor-powered buses had replaced the old horse-drawn hacks.

Better Health Care

Doctors were among the first to use automobiles for business. They often visited patients at home, and with a car the doctor could reach a patient miles away in a few minutes. Gone were the long buggy rides taking an hour or more each way. Patients could also get to a city hospital and the special care available there. In the early 1930s the State University Hospital in Iowa City purchased a fleet of cars to provide transportation to the hospital from any place in the state. This meant that Iowans could receive special care for illnesses that could not be treated in nearby towns.

A New Way of Shopping for Food

Automobiles even changed the way people shopped for groceries. Most grocery stores ran a free delivery service for town customers at the time automobiles began to appear on the streets. A note with an errand runner or a phone call placed the order. The store clerk selected the items and the groceries were delivered to the house. With an automobile, a housewife could drive to the store herself and choose the items she wanted. Brand name products had just begun to be advertised and competed with other goods. Now the housewife could compare prices and quality and make her own selections. Soon merchants began to advertise specials to attract the shopper on wheels. And although families might continue to shop at their favorite store, they could be attracted by a special and become introduced to another grocery store.

The grocery store as we know it today could not have developed without the car. After the 1920s the number of small grocery stores became fewer as larger stores attracted more and more of the business. Most stores stopped their regular delivery service by the early 1940s when World War II gasoline rationing forced a cutback in motor vehicle use. Grocery stores also continued to develop toward one-stop shopping centers by adding meat counters, dairy cases and even over-the-counter drugs.

New Businesses

As people traded in their horses for cars, livery stables and blacksmith shops went out of business. In some cases, livery stable owners wisely switched to automobile repair and service. Automobile garages and gasoline service stations soon replaced the livery stables and the blacksmith shops. Iowa's carriage manufacturers also felt the effect of automobile use. They either went out of business or changed to the manufacture of automobiles. The automoblie was one of the factors that started the beginning of the end of many small towns. People could now drive to larger towns where there were larger stores and cheaper prices.


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