The Motor House and the Chauffeur: How the Auto Changed Traditional American Country Life

Winterthur's 1927 Rolls-Royce outside of the house

We are all looking forward to the seventh year of Winterthur hosting a wide array of notable historic automobiles on each Saturday in May. I have been thinking about these cars in a slightly different way as part of research for a book I am writing with Maggie Lidz, Winterthur’s estate historian, on servants, “back-of the-house” spaces, and the outbuildings that made up large country places. Where were these autos housed and what did those buildings require? Where did the chauffeurs live? And what was their status in the household? With Downton Abbey fresh in so many of our minds, I wanted to offer a few observations on the role of the automobile in early 20th-century country life.


Indoors & Out, June 1907

A 1907 article in the magazine Indoors and Out, “The Home of the Motor Car,” sparked my interest What would such a “home” be like? I have been trying to imagine the first decade of the 20th  century and the reactions of both wealthy owners and their staff when contemplating the need to find a place for these new mechanical contraptions. I can picture the head coachman or the stable grooms looking on with horror as a car came sputtering down the drive to the stable yard with dust flying and horses rearing.

Radford's Garages, Winterthur Library

What on earth were they to do with this thing? Soon magazines and books started offering advice on designs for garages, placement on the estate, and hiring and training chauffeurs.  Warnings were issued that trying to shift a man whose knowledge was horses into the role of chauffeur and mechanic was likely to end in hard feelings and maybe even a crashed car.

Questions being pondered were whether the garage should look like the residence or perhaps copy the carriage house in style, or was it deserving of its own emblematic design? Often outbuildings were the place where architects let all of their creativity flow, mixing historically inspired designs with dashes of fantasy or whimsy. How appealing that the most modern means of transportation at the time—the automobile—might be housed in a Tudor style structure. I wonder what message is here! 

Garage in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, from Indoors & Out, June 1907

In the early 1900s the immediate challenge for the garage designer was planning for safe gasoline storage, shelving for parts and tires, and appropriate levels of heat and ventilation. After all, this was before the corner gas station existed. An ideal arrangement could have the chauffeur living in quarters adjacent to the garage or above. Large estates might have quite sizable accommodations for the head chauffeur and his family and separate quarters for guests’ chauffeurs and other support staff.

Country Life in America, August 1905

Smart manufacturers came up with a wide array of accessories for the garage: turntables for easy access; automatic overhead washing equipment; lifts and pulleys to ease maintenance.  Many advocated combining garages and greenhouses. I thought that odd at first, but they made their case with the economies of a shared heating system, and if the chauffeur was a “handyman,” he could also assist in the greenhouse.

The more I have read about autos in the first decade of the 20th century, the more I’ve realized what a new world this was for so many people. Ideas that were being considered were wide ranging. If your chauffeur caused an accident or injury, were you liable? (There were many court cases that tried to sort that out, and the answer varied.) In managing your household staff, was the chauffeur on the par with the head coachman, the butler, and housekeeper, or was he below or even somehow separate and above? When traveling and staying at another private house or hotel, where would the chauffeur stay and take his meals?

Uniform advertisement, Winterthur Library

There are telling descriptions of chauffeurs taking exception to being called a servant or being required to wear a uniform or livery.  So many of the first chauffeurs that were hired came from a mechanic’s background—a vital skill in the early days of motoring, so they resisted attempts at molding them into traditional roles as domestic staff. The New York Times from these years is filled with stories of conflict between chauffeur and owner, of chauffeurs joy riding in owners’ cars (not infrequently with a bit too much whiskey in their systems), and their refusal to undertake many tasks. A 1919 headline reads “DUTIES FOR ONE CHAUFFEUR—Resigned When Told to Freeze Ice Cream, and Carry Wash.” And echoing Downton Abbey, the papers thrilled with tales of the young heiress running away with the chauffeur and—as in this headline of 1914, “Rich Brothers Bar Chauffeur’s Bride”—finding themselves banished from her home.

Of course this has all started me wondering more about the home for the motor cars at Winterthur. Who were the early chauffeurs who worked for Colonel Henry A. du Pont and then for his son Henry Francis, and what was the transition like when the older Coach House started housing cars as well as carriages?

Coach House at Winterthur

Greg Landrey, Winterthur’s Director of Library, Conservation, Academic Programs, has lectured about and written some wonderful articles on the automobiles here at Winterthur. His research helps answer some of these questions. (Make sure you attend his May 12th talk on auto advertising in the 1930s.) In a future blog post, I will talk more about where the autos lived here and at the du Pont’s summer house in Southampton as well as who cared for them.

I am still in the thick of this project and am looking forward to new discoveries. If you have any stories or photos that might assist with my research, please leave a comment here—I’d love to hear what you think!

Jeff Groff is director of public programs at Winterthur. His research interests might be termed eclectic—architecture and interiors of American country places, the Colonial Revival, Quaker life, garden history, and “gentlemen farming.”
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