Electric Cars Powered Up Earlier Than You Think

By Julie Stoner

I am the first to admit that my knowledge of cars is rather limited. And perhaps like me, you thought electric cars were a relatively new phenomenon. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across the 1919 photograph below of a car being charged!

Much to my astonishment, the first practical electric car was invented in London by Thomas Parker in 1884. Electric cars made an appearance in America around the turn of the 20th century. The 1906 photograph below shows an early electric car making its way down the streets of Washington D.C.

The plugged-in car featured in the photo which initially caught my eye was a Detroit Electric, a vehicle produced by the Anderson Electric Car Company from 1907 to 1939. The photo is part of a group of promotional images showing the auto on a trip from Seattle to Mount Rainier. Other photographs from the group show the car wending its way through the mountains of Washington.

The short mileage range of early electric cars limited its use in rural areas but it was ideal for town or city travelers. As you can see from the 1917 Washington Herald advertisement below, the Detroit Electric could make it between 80 to 100 miles on a single charge with a top speed of about 27 mph.

Electric cars were also marketed toward women due to the fact that starting the vehicle did not require the physical task of hand cranking an internal combustion engine. I found this photograph of future First Lady Edith Wilson, the first woman to drive an electric automobile in Washington D.C., to be a fascinating glimpse into the era of early cars.

By the early 1900s, around 38 percent of American cars were electric. However, for a number of reasons, the sale of electric cars began to decline in the 1920s and production of such vehicles eventually stopped. I suppose the resurgence of electric cars in recent years demonstrates the old saying that history does indeed repeat itself!

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Julie Stoner is a reference technician in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.