Buffalo's Electric Automobiles c. 1905
A group of mostly female motorists gathered before the fountain at the Albright Art Gallery c. 1909. The photo appeared in the catalog of the
Babcock Automobile Company of Buffalo. They were sitting in a style called the "stanhope" (also manufactured by other
companies) which featured a single bench seat, folding cloth top, front buckboard, and tiller steering. A 1904 Buffalo stanhope
cost $1640 ($33, 864 in 2005 dollars). At this stage in automobile manufacturing, all vehicles were purchased by the wealthy.
A typical wealthy Buffalo couple might have two automobiles: an electric for the women in the family and a gasoline auto for the
men in the family. The electric automobile was quiet, easy to operate, and emission-free; it was also heavy, slow, unable to
climb hills, and in need of recharging after 20-50 miles. Such a vehicle was quickly marketed to women, doctors, delivery
businesses and others residing in an urban environment where electricity for recharging was available. The gasoline automobile
had already been adopted by men for its speed and "portability," i.e. it could "tour" in rural areas and be re-fueled at gasoline
stations that quickly sprang up around Western New York. The Buffalo Automobile Club was a touring club for
gasoline vehicles; its membership was male.
Although in 1900, equal numbers of electric-, gasoline- and steam-powered automobiles were produced
in the U.S., it quickly became apparent that electrics would not succeed in competition with gasoline
models (becoming more reliable each year) unless a revolution in the electric battery came about that
would result in a lighter battery that would produce more power for a longer run per charge. Thomas
Edison took on this challenge (see his optimism here) and did produce an early alkaline battery, but
it was not powerful enough to replace the lead-acid battery then used in electrics.
In 1908, there were 300 electric automobiles privately owned in Buffalo; more were used daily by
delivery companies. But Henry Ford had begun mass-production of gasoline vehicles in 1904, driving down
the price of owning an automobile. And in 1913, a battery-powered electric starter eliminated the
dangerous manual crank-starting of automobiles, opening the way for widespread ownership by women.
The Buffalo Electric Carriage Company (1900 - 1906), which
became the Babcock Electric Carriage
Company (1906 - 1912), changed its ownership again in 1912. It became The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company
and had a short life. It continued manufacturing at the 1911 complex at 1219-1247 Main Street in
Buffalo (at Northhampton St.) but by 1916, it was out of business, one of 30 automakers that came and went in
Buffalo in the twentieth century.
N.B. The Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company building still stands in 2006 and is being transformed
by Art Space into artists' residential and work space.
Excerpt from "Why She Wanted An Automobile"
."..I've always wanted, ever since I was born, to ride somethin' that went by itself. I've pulled horses up and down these hills till I'm sick to death of it. I've al'ays set far forred on the seat an' breathed light so's not to weigh so much, an' I want to ride in somethin' I can lean back in an' weigh heavy 'fore I die - somethin' that I won't have to think all the time how tired it's gettin.'"
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