When I was much younger and driving was still a privilege and a dream, I longed for a personalized license plate, one that would bear my name or lucky numbers.
"Nah," said my friend Cheryl. "Then everyone would know where you are all the time."
She was right; there are South Orange friends whom I know by their plates. When I see those cars parked, I ask, "What is Elena doing here, and why didn't I know she was headed this way?"
So imagine a time when simply having a car was enough to make a neighbor known around town. A century ago, buying a car was newsworthy. The South Orange Bulletin ran an lengthy article entitled "Owners of Automobiles in the Oranges."
Winthrop E. Scarritt, President of the Automobile Club of America, "well known to owners of auto vehicles all over the country," lived in East Orange, where he "possess[ed] several machines." Attorney General John W. Griggs, just back from a motoring trip through New England, also owned a fleet of cars, "and his daughters can be seen frequently driving an electric wagon about the streets." Thomas Edison's daughter Madeline was also seen "frequently" around the Oranges in her "electric carriage."
South Orange drivers included Linden Connett, George Smith, George Adams, Dr. E. W. Johnson, Mrs. Samuel Campbell, the Martin Brothers, W. T. Baird and W. F. Harris. Baird claimed a headline of his own, "Speeding His Automobile," in a following edition of the paper.
Described as "a prominent resident of Scotland Road," William T. Baird was arrested and charged with speeding through Orange Park "faster than the law allows." The story concludes with a further description of Baird as "a New York broker [who] is socially prominent in the Oranges." There is no record of what happened at the hearing; indeed, when automobiles were new, the rules of the road were still governing horse-drawn vehicles. Law had to catch up with technology.
Other owners of "fine machines" found their vehicles described in print, as well. Thomas Edison owned a "big gasoline flyer." Local doctors, for whom house calls were the norm, were what we might call early adopters of the new technology. Dr. William Quivey drove "a Cadillac tonneau carriage," while Berkeley Avenue's Dr. John H. Bradshaw "purchased an Edison electric for use during the coming winter." Dr. William B. Giveans of North Grove Street "was one of the first to take up automobiling in the Oranges and is a firm believer in the merits of the steam machine." Amzi Dodd owned a "gasoline [sic] machine, and lately made the trip to Lake Champlain in it." , Village President, was a gadget guy, and owned a number of cars.
Just as remarkable as making news for owning a car is this: stories of automobiles and their owners became a regular feature of the weekly Bulletin, running next to the Social Notes. That column listed arrivals and departures of locals. "John J. Magovern of 319 Prospect Street is at the Thousand Islands," is an example.
The same date that saw "Owners of Automobiles in the Oranges" into print, I found this heading the Social Notes column, a mere column inch away: "Policeman P. J. Skeffington, of South Orange, is on his vacation." Mind you, the car story listed names, addresses and descriptions of the vehicles. Then readers learned that the local authority was out of town.
Maybe it's a legacy of misspent youth, but I can't help drawing a connection between those two items in the local paper. And no wonder; the term "joyride" was coined in the early 1900s, around the same time the Bulletin went to press. Somehow, though, that didn't make the local news.