20th Century, Culture

Kingston in the 1920s: Girls (and Veterans) and Cars


Article on Frederick Sawyer's car accident in the 20 May 1921 Daily British Whig.

Article on Frederick Sawyer’s car accident in the 20 May 1921 Daily British Whig.

By the 1920s, people knew automobiles weren’t going away anytime soon. Judging from the Kingston papers of this time, which sometimes had an entire page devoted to talking about cars, it seems like automobiles were to the 1920s what bicycles were to the 1890s: a fun new pastime as well as a good way to get around, and one that began to specifically target women as consumers. However, the invention of a new technology is also the invention of its accident, and that is exactly what began to occur in and around Kingston at this time.

The above example of a car accident in Kingston, although it doesn’t appear to have resulted in a fatality, is quite tragic as it was apparently caused by a drunk-driving shell-shocked veteran. Frederick Sawyer, travelling south on Montreal Street, lost control of his car at the intersection of Princess Street and crashed right through the plate glass window of Marshall’s Hardware Store (now the Rocking Horse toy store). The car, the shop, and Sawyer himself were seriously injured, and two bottles of liquor were found in his car. Of course, the article doesn’t state whether he really was drunk, but considering he lost control on a downtown street at 3 p.m. on a pleasant May afternoon, it seems an unfortunate likelihood. Frederick Sawyer does not appear in the Kingston directories of the time and there are no soldiers I can find with that name who have a connection to Kingston. He may have just been passing through town.

Cataraqui Village (the area around Princess Street/Highway 2 and Sydenham Road) was a common scene for car accidents due to the amount of traffic on the highway. Particularly, the railroad crossing in Cataraqui was a problem. Today, Princess Street swoops up onto a bridge that goes over the tracks that lie just south of Taylor-Kidd Boulevard, but in the 1920s the street lay on the ground and necessitated an intersection with the train tracks. Sadly, in 1928 there were a number of deaths here, ostensibly because a house nearby blocked the view of oncoming eastbound trains and there were no crossing gates. Page 9 of the book Cataraqui Village includes a newspaper clipping from 31 December 1928 about the deaths of two French Canadian families who were “enroute to new homes in Ontario.” The clipping goes so far as to include photographs of the crushed automobile and wreck scene with the helpful directions “Crossing here – Wreckage carried 1000 feet.” (As we learned in my previous post in this series, vintage journalism didn’t skimp on the details of tragedies.) However it also shows that the view-blocking house was definitely in the way, sitting just to the left of the crossing, and it was demolished in 1930. It does make me wonder though – weren’t there whistles that could have alerted motorists to oncoming trains?

Cars were quickly becoming necessities, however, and in particular they gave women a new sense of freedom as well as recognition of their growing power in society. This advertorial-type article, published in the 21 January 1928 Daily British Whig, is entertaining and represents cars as part of the changing modern world that includes independent, “intensely efficient” women. I am quoting it in full (although it ends rather abruptly) because it’s funny. Enjoy!


Feminine Driver Will Not Tolerate Mediocrity

by E.L. Cord

President Auburn Automobile Co.

The greatest change that affects the motor industry is the change in people – in the public’s attitude toward motor vehicles. This change is so vast that it is almost impossible to grasp it. It is hard to define. Yet it is more pronounced this season than in any previous year of the automobile industry’s history.

While a motor car is fundamentally an utilitarian vehicle for personal transportation, it has always been and always will be a style vehicle. By that I mean pride of ownership. The decided trend is toward finer cars; toward better performance than has ever been available before.

Others besides automobile manufacturers are baffled by the changing status of women and young girls. It is a common sight to see women touring the entire United States alone in motor cars. They come and go with safety and comfort. Note the increasing number of women at the wheels of motor cars on our city streets. And it is well known that women are shrewd buyers. They will not tolerate mediocrity. Men might put up with certain inconveniences, they might know the “old bus” was not what they really should have, but still they endure its handicaps.  Women are intensely efficient. They demand a car that relieves them of all possible effort, work and worry. They want a car to do what they want done the way they want it done and to be reliable and enduring. This influence in the sum total cannot be measured. Obviously we expect a woman to express preference about such things as beauty of design, color and upholstery. But it is not to these things that I refer. It is rather to the fundamental performance and service of motor cars, because the woman of today is a user of cars and not a mere passenger.

Every year sees our methods of living more and more predicated upon the motor car. Distance must be overcome quicker and more comfortably, with greater safety and with less expenditure of personal effort.

The new type of car that will enjoy public preference must be capable of lifting the driver to a totally higher and different plane of experience. Today’s car must relieve the drivers and passengers of all effort. It must operate so smoothly and efficiently that the driver is practically unconscious of its mechanism. It must steer with such hair-trigger ease and [travel?] all manner of roads with such [illeg.] and safety that the driver will feel fresh and rested after a long drive.


“Ran Car Into a Store, Is Seriously Injured.” Daily British Whig, 20 May 1921.

Smithson, Gordon D. Cataraqui Village: An Illustrated History of Cataraqui, Ontario. Amherstview, ON: published by the author, 2003.

“Women Want Best in Cars.” Daily British Whig, 21 January 1928.