I have two teenagers – one with a brand-new driver’s license and one just about to get a learner’s permit, so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about driving lately. I recently remembered my grandfather’s account of his trip to California in 1926 in his old Hudson car. Chester Long spent about six weeks in Los Angeles before going up to San Francisco with the goal of finding a boat to South America. Things didn’t quite work out as planned, as he met my grandmother in Modesto and was distracted from traveling further.
The story comes from a conversation in the summer of 1988:
Transcript: We had quite a time in Los Angeles. At that time, they didn’t have traffic lights, but they had a traffic cop out directing traffic, you know. And I was the first one up and the cop looked at me. I noticed him looking at me. I didn’t have any tag on the front end of my car. Most states, you know, even today they have two. And he come over and he says, “Where’s your other tag?” And I says, “Don’t need it. I’m from Kansas.” And he went back to look. He thought I was lying to him, but he didn’t think strong enough to take me in. And you had to get a permit within so many hours after you got there, and I’d been there for oh a month or better. And of course if they’d ask me, I just got there the day before. And one time, I didn’t have nothing to do and I’d go to shows in the afternoon. Park the car and come out and there’d be a ticket on it. And, oh there was a fellow there I knew. Well, there was a girl there that taught school with Wava down in Montezuma. And her sister’s husband was a traffic cop, and he says, “If you ever get a ticket in this town,” he says, “keep your car locked up and make ‘em put it under your windshield wiper and then you can throw it away. If they get it on the inside,” he says, “don’t never do it. They’ll look for you.” But if they put it under the windshield wiper, they’ll never look for you. Something could happen to it, see. So I come out of a show one afternoon and there’s my car and there’s a cop standing right in front of it with a ticket on the windshield. And I thought, “Well, I can outwait you.” So I went up as far as I could see back and just watched him. I thought he’d be going to supper after a while. But he left and I went and got the car and throwed the ticket away. Then I was waiting up there, this girl went to, down to take lessons at night, some art lessons at night. So rather than drive downtown, why I told her I’d meet her at the end of that streetcar line. So I was sitting there after dark and a cop come up, jumped on the fender and said, “Let’s go.” I says, “Where you going?” “Down to the police station.” He says, “You’re the guy we’re looking for. We had a hit and run with a car like this.” And I said, “Mister, I won’t go with you now. I’m gonna meet a girl when she gets off that streetcar and take her home. Then I’ll spend the night with you.” But, “No,” I says, “You’ll have to knock me in the head or call your riot squad. That’s the only way you’re gonna take me.” And finally that streetcar come in, and I took her off and put her in the car and I said, “Now I’ll spend the night with you.” And he said, “Well I guess you’re not the guy we’re looking for.”
So, what was it like in Los Angeles in 1926? The photo above is the best picture I can find of the car he probably had. It’s a picture of Chester and his bride, Margaret Sollinger, I think taken just after returning to Kansas in 1927. Presumably the car behind them is the same one he had a year earlier.
Chester’s story mentions permits and traffic signals, and I was curious to find out more about their history. It’s not completely clear whether he’s referring to his car registration or a driver’s license in the first part of the story. If he considered himself to have moved to California, he would have needed new plates, and that’s probably why he told the story. But what interests me even more is the driver’s license. Not surprisingly, licenses weren’t required in Kansas in 1926. The population was fairly sparse, and there were probably not that many cars on the road. And after all, farmers were already used to operating machinery. According to a table from the Federal Highway Administration, Kansas didn’t require a license until 1931, and exams weren’t instigated there until 1949.
But Los Angeles was a different story. The population was booming at the time, more than doubling during the 1920s according to Smithsonian Magazine. In 1920, the population was about 600,000, with 161, 846 registered cars. By ten years later, L.A. County had more than 800,000 registered cars. No wonder permits became an issue! California was one of the first states to require a driver’s license in 1913, though an exam wasn’t necessary until 1927.
Chester did, presumably, get a driver’s permit, because I have a copy of his application.
Though the entries are faint, I think the questions are actually the most interesting. The back includes a stamp and signature.
I don’t know if this stamped application served as a license or whether he held another document that I don’t have. But in the end he must have figured he was staying around long enough to make it worth the trouble. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know whether he ended up getting California plates!
As for traffic signals, according to Los Angeles Magazine, they started appearing in the city in the 1920s as well. Early signals first appeared in October of 1920, using semaphore arms, small red and green lights, and bells for warnings. By 1923, 31 of these devices had been installed. In 1924, a different style of signal, with larger lights but installed on a post in the middle of the intersection, was placed in the busiest intersections. The style we know today – first used in Detroit in 1920 – didn’t appear in L.A. until 1931. Considering the number of roads at that time, there must have been a lot of traffic cops!