Vaporized - Part Six
9:35am, October 14, 1913. The office of Wyndam, Colbert, and Weese, Attorneys At Law, Westfield Mass.
Present: Godfrey Wyndam, senior partner, and Hiriam Hull III, President of the Westfield Whip Company.
“I tell you, Godfrey, the whole town’s threatened,” Hull continued. “These horseless carriages have become more popular than anyone thought they would fifteen years ago. And as people replace their carriages with these horseless models, the market for our buggy whips is drying up. Remember, Westfield produces 95% of the buggy whips in the country and buggy whip manufacturing produces most of the livelihood in Westfield. Mine. Yours, too.”
“I see your point, Hi,” his old friend replied. “If they don’t use horses, there’s no need for whips on these new buggies.”
“The early ones at least had buggy whip holders on them,” Hull complained. “These latest models don’t even have those. When they break down or get stuck in the mud, people have one hell of a time hitching up an old reliable horse and guiding them out.”
“Yes,” Wyndam agreed, “I had that problem just last week. I was calling on the Kemperer family, you know them, they live up by the big bend in the river, and the road was muddied from last week’s rain. I was fool enough to take my horseless carriage out on that jaunt. The darned thing ended up stuck in that hole at the bottom of that last hill. Took half of the afternoon to find a horse, hitch him up, and pull that blasted thing out. I could have used one of your whips then, I can tell you.”
“Damned right!,” mumbled Hull. “It’s a danger to public safety to sell a horseless carriage without a buggy whip. These machines get stuck and a buggy whip is essential for getting them out. Who do these upstarts think they are, selling their carriages without this necessary accessory?”
“Okay,” Wyndam replied, “But what do you think you can do about it?”
“That’s why I’m here this morning, Godfrey. I need your help. If these horseless carriages continue to sell like they have been selling, Whip City will be out of business in a decade. If everyone is driving these contraptions, no one will be buying whips. Our suppliers—the whalebone industry, the rattan industry, the leather tanners—will be out of business, too. Westfield could become a ghost town. You have as much of an interest in preventing that outcome as I do, Godfrey.”
Wyndam looked thoughtfully at his old friend. Hiriam Hull III was the grandson of the man responsible for turning Westfield into Whip City. Until Hull’s grandfather perfected his braiding machine, whip manufacture was a cottage industry. With that machine came mass production and with mass production came wealth and with wealth came explosive population growth. But the last decade had seen some signs that the prosperity of the nineties might not continue.
“Aren’t you blowing this threat all out of proportion? Sure, the horseless carriages are becoming more popular, but do you honestly think they’ll ever replace horse-drawn transportation? I mean, the roads are nearly impassable by horseless carriages from the late fall into the spring around here. Won’t people continue to use their buggies most of the time?”
“The state’s talking about paving the major roads, Godfrey! Horses don’t walk so well on paved road, my friend. If the state decides to pave roads, what will prevent the counties from following suit? And if the counties pave their roads, won’t the cities pave theirs, too? I’m telling you, the legislature is in cahoots with these horseless boys, and Whip City’s gonna end up whipped as a result.”
“Well,” Wyndam considered, “ You may be blowing this situation out of proportion, but if the legislature is planning on paving state roads, I think our people in the capitol might be able to influence that decision. After all, the state needs the jobs. Why should we destroy our own livelihood to satisfy some passing fancy? But work like this’ll cost you.”
“I’m not expecting a free ride, Godfrey. You know me better than that. Westfield Whip has started conversations with the other major manufacturers in the city, U.S. Whip and the rest, and we’ve agreed to spend some money to influence some decisions. After all, there’s a way of life at stake here. We’ll be advertising in the Saturday Evening Post, emphasizing that every horseless carriage should carry a buggy whip for safety’s sake. We think we need to carry this fight into the U. S. Congress and into every state in the country, for Christ’s sake. We know what we have at stake here, and we’re ready and willing to create whatever war chest might be needed to win this war.”
“Okay, Hi. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. After all, this threat you’ve been describing has not come about yet, and might not ever come about. Remember, even you have horseless carriages, but even yours aren’t reliable enough for anything but a Sunday joy ride. I doubt that you’ll ever consider trying to drive to Boston or Albany in that thing, would you? After all, there’s reliable train service every where. Who in their right mind would want to risk the hardships of long distance automobile travel?”
“Godfrey, I’ve got a bad feeling about this situation. If those mechanics in Detroit can make those contraptions more reliable, and they have been making them more reliable, and if those financial wizards can use installment credit to make them affordable, and they have been making them more affordable, and if those oil jockeys down in Pittsburgh can set up a distribution network to make fuel more widely available, and they have been making it more widely available, I’m telling you that within a generation, the average American might not even own a horse. I know that sounds crazy, and half of the manufacturers in this city think I’m deranged, but we’ve just got to start defending our way of life before it disappears on us.”
“Fine, fine. Let me confer with my partners on this, Hi. You’ve outlined a potentially huge effort, and I want to make sure that my colleagues are up for the fight before committing WCW to such a campaign. All the states, you say? National congress? We’ve never been involved with something as vast as this,” Wyndam nattered. “Can we get back together early next week to start laying out strategy? Oh, and you’d better bring along a few representatives of the other whip companies. I think we’ll all need to be of one mind on this.”
Hiriam Hull III stood, shook Godfrey Wyndam’s hand, and, turning toward the glass paneled door, he paused for a moment. “This is life or death, Godfrey. Mark my words,” he said without making eye contact. Then, quickly opening the door, he left.
Over then next two years, the Whip manufacturers of Westfield did battle with their arch competitors. Congress passed the Horseless Carriage Safety Act of 1915, which mandated that each horseless carriage sold be equipped with a buggy whip for use in emergency towing situations. Several state legislatures, Massachusetts first among them, passed laws forbidding the paving of state roads, citing the threat to railroad traffic, the unavoidable public danger should large numbers of horseless carriages take to the road, and the damage to horses caused by hard, paved surfaces.
Westfield prospered from the introduction of the automobile and the whip industry performed a great public service, which helped preserve the American way of life. Or so the story might have gone.
In the real world, no one in Westfield was particularly alarmed with the introduction of the automobile. When they were first introduced, there were only a few hundred miles of paved road in the entire country, and these were located within large cities. Most people lived in rural areas, where fuel and mechanical support was impossible to find. No, the whip industry didn’t feel threatened by this novelty. Furthermore, at that time, government was not as experienced in protecting threatened industries as it is today. Lobbyists were fewer and legislatures were not so well-funded that they could consider protectionist legislation.
So Westfield’s primary livelihood literally went the way of the buggy whip and their product became, for most American’s, simply irrelevant. Had Hiriam Hull III invested five percent of his company’s 1895 profits in the automobile industry, his company would have prospered on the dividends from that investment over the years. Yet, such an investment would have seemed irrational at the time, and certainly would have failed to garner the support of any fiscally responsible board.
Such are the usual responses when a company’s product encounters the vapour point. Most do not see the vapourization coming, and few have the resources to mount a successful defense once the vapourization becomes obvious. In 1900, people imagined that selective breeding would produce enormous fruit, not that frozen food would make enormous fruit unnecessary. Our predictions are no less wrong today. Had the buggy whip industry successfully mounted a defense against the encroaching automobile industry, it is not unlikely that cars today might have a federally-mandated buggy whip as a part of their emergency equipment. And the buggy whip industry would be intact.