Auto shows conjure up images of spectacle, noisy and enthusiastic crowds, free giveaways, and a chance to dream about the car you’d love to have.
Auto shows have a long history in America, dating back more than 100 years. The printed programs for these shows reflected the hopes and dreams of manufacturers, dealers, and prospective buyers. Take a trip back to the first three decades of car shows through the pages of these souvenir programs.
Automobile shows officially began in 1900, with the New York Automobile Show and the Boston Automobile Show. Both of these evolved from annual bicycle shows that had become popular in the latter part of the 19th century. The New York City cycle show of 1899 was the first to use the word automobile in its title when it announced its Fourth Annual Cycle and Automobile Exhibition. This exhibition, held in Madison Square Garden in late January of 1900, featured seven electric vehicles, two gasoline-powered vehicles, and a gasoline tricycle.
Chicago and Philadelphia both took notice of the popularity of these shows, establishing their own exhibitions in 1901. The Philadelphia show had the distinction of being the first to specifically forbid the entry of bicycle manufacturers.
Detroit, now considered the home of the automobile, seems to have presented its first show in 1901, as part of the Detroit Automobile and Sportsman Show. The Detroit Auto Dealers Association officially took over the show in 1907, hosting 17 exhibitors in a local beer garden with a total of 33 vehicles.
Buffalo and Cleveland presented shows in 1903. Washington, D.C. and Rochester, New York followed suit in 1904. Los Angeles brought auto shows to the West Coast in 1905, and was probably the first to host an auto show in a tent. By 1910 The Cycle and Automobile Journal listed over 40 cities across the United States and Canada to offer annual automobile exhibitions.
Most of the early shows were put on by local business groups, dealer and trade associations, or the manufacturers themselves. But by World War I, the manufacturers felt that the dealers and local businesses reaped the greatest benefit from these events and the manufacturers stopped sponsoring them. Most shows ran for about a week, either in the late fall or early winter. They featured not only the latest automobiles and trucks but also a diverse array of accessories, since a vehicle’s driver often doubled as its mechanic!
New shows were added through the 1920’s and 30’s, and their popularity grew. Shows became larger, with more sophisticated marketing and more spectacular entertainment.
Welcome to the Show!
Somewhere between the pages of advertising, programs described the actual events of the show. Early shows often included lectures, demonstrations, concerts, and of course the main event—the exhibit floor filled with gleaming new automobiles.
Ads from the Program Pages
Advertisements for new products filled up many pages of auto show programs. When show viewers took their programs home, they had a ready reference to all the new products they could buy—or just dream about! These artful ads reflect the discriminating tastes of attendees to New York City’s “Automobile Salon” at the Hotel Commodore.
Help the Auto Stylists!
At the 1939 Chicago Auto Show, General Motors developed a novel way to get input from potential customers. The Customer Research Staff asked show viewers to check off their favorite new models from this “Automobile Style Census.” The findings would aid GM stylists in planning future designs. Which of these classics would you choose?
By Donna Braden, Curator of Public Life, and Terry Hoover, Chief Archivist.