Review: ‘The Vagabonds’

We all live like Henry Ford now

Henry Ford / Getty Images

We live like kings these days, even while we bemoan our state like beggars. Generally speaking, the members of the American middle class possess a material splendor that would put to shame an 8th-century chieftain. Or a 12th-century princeling. Or even an early 20th-century industrialist.

This isn't something we have to guess at. The writer Jeff Guinn has just given us The Vagabonds, a new book about the summer automobile outings of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison from 1914 to 1924. Admittedly, The Vagabonds is not a great work, its thin story padded with asides to bulk itself up to book length. Still, the text does suggest a truth that, at some level, we all know: The American summer tourist of 2019, rolling along in a giant air-conditioned motorhome, lives in many ways as well as the wealthy of a hundred years ago. What we lack in servants, we have gained in mechanics.

All those thousands of bus-sized campers parked at Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon? Each of them represents ordinary folk with comforts known only to people as rich as Henry Ford, a century before. Ever since the industrial revolution began, we have seen peaks of income inequality hardly known in the earlier history of the world. And yet, because many of the eras of great new fortunes were born in technological innovation, we have also seen the middle class and even good swaths of the lower class arrive at material conditions that rank with the wealthy of a hundred years before. Relatively speaking, the average American may be far behind the current crop of industrialists, tech giants, and robber barons. But objectively speaking, middle-class people today are all little Henry Fords.

That's not quite the lesson that The Vagabonds was intended to provide. Over the years, Jeff Guinn has written successful books on such topics as Bonnie and Clyde, the Shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Charles Manson. The Road to Jonestown, his take on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, contained some important interpretation, but generally Guinn manages the strange feat of combining good research with the overwrought interpretations signaled by his sensationalist subtitles: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, for example, and The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—And How It Changed the West.

In that mode, The Vagabonds is born from excellent gathering of news sources on the annual summer motorcades of Henry Ford and the elderly Thomas Edison, but the book oversells the travels as the primary cause, the without-which-not, of modern American tourism.

"The Vagabonds" was the name of the travelers on the annual journeys of Ford, Edison, the naturalist John Burroughs, and the burgeoning tire magnate Harvey Firestone: just those four, roughing it across the American landscape. Or at least, just those four, if one discounts all the relatives, hangers-on, servants, and the dozen or so vehicles trailing the intrepid adventurers, loaded down with tents, furniture, dishes, and delectables.

Still, they announced themselves as demonstrating the spirit of American exploration, and the press ate it up. "Three Monarchs of Industry to Try Gypsy Life," ran one headline. "The World's Brains Go Out for an Airing," offered another. However carefully they were photographed drinking from a well or chopping wood, the adventurers were just as likely to take over a local hotel.

The whole thing was more of a 10-year publicity stunt than a return to the intrepid days of Lewis and Clark. And The Vagabonds asks, not unreasonably, what all that publicity was in service of. Why did Ford put the whole thing together, year after year, paying a tidy sum to finance it all? Why did Edison and Burroughs join in? Why did Firestone accept his role in the group as a kind of amiable concierge?

Part of the answer seems to have been the fame. As they surveyed the Everglades, or toured southern California, or looked at the Appalachians, or visited Michigan's Upper Peninsula, they managed to fit in picnics with Warren G. Harding in 1921 and Calvin Coolidge in Vermont in 1924. With his eye always on the main chance, Ford instructed every nearby Ford dealership to cajole, threaten, or bribe the local press to cover the famous men's visit. As the film industry grew, Ford began paying a newsreel crew to follow along and film them, so, as Guinn notes, "the public could see as well as read about their hijinks."

But even more, in Guinn's interpretation, the travels derived from Ford at his most visionary. When the Vagabonds started in 1914, the nation had little infrastructure for automobile vacations. The roads were dirt tracks for horse-drawn wagons, and gasoline was not for sale in many places. The motor hotel—ah, the motel—didn't exist, and regular hotels were clustered around railroad stations.

For that matter, the cars themselves frequently broke down, and Ford himself had to borrow tools to repair his Model T's on some of the Vagabonds' early trips. But by the time they stopped touring in 1924, the national landscape had changed. The number of cars in the United States had risen from around 500,000 to 6 million. Rand McNally had begun publishing a national road map. Gas stations were far more common, and tourist sites had begun to compete for automobile traffic. Ford wanted to sell cars, of course, but he had a picture in mind of America as a motoring nation, and that was what he was selling, most of all.

As an interpretation of what Ford and Firestone and possibly Edison sought from their summer jaunts, that's not bad. Guinn may oversell Ford, but there remains some truth there to sell. The real lesson of The Vagabonds, however, is something more, if we care to tease it out. All the change the automobile brought—it made possible not just the tourist culture but ordinary people's ability to do what only the rich had been able to do before.

Travel in the 18th century was the preserve of the upper classes, abroad on Grand Tours. A hundred years later, the technological change of the railroads had given that experience to the middle class. Early in the 20th century, summer jaunts to obscure American vistas required Ford's level of wealth. A hundred years later—now, in 2019—the technological changes wrought by the automobile have offered that experience far down the socio-economic spectrum.

Look at all those motorhomes cruising down the American freeways toward Yellowstone or Yosemite. We live like kings, even these days.