Coolidge Redwood Tree,
Mendocino County, 1935,
William M. McCarthy
California State Archives
California’s "car culture" began in 1895, when the first automobile entered the state. Automobiles rapidly replaced horse and rail traffic as the premier method of transportation. More than 6,500 autos were registered in the state by 1906, increasing to 365,000 by 1918, and 1.9 million by 1929. Automobiles had permeated virtually every aspect of life by the end of World War II, taking Californians to work, to school, shopping, and on vacation. Over 30 million vehicles are currently registered in the state.
California’s ever-growing mass of motorists required the expansion and improvement of the state’s roads, culminating in the extensive highway system we all travel today. Cars provided mobility and flexibility to anyone who could afford them, allowing people to settle in suburbs miles away from the city centers where they worked. Californians also drove their autos on "road trips" throughout the state, permitting them to appreciate California’s numerous natural wonders and sparking a tourism trade that flourishes still in roadside businesses and attractions.
The following exhibit takes you on a journey through the development of California’s car culture in the first half of the twentieth century, as demonstrated by the varied collections of the California State Archives. Enjoy the trip!