Florence Lawrence, in the vernacular of the era, was a passionate automobilist. She was also an accomplished mechanic, an inventor, and one of the first megastars of the silver screen. As this was in a time when women were not allowed to vote and the Jaxon produced in Jackson, Michigan was promoted as ” A car so easy to drive, a child or woman could operate it.” she spent a lot of time in the media spotlight.
Surprisingly Lawrence and many of her accomplishments are less than an historic foot note today. And her life before before she became one of the highest paid movie stars of the early 20th century is a bit of a mystery.
She was born in Ontario, Canada sometime between 1886 and 1890. Her father, George Bridgwood, worked as a carriage builder. Her mother, Charlotte, was a stage performer that transitioned into vaudeville using the stage name Lotta Lawrence. At an ealry age Florence joined her mother and launched her show business career as part of the Lawrence Dramatic Company.
With the advent of the motion picture Florence Lawrence made the transition from stage to film, and in 1906 got her first starring roll. Early motion picture studios seldom added actors’ names to the credits, especially if they were women. But Lawrence was a prolific actress renowned “for her stunning beauty.” And so soon, as she was working for Biograph Studios, fand and the medias were talking about the “The Biograph Girl.” Her career spanned decades and included more than 300 motion pictures.
Fortune followed fame and so by 1910 she was earning an astounding $500 per week. Now she was wealthy enough to afford an automobile, something she had become enamored with after a friend provided her with an exhilarating ride through the countryside of Long Island at breakneck speeds. In 1912, after ownership of a succession of ever more powerful automobiles, she purchased a Lozier.
Since 1907 this company had been establishing a reputation for speed and endurance. Over the course of a four-year period cars built by Lozier had been driven in every major race in the United States and several in Europe. No other car of the era broke as many records for speed, for 24-hour endurance runs or for long distance touring without mechanical failure. All of this came with a price. The Lozier was one of the most expensive cars in the world.
Lawrence’s six-cylinder Knickerbocker Berlin model carried a factory list price of $6,500. As the beautiful starlet performed much of her maintenance and repairs, and often took long drives unaccompanied by mechanic or driver, she was a popular focus of interviews and news stories.
After a friend was severely injured in an accident, Lawrence began giving thought to ways for improving automotive safety. In 1914 she devised an innovative mechanism that signaled turns to trailing drivers. With the simple push of a button, a flag was raised and lowered on the rear bumper of the automobile to inform other drivers what direction the car was turning. Next, she developed an ingenious device to alert drivers of a pending stop. When she depressed the brake, a small sign reading “stop” would pop up at the rear of the car.
Unfortunately, she failed to patent any these innovative developments. Likewise, with another gadget that she developed in 1916, the first electric windshield wiper. Still, even without the patent she prospered from the invention by establishing the Bridgwood Manufacturing Company for the manufacture and distribution of the wiper motors as well as other aftermarket items for automobiles.
A debilitating accident in the the late 1920s brought her movie career to an end. She had suffered severe burns while attempting to save an actor in a studio fire and endured a series of extensive surgeries that left her disfigured. This did not dampen Lawrence’s fascination with fast cars and automotive development
She invested heavily in various companies that manufactured automobiles and ancillary components. And for Bridgwood Manufacturing Company she continued developing aftermarket components such as a radio antenna that could be installed under the running board .
But with the crash of the stock market in 1929, and the onslaught of the Great Depression, her companies were forced into bankruptcy and Lawrence was financially devastated. Tragically on December 28, 1938, Lawrence committed suicide.
Lawrence was not the only woman to make forays into the male dominated auto industry. In 1902, Mary Anderson was visiting New York City and became increasingly frustrated as the trolly driver was continuously stopping to clear snow from the front windows. Shortly after returning home to Alabama, she designed and patented a hand operated blade that would clear the window without leaving the trolly. Soon under limited license numerous automobile manufacturers began offering a “windshield wiper” as an option or as standard equipment.
And then there was Marie Luhring. In 1924 she made history by becoming the first female truck designer shortly after being hired by Mack Trucks. She also became one of the first woman to join the Society of Automotive Engineers.
If you have a fascination for interesting automotive history and obscure trivia there is a Jim Hinckley’s America produced podcast that might be of interest. The past, the present, and even the future of the automobile industry is the topic of discussion on Car Talk From The Main Street of America.