Today Florence Lawrence and her contributions to the evolution of automotive technology, as well as those of Helen Rother, Marie Luhring and Mary Anderson are less than historic footnotes. And yet the cars we drive today would be quite different if it weren’t for their work, their experimentation, and their vision.
Florence Lawrence was a very unusual woman, to say the very least. She was one of the first movie stars to become a superstar. And she was also a passionate automobilist as well as an accomplished mechanic in an era when women were not allowed to vote. And if that wasn’t enough to ensure that she was a media sensation, when the Jaxon was being promoted as “…a car so easy to drive, a child or woman could operate it” Lawrence was also an inventor.
Lawrence was born in Ontario, Canada sometime between 1886 and 1890. Her father, George Bridgwood, worked as a carriage builder and wheelwright. Her mother, Charlotte, was a vaudeville and stage performer that used the name Lotta Lawrence. At an early age Florence joined her mother on stage and become an important part of the Lawrence Dramatic Company.
With the advent of the motion picture, Florence Lawrence transitioned from the stage and made her film debut in 1906. Early studios seldom put actors’ names in the credits, especially if they were women. Still, she quickly became a familiar face to a legion of passionate fans and soon the media dubbed her the “The Biograph Girl” as she was working for Biograph Studios. Her career that included more than 300 motion pictures would span decades.
Her income soared as her fame grew and soon she was earning an astounding $500 per week. This was in an era when a new Ford could be purchased for less than one thousand dollars, and the average price for a new home was a mere $2,750.00.
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. Lawrence was passionate about driving as it provided her with a sense of excitement and of freedom. After ownership of a succession of ever more powerful automobiles, in 1912 she purchased a Lozier.
Since 1907 this company had been building a reputation for cars that were fast as well as durable. 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. Of course, all of this came with a price. As an example, Lawrence’s six-cylinder Knickerbocker Berlin model carried a factory list price of $6,500.
Lozier built vehicles were popular stories for newspaper journalists. That popularity was magnified if a story could be written about the beautiful starlet that performed much of her maintenance and repairs, and often took long drives unaccompanied by mechanic or driver.
After a friend was severely injured in an accident, Lawrence began experimenting with gadgets that would improve automotive safety. In 1914 she introduced a 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. And then 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 developments. Likewise, with another innovation that she developed in 1916, the first electric windshield wiper. But she was still able to prosper from her inventions by establishing the Bridgwood Manufacturing Company for the manufacture and distribution of the wiper motors as well as other aftermarket items she devised.
In the late 1920s her movie career was, for the most part, over. After suffering severe burns while attempting to save an actor in a studio fire, and a series of extensive surgeries, she found herself more and more relegated to working as an extra or making step on appearances.
Still, Lawrence maintained an active interest in automobiles and automotive development, and invested heavily in various companies including the manufacturers of automobiles as well as parts. And she continued inventing automotivve components such as a radio antenna that could be installed under the running board.
In the late 1920s she diversified her business interests and launched a makeup company. The timing for the launch of a new business couldn’t have been worse. With the crash of the stock market in 1929, and the onslaught of the Great Depression, her companies were forced into bankruptcy. Lawrence was financially devastated. Tragically on December 28, 1938, Lawrence committed suicide.
Lawrence was not the only woman to contribute to the auto industry during its formative years. In 1902, Mary Anderson was visiting New York City and, according to legend, 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 numerous automobile manufacturers began offering a “windshield wiper” as an option or as standard equipment.
In 1924, Marie Luhring made history by becoming the first female truck designer when she was hired by Mack Trucks. She also became one of the first woman to join the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Raymond Loewy was an automotive designer of great renown. He was also a progressive visionary as evidenced by his hiring of Helen Dryden and Audrey Moore Hodges for the design studio at Studebaker. Nash was another progressive company. They hired Helen Rother Ackerkncoht at assist with development of streamlined bodies. The functional artistry of the 1941 Hudson instrument panel was the creation of Betty Thatcher.
Jim Hinckley’s America tells people where to go, and shares America’s story. The story of Florence Lawrence, and the pioneering women of the auto industry, are another forgotten chapter in the history of the American auto industry unveiled by America’s storyteller, author Jim Hinckley.