A “fascinating slice of rarely considered American history” (Booklist)—the story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison—whose annual summer sojourns introduced the road trip to our culture and made the automobile an essential part of modern life.
In 1914 Henry Ford and naturalist John Burroughs visited Thomas Edison in Florida and toured the Everglades. The following year Ford, Edison, and tire maker Harvey Firestone joined together on a summer camping trip and decided to call themselves the Vagabonds. They would continue their summer road trips until 1925, when they announced that their fame made it too difficult for them to carry on.
Although the Vagabonds traveled with an entourage of chefs, butlers, and others, this elite fraternity also had a serious purpose: to examine the conditions of America’s roadways and improve the practicality of automobile travel. Cars were unreliable and the roads were even worse. But newspaper coverage of these trips was extensive, and as cars and roads improved, the summer trip by automobile soon became a desired element of American life.
The Vagabonds is “a portrait of America’s burgeoning love affair with the automobile” (NPR) but it also sheds light on the important relationship between the older Edison and the younger Ford, who once worked for the famous inventor. The road trips made the automobile ubiquitous and magnified Ford’s reputation, even as Edison’s diminished. The automobile would transform the American landscape, the American economy, and the American way of life and Guinn brings this seminal moment in history to vivid life.
In this quirky, intermittently engaging history, Guinn (The Road to Jonestown) argues that the American road trip was partially popularized as an oddball semivacation indulged in by two of the 20th century's most famous inventors. Inspired by a 1915 drive from Los Angeles to San Diego, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison decided to take summer driving trips together for the next decade. Calling themselves "the Vagabonds" and often accompanied by their friends tire tycoon Harvey Firestone and curmudgeonly naturalist John Burroughs, they wanted to join "their countrymen's burgeoning enthusiasm for gypsying in automobiles." Wandering the countryside in a convoy filled with servants and supplies, they used the trips as much for pleasure as publicity, generating massive press coverage about the curious excursions of the famous millionaires who wanted to "demonstrate how much they had in common with other Americans." Guinn uses the Vagabond trips as a vehicle for his profiles of Ford, Edison, and the shifting dynamics of the country their technological innovations radically transformed. Interspersed with the mostly dry anecdotes about the Vagabonds' rambles are portraits of an America convulsed by mechanical wonders and isolationism, both of which were eagerly fed by the anti-Semitic Ford. It's a thin premise for a book, but Guinn does present some pleasing kernels of American history.