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Courting in a Tin Lizzie

by

Sandra Nipper Ratledge

To my grandparents, "dating" was referred to as "goin' a-courtin'." In the early twentieth century, this meant simple things like attending church and walking there together, weather permitting, of course. Afterwards, a proper suitor always escorted his sweetheart safely back home. If no special events like homecoming, afternoon singings, dinner-on-the-grounds, etc. were planned, then couples sometimes strolled leisurely through the cemetery after services and before returning home. Often, they read tombstone inscriptions and remembered the deceased with familiar stories while meandering around. One story likely led to another making conversation flow more easily.

In the 1800s, the practice of reading tombstone inscriptions was so commonplace that entertaining epitaths came into vogue. Some were composed to commemorate an occupation, e.g. (a dentist's epitath) "Stranger, tread this ground with gravity : Dentist Brown is filling his last cavity."1 Others served as advertisements, e.g. "Here lies Jane Smith wife of Thomas Smith marble cutter: this monument erected by her husband as a tribute to her memory . . . Monuments of this style are 250 dollars."2 Other people followed Benjamin Franklin's example and composed their own epitaphs. He wrote, "The body of Benjamin Franklin printer, like the covering of an old book its contents torn out and stript of its lettering and gilding lies here, food for worms; but the work shall not be lost, it will (as he believed) appear once more, in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by the author."3

With the advent of the automobile, however, activities like reading epitaphs and quiet strolls in the cemetery were quickly abandoned in favor of a faster pace. Undoubtedly, every family relishes some stories about their folks and the new horseless carriages. The McKeehan family had its share of such funny tales -- one being about Aunt Harriet's husband "Bob" Wyatt whose first purchase was a Model T Ford. When initially introduced to market on October 1, 1908, these new cars sold for $850.4 It has been said "that the greatest thing Ford ever did was to build the first Model T, or 'Tin Lizzie,' back in 1908."5 Then, for the first time, an affordable automobile was marketed to customers other than the elite rich. Fords were advertised as "The Universal Car," 6 designed for everyone, and popularized by the famous slogan "A Demonstration Is a Revelation."7

When the last Tin Lizzie rolled off the assembly line in 1927, over fifteen million had been produced.8 But how did the nickname "Tin Lizzie" evolve? For multiple reasons, no doubt, automobiles, like hurricanes traditionally, were female in gender. New-fangled inventions have always appealed to Americans, but none fascinated them more than mobile transportation. Romance and the American dream became inextricably interwoven with the horseless carriage which inspired many popular song writers of the twenties. So, it was they who provided the name "Lizzie," a familiar shortened version of Elizabeth.

Henry Ford, the great innovator of assembly-line production, was most often included in these songs. His famous Model T was nicknamed "Lizzie" in 1928 with the publication of "Poor Lizzie -- What'll Become of You Now?" 9 Another Ford song was "Henry's Made a Lady Out of Lizzie," which refers to the improvements in the Model A -- "No more bruises no more aches, now she's got those four-wheel brakes."10

One funny incident involved not only Uncle Bob Wyatt's Model T but also his hat. Here was a man who rarely, if ever, appeared without a hat. Typically, he wore either a taupe felt hat during cooler months or a beige straw hat in summer. Each was creased into an oval ridge along the top and puckered sharply at center front. The slightly curved brims were wide enough to shield his face and neck from the radiant sun as he cut hay, tended to cattle, or fished along riverbanks. But every day, rain or shine, and at night nonetheless, he always wore a hat when he stepped outside, a habit that once turned his courting into comedy.

Bob shaved, donned his hat, and headed out in his Tin Lizzie. He was a young man "goin' a-courtin,'" taking out a girl he considered "the cat's meow." He found her almost ready, making last-minute touches of saliva to spit curls. Her China doll face was painted to perfection with Angelskin face powder and rouge, and a sweet fragrance of "Evening in Paris" cologne perfumed the air.

Once on their way, Tin Lizzie chugged valiantly along the bumpy, dirt road over the hills and through the valleys of the McMinn County countryside. When Bob leaned his head slightly out the window to spit tobacco juice, the night wind blew his hat from atop his head. Immediately, he slowed to a stop.

"That looks like it a ways back on the side of the road," his girlfriend observed. Instantly, he threw the gear into reverse to retrieve his prized possession. "That's it! You're almost there!" she directed.

Without delay, Bob opened the car door, reached down quickly with his left hand to lift his hat, only to be taken aback -- aghast at grasping a fresh cow pile instead! Upon realizing what oozed from his clutch, he began wiping his hands with a handkerchief. Not even the strong fragrance of Evening in Paris could mask the offensive odor. Nothing proved sufficient to diminish the stench and, alas, so ended his amusement for that evening.

Many young men of his generation double dated or went "a-teamin' up with people." Perhaps a Model T owner invited a friend without a car to half fuel costs and double date. So, it happened that Cousin "Shimmy" McKeehan and his buddy found themselves standing on a front porch anxiously awaiting a double date with girlfriends. Nervously, they awaited the father's next question.

"I don't trust horseless carriages. 'Sides that, these nights turn cold. How you gonna keep warm? That's a nigh fifteen-mile trip both ways. You'll have ice tags froze on you!" the father warned.

"I done thought of that, and I got it all figured out. Come see," Shimmy replied. "Now, just let me demonstrate. These heavy quilts will knock off the cool night air, and with these coal oil lanterns the girls will be snug as a bug in a rug! We'll just stash these lanterns right down here at the girls' feet. Step right in, girls! Comfortable? G-o-o-d! Let's light these lanterns, turn 'em on low, and there! Now, just cover up with them quilts when you feel chilly. We're all set with our wool coats. Don't you like this clever 'idy'?"

After being cautioned at length, the party of four finally left, happily honking the horn far into the distance. Blaring "good-bye" blasts broke the twilight calm. The girls picked and pulled and worked and twisted until the quilts were situated over their laps. Beneath, the lamp's warm glow kept them comfortable. Before long, however, something crossed the rutted path immediately in front of the car causing Shimmy to brake forcefully and thrust bodies-and-quilts-and-lanterns just short of a headlong plunge into the windshield. After deliberating about this possibly dangerous dilemma, he swung the car around and headed homeward.

Upon arrival, the girls began to unravel themselves and step out of the car. "Where you been a-sweepin' chimneys?" someone chuckled. "Look! Your legs are blacker than stove pipes!"

"Oh, no!" they yelled. Wispy puffs of soot billowed with every step. Laughter echoed all about, creating an uproar with dogs barking, chickens squalking, horses whinnying, and pigs squealing in the darkness.

Bob and Cousin Shimmy enjoyed a joke as well as anyone. True anecdotes were relished even more and often repeated to friends and family, like my father who shared these two stories with me. How better to remember Uncle Bob than with a funny story and especially a true one like this!

F O O T N O T E S

1. Henry A. Martin, Comic Epitaphs from the Very Best Old Graveyards, (Mount Vernon, NY 1957), p. 35.
2. Ibid., p. 44.
3. Ibid., p. 60.
4. Calvin D. Linton, Editor-in-Chief, The Bicentennial Almanac, (New York, NY), p. 273.
5. Floyd Clymer, Treasury of Early American Automobiles, (New York, NY 1950), p.100.
6. Ibid., p. 136.
7. Ibid., p. 67.
8. Ibid., p. 100.
9. Ibid., p. 136.
10. Ibid., p. 196.

"THOU SHALT NOT STEAL." DEUTERONOMY 5 : 19

This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.

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Homespun
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by
Sandra Ratledge

This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother,
Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.