Playing by the Old Rules

1926 Rules of the Road

Wisconsin’s Secretary of State was required to send you this booklet when you registered your vehicle in 1926

Several weeks ago when I scored a 1925 Wisconsin highway map on ebay I thought I had struck gold.  It was in very good condition and came packaged in the folder that Gimbel’s Department Store of Milwaukee prepared as a courtesy to its customers.  If that was gold, my latest purchase is platinum – a 1926 Wisconsin highway map in excellent condition and a copy of Wisconsin’s 1926 Rules Of The Road.

It begged a question, though:  Why were these stuffed in an envelope from Wisconsin’s Secretary of State?

By 1926 automobiles had been a part of American life for roughly a quarter of a century but highway travel was still fairly primitive and rules governing driving behavior were still being written.    Every state had a highway department but these departments were charged with developing highway routes and maintaining roadways.  In Wisconsin, the responsibility of licensing automobiles lay with the Secretary of State, not the Highway Commission, and drivers were not licensed at all (yet).  The 1926 Rules Of The Road, in a section titled “Who May Drive”, states only that “No one under sixteen years of age may drive unless accompanied by an adult, and intoxicated persons are forbidden to drive under any circumstances.”

1926 Driver's Kit

This is the full kit you got when registering your car. The tattered envelop from the Secretary of State was never mailed.

Under “Maximum Speed Limit” the rule book states: “Generally thirty miles per hour in the country. In cities, villages and hamlets, fifteen miles per hour, except where the houses average more than two hundred feet apart, where twenty miles per hour is permitted.”  Furthermore: “When passing through a cemetary, county or state hospital, or poor farm grounds, or any park, or in passing school grounds, the limit is twelve miles per hour.”  Enforcement must have been difficult since the technology to externally measure the speed of a vehicle hadn’t been invented yet and an officer would have to “clock” you, that is follow you for at least a short distance and observe his own speedometer, to issue a ticket.

The more important factors in limiting automobile speeds were the capabilities of the cars and the condition of the roads.  Many late model cars in 1926 could travel much faster than 30 miles per hour but many older cars at that time would be straining to reach 40 and on many roads a driver would risk destroying his car if he tried to drive much faster.

The 1926 Rules Of The Road includes a small chart detailing “The mileage of the various types of road on the rural highways of the state . . . .”

According to that chart, Wisconsin boasted 78,000 miles of rural highways in 1926. (WisDOT records 112,362 miles today.)  Of that total only 2,000 miles were paved with “Concrete, brick, asphalt, etc.”, in other words surfaces we would recognize as pavement.  Some 9,000 miles were “Heavy Macadam and gravel surfacings” and 7,800 miles were “Light surfacings (gravel, shale, etc.)”.  The vast majority were either “Earth roads (graded)” or “Earth roads (ungraded)”, at 38,000 and 21,200 miles respectively.

My latest acquisition came stuffed in an envelop from the Secretary of State because when that office issued number plates for registered automobiles it was required by statute to also send a copy of the state’s official highway map and a copy of the Rules Of The Road.  The envelop containing the map and booklet that I received had not been addressed so I suspect that the Secretary’s office prepared these in advance and kept them in boxes ready to mail.  It is my great fortune that this one never was.

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