White Steam Touring Car, with Laura Sargent, Adam and Lillian Dickey, and William and Ella Rathvon. P05394.1
We’ve already talked about the first automobile that Mary Baker Eddy owned (a Yale Touring Car), and now it’s time for a sequel.
In mid-1908, the Boston representatives of the White Motor Company, whose offices were on 320 Newbury Street, came into contact with Adolph Stevenson, Eddy’s carriage driver and handyman. At the time, White was beginning to change its lineup of automobiles from steam-powered to gas-powered cars, and offered Stevenson “a considerable percentage if he would dispose of a couple of cars for them.”1
White Motor Company was founded by Thomas H. White and his son Rollin in 1900, after Rollin tinkered with the steam boiler on his father’s car and found a way to improve its functioning and safety. Father and son, as well as two other brothers, built an automobile empire that quickly became famous. White eventually built more steam cars than any other maker, just under 10,000 of them. Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. President to drive an automobile when he took the wheel of a 1905 model, and William Howard Taft included a White Steamer (as they were nicknamed) in the first official White House automobile fleet in 1909. Other famous owners included John D. Rockefeller and “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Stevenson presented White’s proposal to Archibald McLellan, one of the trustees of Eddy’s estate, who brought it to her. As a result, Eddy’s secretary Adam Dickey wrote back to McLellan on August 20, 1908: “Mrs. Eddy wishes you to purchase for her the White Steam Touring Car that has been bargained for her by her superintendent, Mr. Stevenson. She also wishes you to purchase for her own use a 30 horse-power White Steam Car with Limousine top.”2 Dickey added to the letter that the Touring Car was expected to cost $1,600 and the Limousine $4,500, and that Stevenson should allow $700 for negotiation.
Interestingly, Dickey followed up that same day with a second letter, asking that Stevenson “try if he could get the machine to come up to the East door [of her home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts] same as he does her carriage for her …. [Eddy] wants him to be sure and make this test before making the purchase.”3 Stevenson was not authorized to purchase the two cars until September 16, 1908, and a note from Dickey on September 18 indicates that the cars would be delivered the following day.
Calvin Frye, Eddy’s longtime personal secretary, carefully noted the payments for the automobiles until December 1908, with a total of $2,331.25 for the Touring Car and $5,169.65 for the Limousine. The Touring Car – despite being more than Stevenson had originally bargained for – was still under the factory price of $2,500, while the Limousine was considerably over a factory price of $4,500 due to some special modifications that we’ll describe in a bit.
Unlike Eddy’s previous automobile, which was purchased primarily to acclimate her horses to the sights and sounds of cars on the road, the White Steamers were intended as regular passenger vehicles. To that end, they were insured with Hinckley & Woods, who handled several of Eddy’s other insurance needs. Bringing in insurance meant that certain aspects of handling the vehicles were more formalized than previously, and a letter from Eddy to John Salchow, her faithful handyman and groundskeeper, on December 12, 1908, indicates there was some discord among the staff members about the cars, noting that “let but one person run the automobile. Unless I can have peace among my employees I shall dismiss each one that causes the trouble.”4
Despite the disagreements, many of Eddy’s household had fond memories of the White Steamers, including the first and only time Eddy rode in the special order Limousine. Lora C. Rathvon describes the occasion, as related to her by her husband, William Rathvon, who was a member of Eddy’s secretarial staff from 1908 to 1910:
They had ordered a beautiful limousine with a specially constructed body in which instead of a rear seat two upholstered chairs had been built in for greater ease in riding. [Eddy] was somewhat dubious of enjoying the ride, and when the time came and she and Mrs. Sargent were seated in the comfortable chairs, she indicated that she would much prefer the experiment if one or two of the men were with her. There was a greater desire to comply with her request than there seemed room to carry it out, but by folding themselves up, Mr. Rathvon and Mr. Tomlinson managed to seat themselves on the semi-circular raised projection which the boiler necessitated in that make of car. It protruded from the floor like a very large cheese and as it was only about eight inches high, their knees practically touched their chins. They were oblivious to the spectacle they presented until they noticed that Mrs. Eddy was holding her tiny sunshade in front of her face to conceal her laughter. Then they all joined her and the ride ended happily, but Mrs. Eddy never wanted to go again, preferring her horses and carriage.5
Walter Watson, whose wife worked in the Chestnut Hill kitchen, confirms Rathvon’s impressions of Eddy’s car ride: “When it was delivered to the house Mrs. Eddy took one ride in it and never took another. She did not like this fashion of driving, so she told Mrs. Sargent, and always kept to her quiet and easy-going horses.”6
While Eddy never used the Limousine car again, household members continued to use both the Limousine and the Touring Car. Neither vehicle proved especially reliable; over the next two years, they incurred $650.47 in repair costs at the dealership (nearly $16,000 when adjusted for modern inflation!), not including hundreds of dollars in car insurance payments, registration fees, and new tires (tires tended to be a major expense for early automobiles).
In addition to its regular repair costs, the Touring Car was in two accidents. John Salchow recalled:
There was a young man to help in the stable whose name was Alec Morrison…. He was a fine young fellow, and while with us learned to drive the automobile. Soon after he had learned to handle the car, but before he had had much experience with it, he and Mr. Bowman [Frank Bowman, coachman] started out one winter day, when the streets were covered with ice, to get the mail. They drove down Commonwealth Avenue, which was all aglare and met Laura Still, whom they both knew, coming up to the house.… Alec thought he would be polite and speak to her, but in tipping his hat he lost control of the car and away it went smack into a large elm tree…. We used to jolly Alec and Mr. Bowman a lot about the disastrous results of their gallantry.7
The second and final accident was more serious. On Friday, June 18, 1909, the Touring Car was involved in an accident with another vehicle driven by a Mr. S.H. Fessenden. Fessenden had his lawyer. Mr. E.P. Saltonstall, contact Eddy, who had Adam Dickey respond on her behalf. Fessenden replied promptly and gratefully, saying “I have already heard from the insurance people who have asked me to send the bill for damages to them. I am only thankful that nobody was hurt in either car.”8
The Touring Car was traded in for a new model just a few weeks later, on July 9, and the new, larger Touring Car and the Limousine continued at Chestnut Hill until after Eddy’s passing – the last bill from the White Company was paid on February 4, 1911. Both vehicles were sold as part of Eddy’s estate after she passed away. The White Company built its last steam car in January 1911, and by 1918 made exclusively commercial vehicles such as trucks and tractors. The company continued until 1980, when it was purchased by Volvo.
With thanks to the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, MA for their research assistance in preparing this article.
- Rem. John Salchow, 109.
- Adam Dickey to Archibald McLellan, 20 August 1908, L06476A.
- Dickey to McLellan, 20 August 1908, L06476B.
- Mary Baker Eddy to John Salchow, 12 December 1908, L13514.
- Rem. William Rathvon, 10-11.
- Rem. Walter Watson, 99-100.
- Rem. Salchow, 110-111.
- S. H. Fessenden to Adam Dickey, 24 June 1909, IC667b.