06 Feb 2012

Lost Capitol Hill: Anne Rainsford French

The latest statistics for the number of drivers licensed to operate vehicles in the District of Columbia show there were a total of 313,027 of them in 2003. Although the statistics don’t break out the numbers any further, it is probably a safe bet to say that 1/2 of them are women. In other words, it’s hardly newsworthy when a woman gets her driver’s license. 103 years earlier though, it was a different story.

In the summer of 1899, one Gabriel Edmonston of the District of Columbia wrote to the District commissioners, asking about the use of a new invention: the steam automobile. He wanted to buy one of these new contraptions, but wanted to know if he would have to have a steam engineer’s license to run one on the streets of Washington.

After much hemming and hawing, the decision came back: since anyone who wished to operate a stationary steam engine needed a permit from the city, a license was necessary to operate a mobile one as well. Thus, in January 1900, the first owners were given papers allowing them to operate a Locomobile (this being the name of the biggest manufacturer of such an automobile at the time). Over the next months, the Locomobile company began a concerted effort to sell their wares to the residents of the capital.

In March, another application for such a license came in. This one was different, however, as it was the first to come from a woman.

Anne Rainsford French was, even before she became the first licensed woman driver in Washington DC (and the United States), a remarkable woman. She was the daughter of the ‘noted bacteriologist’ William B. French – and the first owner of a car in DC. French lived with her family at 506 East Capitol Street. She had been intrigued by all things mechanical from the earliest age, “scorning dolls and other frivolities” as an article in the Hillsboro (Ohio) News-Herald explained. On top of this, her uncle, the sculptor Daniel Chester French (later to become renowned for his Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial) used her face as a model for a bronze image of Olympia, which was cast for Admiral Dewey’s flagship of the same name.

French took the “regular examination given to other candidates for steam engineers’ licenses,” which she passed. This was no mean feat, as in the year around her success only about 2/3 of all licenses for steam engineers were approved – and a total of 13 licenses were to operate a Locomobile.

Anne Rainsford French in her Locomobile, ca. 1900. From Life Magazine, Sept. 8, 1952.

Ms. French soon became a well-known sight on Capitol Hill, as she raced around at a top speed of 9 mph, hand clapped to her hat to keep it from flying off in the rush of air. She also helped out the local fire department, showing up with her father and running their steam engines in front of the horses, to get them used to these newfangled devices. After the horses had heard the Locomobiles spout steam a few times, they became inured to this new source of noise and were thus ready for action again. Mainly, however, she helped her father get to his patients, keeping the car under steam while he was treating the sick in and around Capitol Hill.

Ms. French, who lived long enough to be interviewed by Life magazine in the early ’50s, never had an accident. She also quit driving the moment that she met her husband. In spite of her interest – and aptitude – this was 1903, and certain rules of decorum had to be preserved.

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