A Tricoastal Woman: Out-of-Period Knowledge

drivers licenseSome years back, when I still lived in Washington, DC, I was driving home late one night from Philcon, the Philadelphia science fiction convention, with a much younger friend of mine. At one point, someone else on the road did something stupid – not an uncommon occurrence on Interstate 95 – and without thinking I yelled my favorite non-profane insult:

Where’d you get your driver’s license, Sear and Roebuck?

And then I glanced over at my friend and realized that the line made no sense whatsoever to him. (Obviously, the person at whom it was aimed hadn’t heard it.)

To know what I was talking about, you first have to understand about the Sears and Roebuck catalog. It was a big, thick thing, about the same size as the Yellow Pages – another outdated book – for a major metropolitan area. It offered everything from clothes to tools to appliances to housewares to farm equipment – anything needed for home or farm or ranch.

Once upon a time, it even offered a kit for building your own home and many people bought it. A Sears Craftsman bungalow costs a pretty penny these days, but back in the first half of the Twentieth Century you could buy a kit with everything you needed to build the house for a few hundred dollars.

Sears got rid of the catalog in 1993, after more than a hundred years. Internet commerce wasn’t a big thing then; I suspect WalMart and the expansion of malls did them in.

I come from a time and place when the catalog was becoming less important. I recall looking through one back in the day, but I never ordered anything from it. We did our major shopping in Houston. But there was a point in this country when a large percentage of the population used it, and because I overlapped with that time period, I know about it.

Of course, in our modern world, an updated insult would be “Where’d you get your driver’s license, Amazon.com?”

Except it still wouldn’t make sense, because everyone knows you have to get your driver’s license from the DMV (which apparently has the same name in every US state, because everyone always refers to it by those initials). Getting a license is a fraught process, governed by many laws and both a written and driving exam.

In my day in my part of the country, getting your license was a major rite of passage. You took driver’s ed – offered in public schools – as soon as you were old enough. Once you passed the written exam, your class consisted of driving around town with the instructor – in my case, a rather fat, world-weary man who used to sigh when he stepped on the brakes on the passenger side of the car because you weren’t stopping fast enough to suit him. Usually there were three students at a time and you took turns driving.

I did this at fourteen. Nowadays, the idea of fourteen-year-olds driving cars scares the hell out of me, but when I was young, it was just what we did.

I gather that it’s not as important a rite of passage in much of the country these days. Travel patterns are changing. But a driver’s license is a prized ID these days, so people still jump through all those bureaucratic hoops.

So here’s the other thing you need to know that makes my insult work: Once upon a time, you didn’t have to take a test to get a driver’s license. You just had to be old enough for one and to pay a fee.

My father got his license that way when he was fourteen, which would have been in 1932. He faithfully renewed that license, so it was still valid when he died some seventy years later. (I’d made him stop driving a couple of years before that, but the license hadn’t expired.)

Texas instituted a driving test sometime later in the 1930s, because my mother also got her license at fourteen, but she had to take a test.

Now you couldn’t actually order a driver’s license from Sears and Roebuck, but since you could get everything else through the catalog – including a car – the insult made sense, especially back when you didn’t have to prove you could drive to get a license.

I still like the insult, even though it doesn’t make modern sense. It implies just the right level of driverly incompetence.

But what I really like is knowing about both the catalog, which was a way of life in the US for about a hundred years, and the way regulation of drivers developed over the course of the Twentieth Century. It’s very easy just to assume that things always worked the way they do now.

We know better, when we think about it, but it often takes coming up against something from family history to make the changes clear.

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A Tricoastal Woman: Out-of-Period Knowledge — 19 Comments

  1. We went on a tour of local Sears houses a couple of years ago. (They were often built along train tracks, because the supplies could easily be dropped off at the building site.)

    One of the major things we learned was that Sears homes were disproportionately bought and built by African-Americans. Those people were not otherwise able to get a mortgage — banks and S&Ls wouldn’t lend to them — but Sears extended credit on a house the same way they did on other goods!

    • I didn’t know that. Fascinating. So Sears didn’t discriminate in extending credit? Maybe some historian can delve into that. I’d like to know more about it.

    • Especially with the implication that you got it there in pieces and had to put it together based on vague illustrations and a set of disposable Allen wrenches.

  2. We always said, “out of a CrackerJacks box.” Another old time thing that might not be common knowledge these days.

    • I remember that one, too. Do they still make CrackerJacks? Never did like them, but the item inside was definitely a cool thing when I was a small one.

      • Actually, they do still make them. They turn up in our cafeteria at work every now and then.

  3. You could get anything from them, including houses. Looking through some of the old catalogues gives a real glimpse into life around the turn of the century. I used to wonder how they shipped those steel corsets, without revealing the shape, horrors!

  4. My dad was one of the best navigators of his time in the Navy, Merchant Marine, and Coast Guard. He could take a multi-ton ship anywhere in the world, get there with few course corrections, and close to on time.

    But when it came to getting a driving license in Massachusetts circa 1939, he had to write out in long hand the answers not just check a box of yes or no like now. He painstakingly wrote you: In this situation one must merge the vessel into the appropriate lane…

    Every time the word car or automobile or vehicle was needed, he wrote vessel.

    The examiner was laughing so hard he could barely mark the test pages. Dad did pass that test.

    • And that’s another story that would leave the younger generation going “huh?” All the tests now are multiple guess so they can be read by a computer. I wonder if the test my mother took was like the one your dad did. If so, she might have used “tractor” where he used “vessel,” because she learned to drive on a tractor!

  5. My great-great aunt went to get a license early in the 20th century and was told she had to have driven more than 50 miles first!
    And as it happens in New Mexico it’s referred to as the MVD, which threw me when I moved here.

  6. I never heard that insult, but I’m old enough that it makes sense to me — I remember leafing through that catalog many times growing up. However, we never called the company “Sears and Roebuck” — we always called it “Sears Roebuck,” no “and.” I wonder if that’s a regional thing.