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    Whimsical 1912 tire treads to fit your political party or job

    I knew I needed new tires because my handyman had already done the penny test on the tread of the Michelins that had come on the used Mazda 6 I had bought in 2014. It was two years old then, and the tires were still in good shape.

    He told me that I had enough tread to make it to the spring, and that’s what I was hoping for. I did not want to buy new tires in the dead of winter.

    But now, my mechanic was giving me a veiled warning: Had I brought the car in for inspection at the end of the month, it wouldn’t have passed. So I took his warning to heart, did my research and found that April was the best time to buy tires to replace the Michelins, which had done well at 72,000 miles.

    tire treads

    Michelin suggested these tire treads to its competitors.

    Coincidentally, I was cataloging some magazines, papers and documents from my auction visits over the years, and was thumbing through the April 11, 1912, Life magazine when I came across Michelin tires again. Car tires back then were the shape of bicycle tires, and didn’t seem to be much larger or sturdier. How on earth they held up the heavy Locomobile or Overland or Speedwell or Peerless cars advertised in the magazine was a mystery.

    What I found intriguing about the Michelin tire ad was the suggested tread designs on several “non-skid” tires. One design had the heads of donkeys “For the Democrat,” elephants “For the Republican,” palettes “For the Artist,” dollar signs “For the Capitalist,” musical staffs “For the Musician” and several others.

    “These tires would be easy to sell, though they wouldn’t prevent skidding … . Think of the advertising value of a trail in the road indicating your vocation,” the ad said. “These distinctive treads would not prevent a sale if a republican, for example, wished to sell his car to a democrat, or vice versa. Just drive a few hundred miles and the designs will disappear as all-rubber non-skid designs do. These designs are not copyrighted – all manufacturers are welcome to adopt them.”

    Tire treads

    Both pages of the Michelin at in the April 11, 1912, Life magazine.

    When I first saw the tread patterns, I thought “Neat.” Then after reading the text, I realized that it was all tongue-in-cheek, a joke by Michelin to sell its own “Not fancy but durable” non-skid tires, which were shown on the opposite page. Michelin offered two types of tread – one steel-studded leather tread (a 1912 ad in AAA magazine showed an up-close view of the steel rivets) or a “plain, fair-priced rubber tread that lasts – not an expensive fancy tread that wears off, leaving nothing but the recollection of its high cost.”

    Automobiles were a new thing in the early years of the 20th century, and only the wealthy could afford them. A 1913 Peerless 38-Six Touring car was advertised in the Life magazine at $4,200. A Stoddard-Dayton Saybrook for $2,800. An open-top Locomobile for $3,500 to $4,800 (and more if you wanted a closed car). Ford had been among those selling high-end cars, too, with its Model K advertised in a 1907 Life magazine for $2,800. Then came the more affordable Model T, which was selling for $590 in 1912.

    Tire treads

    Suggested tire treads for the Democrat and Republican.

    Back then, most streets were not paved, so those whimsical treads would have left an impression in the dirt roads. Tires were notorious for skidding on both dirt roads and paved streets, injuring passengers and damaging cars (compounded by the lack of stop signs, stop lights, speed limits and other safety features). Tire manufacturers began to develop non-skid tires, and came up with a tread form aimed at preventing skidding.

    Raised patterns were molded into tires. Embedding small spikes into tires was also used and had been around for a while, but these wore out quickly because the spikes damaged the tires. Also, the colors of tires started changing around 1912, from a light to black.

    The first tires were wooden ones wrapped in iron for durability. Then in the 1880s, Carl (name is spelled with “C” and “K” on different websites) Benz of Germany invented the first electric car that ran on pneumatic tires made from metal wrapped in rubber and filled with air. He was not the first, though; Robert Thomson had the same idea for a pneumatic tire 40 years earlier but nothing much came of it.

    Tire treads

    Suggested tire tread patterns for several occupations.

    John Dunlop of Ireland created the first practical pneumatic tire with a rubber tube that provided traction on the road. It was made for bicycles, though, which had become a favorite mode of travel in the late 1900s. As cars got heavier and needed more traction and stronger tires, manufacturers started putting tread on tires around 1905.

    Michelin patented the first removable pneumatic bicycle tire and provided them for a cyclist in the world’s first long-distance bike race in France in 1891. The company was also the first to use these same types of tires on cars, putting them on “The Éclair” that it commissioned for a French road race four years later.

    As for tires for my car, I went through sticker shock when I saw the prices – especially for Michelins, even with a $70 discount by the manufacturer. So, I waited until April and finally bought Continental tires – highly rated by Consumer Reports – just as a friend had done for her 2012 Mazda 6. So far, my new tires are riding pretty smoothly.

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