History Of Trucking And Transportation

Trucking In 1910
Image Source: Vintag ES - An early Coca Cola delivery truck from 1910.

The History Of Trucking Industr

Introduction To The History Of Trucking And Transportation

The history of trucking and transportation has followed an interesting trajectory. A good portion of the transportation that is still used today was invented in the twentieth century, a time period in which most of the earlier forms of transportation rapidly became obsolete. The history of trucking is just another part of the picture. The history of trucking changed very rapidly once the twentieth century began, although the history of trucking technically dates back to the late nineteenth century.

Trucking Before 1900

Railroads were basically the trucks of their day. Freight was moved from place to place using railroads in the nineteenth century. Railroads were considered wonderfully impressive inventions at the time, and many people treated railroads as symbols of the fact that they were living in an era of tremendous technological and social progress. A good portion of the people who became wealthy in the nineteenth century did so by investing in railroads.

History Of Railroad
Image Source: Train Web – A steam engine hauling lumber during the early 1900s.

Railroads almost serve as a symbol of the fact that the nineteenth century was indeed an impressive time period full of rapid social and technological change, but the twentieth century was more impressive and the changes were more dramatic. The twenty-first century appears to be leaving the twentieth century in the dust as well, continuing this trend.

As impressive as railroads were, the freight could still only travel in highly predetermined paths, and the freight was often limited to the most centralized urban areas. From there, the freight was still moved using vehicles pulled by horses. Railroading was a departure from traditional modes of transportation, but it was still dependent on earlier modes of transportation and limited in terms of what it could accomplish.

The rise of trucking made all the difference in terms of the movement of freight, but trucking didn’t really begin until the twentieth century. There were trucks in the nineteenth century, but they were treated as showpieces and technological marvels as opposed to valuable tools. Their utility was primarily for advertising revenue.

Trucking In 1900
Image Source: Brillion Iron Works – Brillion Iron Works was organized in 1897. Here’s one of their trucks from that era.

It should be noted that one of the biggest boosts to the trucking industry was the widespread growth of paved roads. Roads were much less extensive in the nineteenth century, especially in rural areas. The roads that people would find there weren’t paved. Even if trucks were more advanced in terms of the technology, they weren’t going to be as useful as the trucks today just because the infrastructure of the nineteenth century was not up to the task.

However, the technological limitations of the earlier trucks were certainly nothing to sneeze at for anyone. These trucks used electric engines. It is true that electric engines are praised today for being more environmentally friendly than the internal combustion engines that they could theoretically replace. However, today, the storage batteries for the electric charges are much more efficient. People are capable of traveling longer distances on a single charge. It is also possible to design lots of different refueling stations in the modern world, which would theoretically make it easier for electric engines to be adopted on a wider scale.

Early Roads 1900s
Image Source: Rusholme Archive – Early road systems at the turn of the 19th century.

Even with the earlier internal combustion engines, drivers were often limited in terms of the distance that they could cover due to the lack of refueling stations on their journeys. With electric engines, the engines would run out of the necessary power fairly early in the process. Drivers could only travel using electric engines using a very narrow driving range.

Modern trucks are also distinguished by the fact that they have tremendously large load capacities. The trucks of the nineteenth century were miniature by comparison. Even if the infrastructure were in place to allow people to travel longer distances and even if the electric engines were more efficient than they were, people still would not be able to carry much in the way of freight using the earliest nineteenth century trucks. As such, the entire process would not be especially cost-effective for anyone.

Traveling much more than short distances in these trucks also would have been unsafe and nearly torturous. Trucking today is often a difficult and dangerous job. Truckers work long hours, and they’re technically getting exposed to the pollution of the road and the sun all day long. The earliest trucks were amazingly even worse when it came to exposing the drivers to the elements. Early vehicles in general were extremely unsafe compared to the vehicles of today. A good portion of the safety features that people take for granted did not become standard until the late twentieth century. The temperature fluctuations that bother truckers today would have been torturous for the people who were driving the trucks of the nineteenth century.

Railroad Routes 1900s
Image Source: NPS – Main railroad systems in the United States in the early 1900s.

However, the trucks of the nineteenth century were certainly an important part of the process. They served as a template for the trucks that would shortly arrive on the scene in a more influential manner. Technology builds on itself, and the trucking industry of the twentieth and twenty-first century had to get its start with some prototypes. The nineteenth century provided those prototypes.

Railroads also helped set the precedent for being able to move large amounts of freight over long distances. People were already used to that at this point during nineteenth century history, which made the transition to the modern trucking industry that much easier for the people of the time.


Trucking in 1910

The internal combustion engine was technically invented in 1884, but the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine didn’t really become an economic and cultural force to be reckoned with until the 1910’s. There were other technological improvements during this time period when it came to early trucks, including the switch from chain drives to gear drives. Gear drives last much longer and are easier to use.

The combination of the tractor and the semi-trailer that is so iconic today began during this time period. This design made it that much easier for people to transport freight across large distances in the first place. Trucks were not going to be profitable unless they could carry large amounts of freight from one location to the next in the modern manner. The trucks of the 1910’s were some of the first trucks that were capable of doing so.

Trucking In 1910
Image Source: Vintag ES – An early Coca Cola delivery truck from 1910.

There were around one hundred thousand trucks on the road by the year 1914 in the United States. However, the trucking industry was still nothing like it is today. Early trucks had wheels made from solid rubber and iron. The rubber that people are more familiar with today was created in World War Two. The tires of old were woefully inefficient.

People today often complain about trucks wearing down the surface of asphalt roads. However, asphalt roads can withstand a lot of weight. The roads of the early twentieth century were often covered with gravel, and some of them barely even had that level of protection. The first weight limits imposed on trucks in 1913 were actually imposed in order to defend the roads against damage. The first trucks were also not capable of traveling very quickly, largely due to the nature of the tires. As such, it was not going to be very easy to try to move cargo with them anyway.

The Trucking Industry and World War I

World War One, like World War Two after it, helped create many of the facets of modern life that are taken for granted today. Railroads were strained with overuse during the years of World War One. The situation created a demand for alternatives, and the technology was in place for a new trucking industry.

Trucking World War I
Image Source: Pinterest – 1918 World War I Nash Quad Army truck.

Roy Chapin was the industrialist who helped pioneer the trucking industry of today. He helped found the company that set the stage for American motors. He also helped pioneer the first long-distance shipments by truck. The development of the new inflated tires, known as pneumatic tires at the time, allowed trucks to travel more quickly and more efficiently. By 1920, a million trucks were on the road. It was a steep increase from the previous six-figure estimation.

The development of the trucking industry only became more extensive over the course of the twentieth century. The New Deal policies that expanded the roads and the development of the interstate revolutionized the trucking industry. However, even before 1920, the trucking industry was already thriving.

The beginning of trucking happened earlier than many people think, which is partly due to the fact that moving freight is so economically important. Developments related to moving freight were going to occur relatively early since there is so much economic push for them. The history of transportation has always been colored by technological, cultural, and economic factors.

The early trucking industry and the beginning of the history of trucks was largely influenced by factors as major as a world war and factors as minor as a change in tire technology. Many of the developments that have transformed society got off the ground as a result of similarly modest beginnings. However, by 1920, many of the most major developments in the trucking industry were yet to come for everyone in the world.

Trucking History 1920s

The history of trucking changed dramatically between the beginning of the 1920’s and the beginning of the 1930’s. Technological and tremendous social changes managed to drive the history of trucking in the 20’s. Trucking in the 20’s specifically was largely shaped by technological change that made trucks more efficient and the economic growth that created more drivers in general, as well as the lingering effects of World War One. It was a crucial decade for the history of trucking.

Trucking in the 20’s

People in the 1920’s were still recovering from the effects of World War One in more ways than one. A huge portion of the culture of the day developed based on a reaction to the war. The government took over the railroads until the year 1920, and railroads barely had the capacity for any domestic products when they were burdened with moving around munitions and other supplies that were important to the war effort.

Domestic Products Fueled Trucking Industry

The burgeoning trucking industry began to get more involved in transporting domestic products around the country, and this didn’t stop even when the government relinquished control of the rails in the 1920’s. The trucking industry achieved more power during the war years, and the industry held onto that power and reach. A new niche had expanded, and this was a trend that was only going to continue in conjunction with many of the other cultural changes in the 1920’s.

Driving Becomes The New Norm

This new niche attracted a lot of enthusiastic entrepreneurs. Some of the same people who would have become wealthy for constructing new railroads or getting involved with the railroad business a generation ago soon started to get in on the new trucking industry that was taking shape all around them. Given the economic improvements of the 1920’s relative to earlier points during this time period, it was the perfect moment for a lot of new entrepreneurs to enter the market and try to expand this particular niche.

Automotive Industry Takes Off

One of the most striking aspects of automotive history in general during the 1920’s is the simple fact that driving went from a niche activity to a common one. There still weren’t as many drivers on the road in the 1920’s as there are today, but it was the decade in which driving was really becoming an important part of the American lifestyle.

The 1920’s was the Model T era, where cars were still black and interchangeable, but these black and interchangeable cars still helped transform the nation. Henry Ford made it possible for middle class people to own and operate their own motor vehicles, and he also managed to indirectly create a lot of new industries and technological developments in the process.

New And Improved Roads

Since driving was becoming so common, there was an incentive to update and improve the roads in rural areas. Technically, the old-fashioned roads served their purposes just fine, but they didn’t meet the needs of automobile drivers. Updating and improving the roads opened up rural areas to both cars and trucks, expanding the range of truck drivers everywhere. A lot of the resources that trucks are going to be transporting originate in the country in the first place, so being able to open up the country to trucks made all the difference in the trucking industry.

The Diesel Engine Is Born

The development of the diesel engine was also a major development in the history of trucking. Diesel engines have excellent fuel efficiency compared to gasoline engines. While today, an improvement like that would largely be praised for its environmental benefits, at the time, the improved fuel efficiency helped expand the range of trucks. Filling stations still weren’t as common as they are today. However, the introduction of more filling stations was also an important development in the history of trucking in the 20’s. The long haul truck driving jobs that are famous and infamous today started to become more commonplace during the 1920’s, along with the short haul trucking jobs.

When many people imagine trucks of the past, they are probably mainly wondering when the trucks that they would conceptualize as modern trucks emerged. The trucks made before the 1920’s looked like motorized wagons and ran more like motorized wagons. People today would visually recognize 1920’s trucks as modern trucks. The cabs of the trucks became enclosed, which helped complete the look. The important fifth wheels of trucks were also introduced during the 1920’s, and these were essential for the sake of hooking up trailers in the first place.

Filling Stations Begin To Pop Up On Local Corners

American filling stations date back to the year 1905, where the first one was constructed in St. Louis, Missouri. The drive-in filling stations that people are more familiar with today got their start in 1913. The number of filling stations expanded considerably throughout the 1920’s as the number of American drivers increased and the gas stations could become more profitable.

Before this point in time, the people who needed to replenish their gasoline supplies would have to count on bringing enough gasoline with them, or they would have to hope there was a blacksmith shop, general store, or hardware store nearby. Neither strategy was going to work particularly well for trucks, so the increased availability of filling stations and the increased efficiency of trucks made all the difference in the history of trucking.

The Roaring 1920s Saw It All

Truck and trailer sizes also become standardized during the 1920’s. It was easier for the freight industry to function under those circumstances, and producing trucks on a broad scale became more efficient as a result. The standardized size and weight of trucks was also good for the new roads, so the development of both managed to reinforce each other during the 1920’s.

Safety was a huge issue with early vehicles in general, but trucks did become safer during the 1920’s as well thanks to power assisted steering and brakes. The power assisted steering and brakes made the trucks much easier to use, which made it possible for more people to drive trucks. Trucking in the 1920’s was largely driven by technological and economic progress, which makes complete sense in the era that is still known as the Roaring Twenties.

Trucking History 1930s

The trucking industry suffered throughout the Great Depression of the 1930’s just like every other industry, but the industry did still manage to make some progress during this time period nonetheless. Some entrepreneurs still succeeded, taking advantage of the economic stratification that occurs during times of economic depression. The governmental reforms of the decade helped truckers then, and have continued to help truckers now within the framework of the history of trucking. Trucking in the 30’s continued in spite of everything, making trucking seem like a fitting metaphor for the time period in general.

Trucking Entrepreneurs During the Great Depression

The onset of the Great Depression changed almost everything throughout the world. Most industries suffered during the Great Depression, and the burgeoning trucking industry and freight industries were no exception. In the 1920’s, many entrepreneurs flocked to the new trucking industry in order to jump on the trend and build their fortunes. They helped make the trucking industry a force to be reckoned with in the first place, taking some of the power and domination away from railroads as a result.

A lot of these entrepreneurs were out of business by the time the Great Depression hit, and some of them never recovered their lost fortunes. However, it should be noted that the economic depressions that are bad for society as a whole can end up benefiting some of the wealthiest and most successful people in any given society.

Trucking Industry Able To Grow During Great Depression And Years After

These individuals can take advantage of the reduced competition during these bad economic times, and they can also benefit from a time period in which many items have lost value and have come down in price. These sorts of trends were specifically beneficial for the people entering the trucking industry who needed capital.

Entrepreneur W.W. Estes got a trucking business off the ground in Virginia. He didn’t need much capital in order to do so, and the capital that he did manage to get his hands on was very inexpensive. Even during the worst years of the Great Depression, his business managed to grow and succeed. W.W. Estes wasn’t the only one. The trucking industry more or less managed to contract but also expand during the ’30’s.

People in the trucking industry who managed to stay in business during the Great Depression managed to benefit from the economic recovery that started to take place after the worst years of the Great Depression, so they ultimately came out ahead even if they suffered from setbacks during the early 1930’s. Even some of the wealthiest people of the 1930’s lost everything during the Great Depression, but the wealthy people who didn’t sometimes became even richer.

New Deal Policies and the Great Depression

The Great Depression also changed the history of trucking forever, partly as a result of New Deal policies.The construction of roads expanded further as a result of the Public Works Administration, which was started as part of the New Deal in order to create more jobs throughout the United States. Thousands of miles of road were constructed through the Public Works Administration.

It is true that the creation of the interstate highway system did not really get off the ground until the 1940’s, but the development of the new roads during the Great Depression helped set the stage for these developments too, while also making a huge difference in the history of trucking in general.

American Trucking Association Formed

The lives for truck drivers improved after the early 1930’s. The American Trucking Association formed, which helped protect the interests of truckers. In 1934, a code of fair competition was created in the trucking industry, making it a more equitable industry in general. Many of the corrupt corporate practices that helped initiate the Great Depression in the first place also influenced the trucking industry, and regulations like this were partly created in order to stop that situation from arising again.

Railroad/Trucking Rivalry

The rivalry between the railroad industry and the trucking industry really started to become more heated during the 1930’s as well. Early in the decade of the 1930’s and before that point, the Interstate Commerce Commission only regulated the railroad industry. They did not regulate trucking companies. This was largely the result of cultural inertia. Railroads had been around much longer than trucking companies, some of which were actually formed in the 1930’s itself.

1930s Economic Downturn

The early 30s were hard for most Americans. The government during the 1930’s was desperate to try to fix the economic problems of the day, and they were receptive to the complaints and concerns of many different industries. The rail industry of the day was losing business to the trucking industry, largely because the trucking industry’s lack of regulation gave them something of an unfair advantage.

This lack of regulation was actually one of the reasons why some trucking entrepreneurs during this time period were able to succeed in such a bad economy. If these same people had participated in the rail industry, they would have had worse luck. The fact that trucks could now complete long haul journeys worsened a problem that had been developing for years.

Motor Carrier Act Of 1935

The government responded to the concerns voiced by the rail industry, and Congress passed the Motor Carrier Act in 1935. As a result, the trucking industry was to be regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission. While it is true that this was partly a measure that was enacted in order to help the railroad industry, it did have benefits for the trucking industry and its employees. The Interstate Commerce Commission helped push for regulations concerning the working hours of truck drivers, which were often far too long and strenuous during the 1930’s. By 1938, hours of service regulations improved the lives of truck drivers all over the country.

Given the cultural changes that took place in response to World War Two in the 1940’s, the benefits that truck drivers received during this time period were that much more important. The lives of truck drivers would have been very different if they had been forced to work in a manner that was more consistent with earlier policies, while also trying to meet the demands of the war effort.

The trucking industry was still fairly new during the 1920’s and the 1930’s. During the 1930’s, many of the problems in the trucking industry were ironed out, creating a more stable and more equitable system. Truckers today are still benefiting from many of the reforms that took place during this time period, even if the Interstate Commerce Commission no longer exists today.


Trucking Industry During The 1950s-1960s

The construction of the interstate highway system continued during the 1960’s, so in some ways, the developments in the trucking industry that occurred during the 1950’s were continued during the 1960’s. However, trucking itself was starting to become a popular topic of discussion during the 1960’s. Trucking and the lives of truckers themselves weren’t as well known to the general public before that point in history, and this change helped shape trucking in the 60’s. However, the development of the interstate highway made trucks and truckers ubiquitous enough that neither could be ignored by the general public. Regulations regarding trucks were also refined during the 1960’s, which only helped raise awareness about trucks and truckers.

Interstate Highway Development and Pop Culture

People were moving to the suburbs in droves during the 1950’s, and commuting to the city through the new interstate highways was becoming very commonplace. Trucks were hauling items throughout the country at the same time. Drivers became used to driving right alongside the large and intimidating long-haul trucks. This was during a time period where there were few safety features for cars or trucks. Highways during the 1960’s were significantly narrower than modern highways. The speed limits were also 55 mph. The highways of the day had a way of creating camaraderie among drivers. Drivers saw truck drivers transporting everything from gasoline to logs in a society that was increasingly dependent on successful long-haul trucking.

Suburban drivers all throughout the country began discussing trucks more often, which raise both awareness and curiosity about them. The American Wild West was a popular subject during the 1950’s and the 1960’s, and the people of the day had a tendency to project those narratives onto lots of unrelated subjects, including truckers. Truckers started to be conceptualized in terms of modern cowboys riding powerful modern vehicles and surviving based on their own wits and determination. This narrative was still developing in the 1960’s, but in many respects, it has not died out even today.

Popular Trucking Songs

Films and songs about truckers and truck driving started achieving popularity during the 1960’s. There is still a stereotype today that many country songs are about trucking. Some of the first country songs about trucking were written during the 1960’s, which is also when a lot of modern music genres were being crystallized. Some of these same songs are even around today.

Driving And Music Becomes Part Of The American Culture

The first FM radio to be installed in a car was introduced in 1952. In 1963, all-transistor radios were added to cars. Listening to music in cars during long commutes was starting to become part of American culture during this time period. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people were interested in listening to songs that were about cars and driving. They liked listening to songs about the powerful trucks driving on the road next to them as well.

Field tests during the 1950’s and 1960’s demonstrated that a lot of the trucks of the day were contributing to the degradation of the new roads just due to their sheer size. In 1964, theAmerican Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials told Congress that one solution to this problem was that there should not be a solid upper weight limit for trucks. Instead, they recommended that the weight limit should be determined on a more case-by-case basis, where the weight limits were calculated based partly on the lengths of axles. This solution managed to avert a lot of potential conflicts between both sides, although it was not put into place until later.

It is possible that the discussions about the effects that the weight of trucks had on the roads only helped to cement their roguish reputation in popular culture. Naturally, professional truckers actually needed to have commercial driver’s licenses, which require their own set of training and education. There were special hours of services for truckers, and this was for the sake of other drivers on the road as well as for the truckers themselves.

The roguish image of truckers from this time period and today is somewhat dubious when the professional and rule-abiding aspects of the job are taken into account. Truckers also come in contact with police officers more than people in other professions, since they spend their careers on the road. However, people during this time period and through to the present were content to view truckers in a more symbolic way, and it seems as if a lot of truckers tried to embrace this image.

This image almost certainly inspired more people to become truck drivers in the first place. The 1960’s was a time period in which a lot of people were searching for their identities in an era of rapid social and technological progress. The restrictive lifestyle of the 1950’s and Cold War conformity left a lot of people wanting more. Some people embraced the progressive counter-cultural movements of the day. Some people embraced images of traditional masculinity, and they adopted truck driving as a profession that embodied freedom, manliness, and independence.

Naturally, the middle class 1950’s lifestyle was never accessible to everyone, and members of the working class would often have to embrace their own very different dreams. Trucking is a job that has attracted a lot of hardworking blue collar workers looking for job security for a long time, and this effect became more pronounced during the 1960’s. By the middle of the 1960’s, 8 million Americans made their living in the trucking industry.

Technological changes in trucks in the 1950’s and 1960’s helped popularize the truck driving experience further. Air conditioning, variable rear suspension, individual front suspension, and power steering all helped make these huge trucks safer and more comfortable to drive. Diesel engines became more powerful during this time period, and engine brake systems improved tremendously with the famous Jake Brake. Even new tinted windows made a big difference, helping truck drivers cope with sun exposure. Trucking driving quickly became open to more people.

The growth of interstate highways increased the number of trucks on the road. Technological and cultural changes helped popularize trucking. The increased interest in trucks and trucking caused more people to go into the profession. It isn’t surprising that there were over 18 million trucks operating in the United States by the year 1970.