Sunday, August 7, 2016

Virginia Aiken, Teenage Dealer of Electric Cars

On Memorial Day in 1912 a parade of 125 electric cars and trucks made its way from Brookline Avenue through the Back Bay to downtown Boston. At the head of the parade, as she had been in a smaller procession the year before, was 17-year old Virginia E. Aiken of Brookline.

Aiken was the niece of Day Baker, the head of the Electric Vehicle Club of Boston, with whom she lived on Winthrop Road. But the former Runkle School student was no mere figurehead. She was New England representative of the Buffalo-based Babcock Electric Carriage Company, responsible for sales throughout the six-state region.

Virginia Aiken promotional postcard
Promotional postcard for Virginia Aiken, Babcock Electrics
(Click image for larger view)
Aiken operated out of the Brandon Garage at 643 Washington Street, where she maintained an office, employed a stenographer and a bookkeeper, and kept several models of Babcock Electrics to demonstrate to prospective buyers.

1912 ad for Virginia Aiken's Babcock Electrics
Ad for Virginia Aiken's Babcock Electric dealership, Boston Post, May 9, 1912
1913 Map showing location of the Brandon Garage
The Brandon Garage at 643 Washington Street was Virginia Aiken's base of operation.
Source: WardMaps LLC
How did a teenage Brookline girl arrive at such an unusual situation for her age and gender more than a century ago?

Virginia Aiken
The Automobile Journal, 1912

Virginia Elise Aiken was born in Philadelphia on April 10, 1895, the daughter of Frank E. and Ada (West) Aiken. Her father was a freight inspector and her mother was a stenographer. Her father's father, Frank Eugene Aiken Sr., was a well-known actor and theater owner active mostly in Chicago, but at other times in Philadelphia and New York.

Aiken spent most of her childhood in Chicago. In 1910 or 1911 she moved to Brookline to live with her father's sister Viola and Viola's husband Day Baker and to take advantage of the better educational opportunities in the Boston area. They lived at 145 Winthrop Road. Virginia enrolled at the Runkle School and later at Miss Haskell's School for Girls on Marlborough Street.

Day Baker was New England agent for an electric truck manufacturer and a prominent advocate for electric vehicles. His efforts brought him into contact with Thomas Edison and he became New England representative of the Edison Storage Battery Company which made batteries for automobiles and trucks. (Edison's 22-year old son Charles was one of the ushers at an 18th birthday dance thrown for Aiken by her aunt and uncle at Brookline's Gardner Hall.)

A lengthy 1912 profile of Aiken in The Automobile Journal told how she obtained a license and drove thousands of miles, most of them in electrics. And as the Boston Globe reported:

For some months she has been seen in her pearl gray Victoria around the congested streets of the city, driving in and out among carriages, wagons, street cars and great trucks, or on the streets and boulevards of the suburbs. People have stopped and wondered at the ease and grace with which she handled her automobile, but she always smilingly disclaims any especial skill and replies "You know, it's no trouble to operate; you don't have to crank it, nor do you have a whole lot of levers about which to think: it is so simple to run—it's electric."

But her interest in cars, reported The Automobile Journal, went beyond driving.

Now, Miss Aiken is practical and she began to study the electric carriage with keen enthusiasm. Instead of merely giving attention to the maintenance and care she went back to rudiments and systematically acquired knowledge concerning the battery and the motor. She studied electrical subjects carefully and mastered each with its particular reference to vehicles. She was fortunate in having her uncle as an adviser and under his direction she was able to apply her knowledge to good advantage.

Constantly using the electric machines she met with all conditions that might be encountered and it was with extreme satisfaction that she solved all problems and successfully met every situation. The girl did not hesitate to work about the cars whenever necessary. She found delight in mechanical work and did it surprisingly well.

When Francis Babcock, founder of the Babcock Electric Carriage Company, visited Boston and met Aiken he suggested she become his New England agent and helped set her up in business. Aiken told the Boston Globe she planned to use the profits from the business to pay for her education.

The budding entrepreneur also understood the value of good marketing. She put half of the profits of her first sale into promotion, including newspaper advertisements and engraved notes. "[T]his, and her energetic work, [reported The Automobile Journal] brought to her other customers."

Electric vehicles were sometimes marketed specifically to women, and Aiken's unusual position as a female agent may have helped. She was interviewed by the Boston Post for a July 1912  article that ran under the headline "Miss Aiken's Advice to Women Motorists."

"Why, yes, [she told the reporter] I know it does you good to ride in an electric—it has done me good—don't I look the model healthy electric young woman? Seriously, I do believe that it gives one good health, a good appetite and good control of one's nerves to operate an electric vehicle.

I have in mind a Newton lady who has one of our cars—she drives it herself, charges it with a mercury arc rectifier in her own little garage and looks after her battery herself. She takes great enjoyment in looking after all these little details herself. The out-of-door air exercise that she gets in caring for her car and the long rides which she takes almost daily keep her in the best of health.

No, you newspaper men cannot too strongly urge the driving of electric automobiles by the ladies of Boston as a health-giving and enjoyable method of regaining and keeping health, but it does not end with the health question. The convenience of making calls, shopping, attending church and social functions are all points that are worthy of mention—but of course good health is always a strong argument.

The 1912 advertisement below for Aiken's display at the Boston Auto Show illustrates how Babcock Electrics were marketed especially to women. ("The Runabout for Misses. The Victoria for Ladies".)
Boston Post ad for Virginia Aiken's dealership
Ad for Virginia Aiken's display at the Boston Auto Show Boston Post, March 3, 1912

Many articles about Aiken were published in 1912, in the Boston newspapers and in trade publications like The Automobile Journal, Motor Age, and Electrical World. But her dealership was apparently short-lived. A later article in The Automobile Journal about her Fall 1912 exhibit at the electrical show at Mechanics Hall in Boston, said

While Miss Aiken will retain an interest in the Buffalo electric, it is her intention, after the electric show, to devote the most of her time to studies and music, believing that the proportions to which she has brought the business warrant placing it in the hands of a large automobile sales establishment. Full details of this move will be announced later.

I have not been able to find any such later announcement but there were no further mentions of her dealership after 1912.

Engagement announcement Boston Post
Boston Post, March 30, 1918
In 1918, Aiken's engagement to a Harvard Medical School graduate named Lawrence Weld Smith was announced in a brief article in the Boston Post. The announcement noted that, in addition to Miss Haskell's School (a college preparatory school for girls in the Back Bay), she had attended the Farmer School of Cookery (founded by Fanny Farmer). By 1918, she was back in Chicago where, the article said, she was active in Red Cross work.

The Aiken-Smith marriage never happened. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1919 in Chicago, Aiken married a Swiss immigrant named Robert (or Roberto) Tranquillo Pellandini. They had a daughter, born in Chicago in 1921, and lived for several years in Mexico where Robert Pellandini's family had business interests. (Virginia Pellandini took Swiss citizenship and had to reapply for U.S. citizenship when they returned in 1925.)

The Pellandinis were frequently on the move. They lived, at various times, in Chicago, Mexico City, Easton, Brockton, and Lincoln, Massachusetts, and Lorain, Ohio, before settling in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Robert had several jobs, as listed in directories and census records, including sales manager for a shovel and tool company and accountant with the Ford Motor Company. No further career information is listed for Virginia.

Robert Pellandini died in 1980. Virginia Aiken Pellandini died, at age 92, in Hot Springs in 1987.
Gravesite of Robert and Virginia (Aiken) Pellandini
Memorial Gardens Cemetery, Hot Springs, Arkansas

References

3 comments:

  1. Wowsers! Only an early morning glance. I'll be back to read thoroughly.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ever the great investigator, fashioning a great story.
    I love one of your refs, "Parade of Electric Trucks"; maybe now there be one for super expensive electric trucks. And alright, how'd you get that photo of gravestone in Arkansas? -- one of those people, like yourself, who help out researchers by taking photos at cemeteries.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Find a Grave (http://www.findagrave.com/) is a great source for not just photos but genealogical information. Photos are taken by volunteers, on their own initiative or in response to requests. I've taken a number of them myself, in the Boston area and occasionally elsewhere.

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