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The National Motorboat Show

CENTURY BOAT CO | CHRIS CRAFT | CONSOLIDATED SHIPBUILDING CO | ELCO | DODGE | GAR WOOD | GAS ENGINE & POWER CO | HACKER BOAT CO | FAY & BOWEN | LOZIER MOTOR CO | SEA LION BOAT CO

Boats connect people to the water and to the natural world, and motors add great freedom of movement and the thrill of speed.  Motor boating was an activity only for the very wealthy prior to 1900, but by the 1950s it had become a popular middle-class pastime. Central to the growth of this industry was the excitement of large trade shows. Motor boats were new, and their makers faced the challenge of inspiring more people to become boaters. These indoor expositions provided a forum to inspire and educate the public, as well as to sell products. The most lavish was the National Motor Boat Show, begun in New York City in 1905 and still held every year.

 

Motor boating was a facet of Modernism, a celebration of personal freedom and luxury through new technology. The steam yachts of the late 1800s were the first recreational powerboats, but were the sole province of the very wealthy. Smaller, simpler engines such as electric and naphtha emerged in the 1880s, and by the early 1900s the gasoline engine brought power boating within the reach of many more people willing to spend on recreation and technology. Trade shows and other advertising venues capitalized on the image of the Gilded Age yachtsman to play to the aspirations of this new market, many of whom had not boated before.

Power boats existed before the automobile, and the first were made with open interior spaces ideal for socializing. But as autos captured the public imagination in 1905-10, boats began to resemble them, with forward-facing seats, steering wheels, and windshields. Mass manufacturing and gasoline engine technology were both developed in the American Midwest in the early 20th century, and this is where many successful boat companies such as Chris-Craft, Gar Wood, Hacker, and Century were located. These companies developed stock models and advertised quality and performance through engineering and the efficiency of modern manufacturing.

Magazines like Motor Boating and Rudder covered boat races, an important part of the new culture of power boating. Racing success made media personas of drivers like Gar Wood and Howard Lyon, and made their brands synonymous with speed and performance. These men also came to define the modern motor boater, emphasizing knowledge, skill and self-reliance. In 1910, even small powerboats were often designed to be run by a hired driver, and larger boats were designed to accommodate servants. By the 1940s, even large cruisers were almost exclusively designed for owner-operators.