Q: It's 1908. What do you call those large vehicles used to haul stuff? A: They're "automobiles" "delivery cars," "delivery vans," or maybe, if you're feeling formal, "motor-trucks." But they're certainly not just "trucks" - at least, not until the 1930s.

Today we're so accustomed to the simple meaning of "car" and "truck" that it's hard to imagine a little over a century ago those referred only to railway compartments. Then in 1895, motor-car, motor-truck were coined - hyphens optional - but in the U.S. these remained mostly technical terms outside of everyday usage (some names also created in 1895 did catch on: motorcycle, motorboat, and the modern meaning of automobile).

This journey down the bumpy roads of etymology was spurred by a little 1908 item in the Press Democrat: "Petaluma is to have an automobile milk wagon...[two men] have purchased a Mitchell automobile and are having it fitted out for carrying and delivering milk." The idea of an "automobile milk wagon" seemed absurd; I doubt that dairies in a small town such as Petaluma had pasteurization and bottling equipment in that era (it would be almost a decade more before pasteurized milk was even available in most large cities) so milk was still being delivered in big cans, and it would be difficult to ladle milk out of a 10-gallon can riding in the back seat. But did the Mitchell Motor Car Co. even make a drayage vehicle? Sure thing, they offered a flatbed "motor truck," as seen in the 1908 ad on the right.

Other vehicular variations tumbled into the language; Mitchell also sold a "touring car" in that ad (that name for a big auto was already in common use), and here's a "stake truck" for hauling beer, although it's called an "electric car" in the accompanying article. The same 1905 article mentions an "automobile stage line" running between towns carrying passengers in a "bus wagon," which was more commonly known at the time as an "automobile bus."

Confusing matters hopelessly, there was even a motorcycle that was called a delivery van as well as a motor car. The PD reported in 1909 that Santa Rosa's Pioneer Laundry now had a "tri-car" for deliveries, and as seen here, the vehicle made by the Indian motorcycle company wasn't a "car" at all, but a 5HP motorized bicycle that had two wide-spaced front wheels with a box in the middle. One feature, according to the newspaper, was that "the whole front may be removed and the single wheel attached and leave a plain motor car" (even though that only would turn it into an underpowered motorcycle).

Thus in the baffling world of the early 20th century, anything with a motor and wheels could be considered a "car" or "automobile," no matter if it carried one person, thirty passengers, or a ton of bricks. When we say that people of that time went auto-crazy it was probably true, because when words mean little or nothing, the result is lunatic babble. They might as well have described those marvelous horseless machines by using pictographs of gestures and grunts.

BONUS GRAPHIC: While digging through old magazine on Google Books, I stumbled upon this cover from the June, 1907 issue of Motor magazine, with its oddly modern/steampunk allure (CLICK or TAP to enlarge)


Petaluma is to have an automobile milk wagon, the first in Sonoma county, and probably in the state. The Messrs. H. C. Taylor and E. W. Ormsby have purchased the Arthur E. Matsen milk route in that city and will begin business January 1, 1909. They have purchased a Mitchell automobile and are having it fitted out for carrying and delivering milk to their customers.

- Press Democrat, December 8, 1908


The Pioneer Laundry Company has secured an Indian Merchandise Delivery Motor car and will make use of it in delivering laundry to the customers of the company. The car is a combination tri-car, merchandise delivery car and motor cycle, and is a novelty in this part of the country.

The car has twin cylinders of 2 1-2 horse power each and can run from 6 to 60 miles an hour. As a tri-car there is a seat in front of the driver for a second person which rides as smoothly as an easy chair. That can be taken off and the delivery box substituted or else the whole front may be removed and the single wheel attached and leave a plain motor car.

- Press Democrat, April 8, 1909

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