Edith Bolling Wilson’s 1904 Automobile Operator's Permit Listed on Virginia’s 2017 Top 10 Endangered Artifacts List
The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum owns one of Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts, according to the Virginia Association of Museums. Last year, the museum acquired First Lady Edith Bolling [Galt] Wilson’s original Automobile Operator's Permit, and is seeking funds for conservation of the object through the program.
The museum’s document is one of ten unique artifacts from across the state and spanning Virginia’s extensive history from the 1700s to the 20th century that was chosen following a thorough review process by an independent selection committee of collections professionals from partner organizations, such as the Library of Virginia, Preservation Virginia, Virginia Conservation Association, and Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The complete list of artifacts and contact information for each honoree can be found at Virginia's Top 10 Endangered Artifacts webpage.
In 1904, Edith Bolling Galt became the first woman licensed to operate an electric car in Washington, D.C. Like many other early women drivers with independent methods of transportation, Edith questioned gender roles and societal expectations. Edith’s recollections of driving her Columbia Elberon Victoria Mark XXXI are relayed in her 1939 autobiography, "My Memoir." Wilson scholars note that when police officers in Washington recognized the future First Lady driving, they would stop traffic and obligingly wave her through street intersections.
The Operator’s Permit was issued on September 7, 1904 by the Office of the Commissioners in Washington, D.C. At that time Edith was married to her first husband, Norman Galt, owner of Galt & Bro. Jewelers, a prominent business in Washington D.C. The document indicates that Mrs. Galt was authorized to operate a vehicle of the “electric type.” The cost of the vehicle amounted to $1600 in 1904 (equivalent to about $44,000 in 2017). This particular model was marketed to women and advertised as a carriage for “light pleasure service,” ”park riding,” and “social functions.” It would reach speeds of up to thirteen miles per hour and run for forty miles on a single charge.
The artifact, measuring 5.25 x 8.125,” is fragile and in poor condition with separation, staining, and yellowing due to increasing levels of acidity. The object has been adhered with scotch tape for many years, causing more damage to the document. Its current condition prevents it from being on display. With conservation, the museum hopes to permanently display the object and create educational and exhibition content focusing on early women drivers and electric cars.
Shiloh Holley, Executive Director of the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum, states that she is thrilled about the designation. “This object not only speaks to the legacy of Edith Bolling Wilson as a forward-looking individual who, despite of her gender, embraced the world around her, but also relates to early twentieth century women's history, technology, and environmental issues.”
After Norman Galt’s death in 1908, Edith Bolling Galt married President Woodrow Wilson in December 1915. She served as First Lady until 1921. Her birthplace home in Wytheville, Virginia now operates as a museum. As one of only eight historic sites across the country dedicated to the interpretation of a First Lady, the museum tells the story of the overlooked, yet vitally important role that Edith Bolling Wilson played in the White House at a pivotal moment during World War I. Museum hours are Tuesday - Friday 10:00 am - 4:00 pm and Saturdays 10:00 am. - 2:00 pm. For more information visit edithbollingwilson.org.
Starting January 15, the public is invited to vote for Edith Bolling [Galt] Wilson’s Automobile Operator's Permit as their favorite artifact to help support its conservation efforts. Thanks to a generous donation from the Blandford Rees Foundation, the Virginia Association of Museum’s renowned program will for the first time provide conservation awards totaling nearly $19,000 to the honorees, which will be granted by the Selection Committee or through the outcome of the online public voting competition taking place January 15-24, 2018. The public is invited to help bestow $9,000 of these conservation awards by voting for their favorite endangered artifact. The two artifacts receiving the most votes will be recognized as the People’s Choice Awards and receive $5,000 and $4,000 respectfully to conserve their artifacts and care for its continued preservation. Those wishing to make a lasting impact on preserving Virginia’s history are encouraged to vote for their favorite artifacts during the online public voting competition.
Summer Hours (April-October)
Tuesday - Saturday
10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
145 E. Main St., Wytheville, VA 24382
The museum is located downtown across from the Bolling Wilson Hotel.
Entry to the museum is by donation. Guided tours of the Birthplace and Bolling Family Home are $5 for adults and $3 for children.