Ethel du Pont’s Little Red Auto Stories

Mention Ethel du Pont and those familiar* with the name will likely recount the labor journalist’s civil and women’s rights activism. Others may recall the intended socialite’s bold dismissal of her intended world and role. Most, however, wouldn’t associate du Pont with children’s literature.

little red auto005

Pen and ink illustration by du Pont.

As it turns out, du Pont also explored various literary endeavors in addition to activism. One particular example that caught my eye the other day as I was editing cards for the Filson’s Virtual Card Catalog are her “Little Red Auto” stories.

These twelve short stories, written in the early 1920s, follow the adventures of Speed, the little red auto and Bob Kendrick, Speed’s owner’s son. Speed and Bob find themselves on no-adults-allowed adventures that have them zooming around town and country.

While awkward analogies (“Rain drops on head lights are just like tears on a child’s eye lashes”) and clunky blocks of text weren’t winning “Little Red Auto Stories” Caldecott awards, endearing story lines and exciting automobile/machine interactions undoubtedly captivated du Pont’s young readers.

little red auto006

Typed manuscript page with hand edits.

du Pont did a particularly fine job embedding important life lessons in would-be automotive advice. One such example is found within “Speed Earns His Breakfast”; here we find Speed chatting with Mr. Engine, a “sleek black engine” who has run out of oil and on the verge of over-heating.

“Little Red Auto,” he continued, “if you ever begin to feel yourself getting so hot that your insides are in danger of melting and sticking together, I advise you to stop right where you are and cool off.”

Right you are Mr. Engine, right you are! His wise advice is certainly useful for the frustrated four-year-old on the verge of a “meltdown” as well as, well, all of us. Because let’s be honest, can’t we all use a good reminder to slow down when nearing the heat of rage?

Later, in “Bob and The Little Red Auto Decide to Take a Water Trip” we see Speed forgo his life-long desire to see the world and meet “all the machines” in order to help his friend.

Speed had made a plan. They would go to the warves [sic] along the river and ask the boats the way to a very, very lonely spot where there was good fishing. (Speed wanted to see the whole world and to talk to every kind of machinery that was ever made, but he was perfectly willing to hide in the woods with Bob for a month or two if that would save his friend from things like detectives).

Whether camping in the woods or meeting train engines at the round house, the “Little Red Auto” stories provide an additional lens for us to view an already dynamic woman.

little red auto003

Pen and ink illustration by du Pont.

*Unfamiliar with du Pont? I was. I’ll admit it. So for those out there who, like me, are unfamiliar here’s the skinny on Ethel Bidermann du Pont (1896-1980): she was a member of the famous du Pont family and a key figure in Kentucky’s labor movement during the early-mid 20th century. Du Pont was president of the Kentucky Federation of Teachers, wrote as a labor columnist for the Louisville Times and was elected to the Louisville Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She was also an economics professor at the University of Louisville. I encourage you to read more about the status-bending, successful woman in this 2011 post by former Filson employee, Sarah-Jane Poindexter. I also recommend checking out the online finding aid.

Johna Ebling

Johna Ebling is an Associate Curator of Collections and Exhibits Manager. She studied Journalism and English at Ball State University and earned her master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When she isn’t orchestrating an exhibit or engaging in public outreach, Johna is working with the Filson’s architectural holdings. When away from The Filson, Johna enjoys reading, cooking and spending time with her Chihuahua, husband and friends.

Leave Comment