A car pool from 1920s Chicago

You’ve never washed your car like this before!

This photo, taken in 1924, shows the hot novelty of the time, a new type of car wash that opened in Chicago, at the corner of 42nd Street and South Michigan Avenue.

It is known that there were at least two such car washes in Chicago in the 1920s. However, the first of these designs appeared in St. Paul, Minnesota. The patent for “auto-baths” was received in 1921 by S.P. Boland, the inventor of this design. It was he who opened the first two “car pools” in St. Paul. Boland advertised them as the most convenient way to clean dirt off the bottom of a car. In those days, when automobile traffic was just beginning to turn around, most roads were unpaved, and perpetual mud was a serious problem for motorists. It clung to the bottoms and wheels of cars. But car pools, Boland promised, would solve this problem.

The car pool was a concrete bowl about 30 meters in diameter and up to 40 centimeters deep. The customer paid 25 cents for a wash. After the payment the attendant would cover the radiator with a special rubber cover, and then the driver would go down the special ramp into the bowl and start circling around the bowl at about 15 km/h. The car was bouncing on the unevenness of the concrete, the bowl walls were vibrating, water was agitating – all this helped to effectively wash away the dirt from the bottom of the car, chassis and wheels. The entire washing process took only three to four minutes. Those who wanted to wash the entire car would drive into the special booths where the attendants completed the wash. The procedure was popular: on Saturdays up to 75 cars per hour would go through the “car pool”.

After the success of the idea in St. Paul, Boland began to promote his invention in other cities, offering those wishing to purchase a franchise. The first franchisee in Chicago was S. J. Burkhartmeyer, who built the city’s first car pool on the north side of the city, at the corner of Diversey and Elston streets. He purchased the franchise in 1924, and it cost him about $20,000 to build the car wash and service. The architect who created Chicago’s first car pool was William S. Presto, who later built many magnificent buildings in the city.

Alas, car pools did not last long, and with the advent of paved roads quickly faded into history. One of Chicago’s car wash bowls was already purchased in 1926 by a local developer to build a house. The other existed until the early 1930s, but then also went into oblivion.