Hi, Kit Morgan here and today I wanted to talk a little bit about the horse and carriage age.
When we think of horses and carriages we also think of romance. Or, some might think of a bumpy, hot ride. There was stagecoach travel in the west and then came the trains. But we equate different things to each of them. Those of us who love to read historical western romance sometimes forget why the easterners wanted to come west in the first place. Why leave the bustling city where everything you needed was there …
Ahem, okay, now that we’ve got an idea of just how bustling a city could be, we have an idea. Instead of cars, carriages and wagons filled the streets and was parking any better? Nope. In our present day, we worry about finding parking at the airport. In the 1800s it was the train station. Yikes! Still, the romance of the carriage hovers over the old fashioned conveyance and we yearn for carriage rides when we see them in tourist areas of different cities. Or maybe someone is giving carriage or wagon rides at a local fair or event. Let’s face it, we’re drawn to them.
Like your car, your carriage said a lot about you back in the day. A lady’s carriage was not so much a means of transport but far more a way of life. The more expensive the horses and the carriage, the less they were used. No first-rate carriage horse was expected to travel more than fourteen miles a day at a maximum speed of 9 to 10 m.p.h., which was well below its maximum range and speed. In the wealthiest establishments, a large, expensive retinue of coachmen, grooms and stable boys was maintained so that my lady could drive out in grand style for one and a half hours a day, six days a week. This daily display of idle opulence had a far more serious purpose than modern readers of historicals may think. The ladies smiled, nodded or bowed to other ladies according to their degree of intimacy; or if they happened to see a male acquaintance on the sidewalk, or if riding through a park, a footpath.
And what about the horses that pulled all of those carriages? Well, to be a good judge of a horse was no gambler’s sport but a serious necessity that could save hundreds of dollars or even life itself. Horse dealing was at the heart of Victorian life and carried into the west. Every city and town and communities formed by settlers out west had their collection of horsey characters who congregated at dealer’s yards, auction rooms, country fairs, particular inns and other places where the talk always came straight from the horse’s mouth and everyone had some knowledge of a better bargain to be had. Most horse dealers were reputable men, but some were copers who practiced every trick of their dishonest trade to deceive the ignorant and the gullible amongst whom clergymen and old ladies were often in supply. A frisky lively horse, which might become a runaway, was given what copers called the “ginger” — a sound thrashing for a few minutes to make it appear quiet and manageable — right before it was displayed to the intended victim along with soft and soothing words.
If the horse was lame in one leg, the coper would restore nature’s balance by making it lame in the other leg, too, so that the inexpert eye would be deceived into thinking both legs were sound. This was achieved by hammering in a little stone, called a “pea” or a “plug”, between the shoe and the most sensitive part of the hoof from which a small sliver had been removed. We’ve come a long way since those days!
So the next time you think of carriage rides, or see a fancy carriage in a movie or picture, think of everything else involved with that common mode of transportation of the past. And, of course, be glad you don’t have to try to find a spot to park your wagon or carriage when you have to go to the train station …