Horse and wheeled vehicles ruled 19th century roads, farms and cities. If you weren’t on foot or horseback, on land you traveled by horse and buggy, mule and dogcart, team of six and stagecoach or some other of the wide variety of horse-drawn conveyances. From the fine barouche drawn by a pair of matched black thoroughbreds for the wealthy to the plodding, sturdy covered wagons that carried pioneers to the West, horses were the main energy-provider of the 17th to 19th centuries. Only with the advent of the steam locomotives and automobiles did the day of the horse-drawn carriage end.
The Basic Wagon
Most rural areas contained far more wagons than fancy carriages. Nineteenth century roads were rough tracks, with ruts and holes that made even sturdy wagons break wheels and axles regularly. Farm wagons had to be tough and fixable. Rear wheels were high and wide with a rugged, durable wagon box built to withstand bad roads. Farm and military wagons were built to standardized specifications to allow for interchangeability of parts. As the century progressed, roads improved and wheel widths narrowed.
The Basic Carriage
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of many different forms of carriages. From substantial enclosed broughams used by wealthy families to the light, airy two-wheeled curricles for the young and sporty set, a large variety of carriages existed in the 19th century. While poorer people walked or used public conveyances, the richer folk indulged in showing off wealth and status through fancy vehicles, much as they do today. The basic carriage, however, had two to four wheels, was heavier or lighter, and was pulled by one or two horses.
As the West opened up, settlers began to yearn for the free land and adventure of western lands. To serve those heading west, Pennsylvanian Germans began careful construction of robust wagons. While Conestoga wagons were well-suited for hauling freight, pioneers found them too bulky and large for long overland travel. Settlers chose instead the “Prairie Schooner,” approximately half the size and weight of a Conestoga. Prairie Schooners were four feet wide, 10 to 12 feet long and about 10 feet tall at the top of the bonnet that covered it.
The iconic stagecoach had four rugged wheels and was drawn by a team of four to six horses or mules. Traveling to preappointed stops along their way, stagecoaches picked up passengers and the mail. Sturdy and enclosed, the carriage resting on heavy leather straps to reduce jolting of passengers, stagecoaches provided public transportation from city to city. Stops were every 10 to 15 miles to change horses and give passengers a chance to stretch, eat and use the toilet facilities. Inns and taverns provided meals and occasionally sleeping arrangements. Many stage companies provided stiff competition for passengers and mail contracts.