Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Part 1 - How Do I Identify The Maker of a Wagon?

Vintage American wagons and early western vehicles receive a lot of attention worldwide.  Likewise, from individual collectors and businesses to writers and curiosity seekers, our Wheels That Won The West® archives receive quite a few inquiries week in and week out.  The most often-asked questions are from folks wanting to know the identity or brand name of a wagon.  The reasons behind the queries not only stem from natural inquisitiveness but also point to the obvious truths.  In other words, knowing a vehicle’s identity helps define the piece and potentially grow its value – both emotionally and financially.

From the seemingly simple to the clearly complex, these identity-related questions can also be the most difficult to answer.   Much of the reason lies in the size of America’s early transportation industry.  There were literally thousands of different types, sizes, and styles of wagons produced by tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicle makers in the U.S.  This isn’t just an off-the-cuff comment with no documentation to back it up.  In fact, our archives contain the names of nearly 40,000 makers.   Reinforcing that figure, several years ago, we were the first to discover an 1887 report from Clement Studebaker stating that there were at least 80,000 carriage and wagon builders in the U.S. at that time. 
So, once we get past the shock of the sheer number of makers, thoughts quickly turn to questions like, “How is there any hope of identifying pieces that have lost their obvious markings?” or “How is it possible to actually confirm that a paint-less wagon gear truly belongs to the box/body it’s currently sitting under?”  The answers, at least in part, lie in the numbers.  For instance, when it comes to wagon makers, there are perhaps only a few hundred that produced the vast majority of surviving pieces today.  Of course, there will be some heavier, extant vehicles that were made by small makers with little (if any) surviving historical documentation available for review.  Even in those circumstances, though, with enough diligent digging, we can sometimes resurrect details on previously obscure makers (See our history on the Rhoads Wagon Company in Volume 1 of the book, Borrowed Time, A Tribute to the Wheels that Built the American West.  Also, Click Here to see our original article conclusively identifying Jacob Becker’s one-of-a-kind wagon at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia.)

Fortunately, the predominant number of surviving wagons can often be narrowed down to less than two hundred makers who dominated the distribution channels.  That said, each of these major wagon makers can have dozens – if not hundreds – of variations in construction designs over the course of the company’s lifespan.  That’s where it becomes important to have access to original literature from as many companies and as many different parts of a company’s tenure as possible.  In a nutshell, that’s exactly what we have been collecting for the last two decades as we’ve built a large compilation of primary source materials for the Wheels That Won The West® archives.  It’s allowed us to consistently review individual vehicles with greater clarity and assurance while providing owners of these vehicles with clearer provenance and stronger documentation. 

Along that line of thought, a few years ago, we worked with Doug Hansen to track down more details on a specific set of wheels.  At the time, Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop was working on a museum restoration of an early Fish Bros. wagon that had lost almost all of its original paint.  While Fish Bros. wagons (both Racine, Wisconsin and Clinton, Iowa) carried an extraordinary reputation during the 1800’s and early 1900’s, there are few survivors today.  Our archives were called in to help date the vehicle as well as determine whether the gear was original to the box.  We were also asked to confirm original striping and logo details.  The process involved considerable research within original pieces in our collection.  With the earliest Fish Bros. material in the ‘Wheels’ archives being published in 1875, we were confident we could assist.  Ultimately, the wagon was dated to just after the turn of the 20th century.  Equally important, we were able to supply the craftsmen at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop with detailed imagery showing specific placement of striping in virtually all areas of the box and gear.  We were also privileged to provide exclusive, original period artwork of the correct jumping fish logo for the box side.   

It was a success story for all involved but the primary point I wanted to share is that it could not have happened without the original company literature and sufficient preserved imagery.  So, where does that leave a person who doesn’t have access to those materials?  Fortunately, we’re far from the end of the identification story.  If an individual is truly committed to learning as much as possible from a vehicle, the piece will have a story to tell.  It will talk to you.  All we have to do – is Listen. With that as the backdrop, we’ll continue this blog next week as we share more details on identification of vintage vehicle makers.