Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The History of a Wagon

In my studies of early American wagons, I’ve had the opportunity to review thousands of different sets of wheels.  Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the survivors are mysteries just waiting to be solved.  In other words, seldom has the vehicle been so thoroughly evaluated that its entire story is known or told.  Instead, most of these rolling works of art are presented with basic, limited descriptions and, if we’re not careful, we tend to fill in the blanks with best guesses, assumptions, or even disinterest.  Worst yet, a lack of information can contribute to depressed vehicle values and missed opportunity to restore a great historical narrative.
Rarely are there complete dead ends to any of this research.  While efforts to fill in background details often take considerable time, even if the personal history of a particular vehicle cannot be traced, the makeup of the piece can say a great deal about its past.  Construction elements can point to a particular maker, era of manufacture, levels of originality, and period advancements.  Few designs are as simple as they might appear.  With that thought in mind, another point to remember is that different types of innovation are often unrecognized by modern audiences.  As a result, they are regularly overlooked – even within some museum settings.  Clearly, anytime something goes unnoticed, there is a possibility for both positive and negative surprises.
For collectors, when it comes time to buy a piece, it’s helpful to know as much as possible about the vehicle.  Several years ago, I watched an early 20th century wagon sell at auction for a fairly high price.  It was a well-known brand and heavily promoted as a rare example of a completely original wagon.  While it was predominantly equipped as it was from the factory, it was not an all-original piece.  Unbeknownst to most, the doubletree and singletrees were from another brand.  This might seem like a small point but, to a collector, finding out this information after the fact can be both embarrassing and potentially costly.  Locating the correct pieces to replace wrong elements can require considerable time as well as additional funds to ensure the vehicle is indeed original. 

Nonetheless, the doubletree, in particular, was intriguing to me as it represented technology dating to the late 1800’s.  The distinction lay in tightly coiled springs on the outer edges of the evener.  These springs were connected to the singletrees, providing a cushion of sorts when the wagon was drawn.  The springs were said to save wear and tear on the horses’ shoulders as well as the harness.  It was also claimed to help prevent the tendency of excitable horses to balk.

This image shows part of an early doubletree patent.  It was one of dozens focused on improving eveners. 

While some U.S. patents on doubletrees will predate the Civil War, there were continual advances in this arena all the way through the early 1900’s.  There is easily more than a half century of patent submissions and approvals on just this one segment of period wagon accessories.  In my presentations, evaluations, and discussions with others, these types of revelations can come as a surprise.  They’re another reminder, though, that wood-wheeled wagons are far from simple machines.  Knowing these details with indisputable confidence can greatly enhance our own appreciation for a set of wheels while also creating opportunities to showcase the vehicle as the historic piece it is.  


Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.