Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Exposition Wagons

Long before auto makers were showcasing their hottest concepts at car shows, the carriage and wagon industry was laying the foundation for these head-turning events.  In fact, even in the wildest days of the Old West, horse-drawn vehicle builders were displaying their most innovation and attractive creations.  Many of these venues took place at highly publicized gatherings such as local and state fairs as well as national and international expositions.  The atmosphere of these special events created tremendous opportunities for wagon and carriage makers to promote their wares to large crowds with a heightened sense of excitement.

As the auto industry still does today, horse-drawn vehicle makers had several ways to set their products apart at these shows.  They jockeyed for prominent locations, created impressive displays and signage, printed distinctive and colorful support materials, worked to secure articles and editorial magazine features, and showcased unique vehicles that captured the intrigue and imagination of all who strolled by. 

Among the more recognized show pieces that collectors and enthusiasts may think of today is the giant farm wagon built by the Moline Wagon Company for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (Louisiana Purchase Exposition).  During the same event, the legendary Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Company took the time to stack a number of their wagons.  So effective was this massive pyramid that the image, itself, was trademarked by the firm.  The accompanying tagline touted the reputation and quality of the brand by stating, “We Tower Above All.”

This 1904 photo shows the ‘tower’ of vehicles displayed by the Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Company.

At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Studebaker pulled out all the stops with a set of wheels often referred to as the ‘aluminum’ wagon.  It was (and still is) an extraordinary piece to see.  In fact, the showpiece cost them over $2,000 to build – easily ten times the then-retail price of many farm wagons.  At the time, aluminum was expensive and difficult to work.  Even so, in an effort to reflect their serious commitment to craftsmanship and innovation, Studebaker used the element to remove roughly two-thirds of the heaviest hardware and weight from a standard-sized farm wagon.  Those efforts to lighten the design while keeping it strong meant that the vehicle could be moved with less effort while hauling more cargo.  If all of this sounds familiar, it should.  Nearly one hundred twenty-five years after Studebaker was the first to use aluminum in a vehicle, auto makers around the world continue to work with this metal.  Driving home that point, almost a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog on the continued use of aluminum in some vehicles today.

This original Studebaker ‘Aluminum’ wagon is on display at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.

Other well-known wagon companies with displays at the Columbian Exhibition included Kentucky, Mitchell, Jackson, Burg, Champion, Fish Bros., Milburn, Mitchell, Moline, Peter Schuttler, Stoughton, Weber, Keystone, Knickerbocker, Bettendorf, Armleder, Abresch, and many more.

Another rare exposition wagon that can still be seen today is the Studebaker ‘Centennial’ wagon which was unveiled at the first World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876.  Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence, this massive event is known as the Centennial Exposition.  The site, itself, is said to have included more than 200 buildings spread out over several hundred acres.  Lasting for six months, the event hosted more than ten million visitors, including dignitaries from all over the world. 

Among those with vehicles on display in the Centennial's transportation section was a relatively small maker with big dreams.  Hailing from Seymour, Indiana, Jacob Becker, Jr. unveiled an ornately crafted wagon with multiple patents protecting its innovative features.  You can read more about this custom creation by checking out the exclusive story on our website.

Like the use of aluminum, the concepts of twin axle steering and front wheel brakes seen here have also been incorporated into automobiles.


There are a few other wagons I’ve come across in my research that may well have been used as a promotional vehicle.  That said, I’ve been unable to confirm some of those suspicions with primary source documentation – at least yet.  As difficult as all of this research is to complete, I’ve been a little more successful locating period photos of other pieces also shown at the Centennial event.  One example is an original cabinet card we found years ago.  It features a patented crane neck dray built by John Beggs & Sons of Philadelphia.  The photo below shows a portion of that image.  Engineered to replace the more common two-wheeled drays of that time, the wagon is equipped with the relatively new-to-the-market Archibald wheel hubs.  Established in 1839, the Beggs firm is said to have been a significant producer of wagons for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Our efforts to learn more about this custom dray built by John Beggs & Sons also resulted in the discovery of extensive original color descriptions for the vehicle. 

With custom design elements and patriotic-themed crests, this nineteenth-century wagon was likely built for a special event or promotional show.  Even so, we've yet to conclusively identify this builder.

Most folks never give a thought as to how complex America’s horse-drawn vehicle industry really was.  In fact, I’ve had more than one strange look from individuals when I’ve made comments regarding the industry's sophistication and commitment to innovation. The truth is, we know so little about this part of our past.  Yet, it is the very industry that propelled our nation forward in times of peace… and war.  From show-stopping promotional displays to advanced concept vehicles, the most successful manufacturers left no stone unturned in the areas of advertising, marketing, sales, and product innovation.  It’s a legacy of exceptional attention to detail that paved the road for countless ideas that are still used today.   

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