Nearly a quarter century ago, I set out on a quest to learn more about America’s first transportation industry. It’s been quite a journey since those early days when I was struggling to find primary source materials.
Today, I’m convinced that, as much as we’ve uncovered, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to learn about this industry and how it prepared the way for the automobile. One of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome in the beginning was the perception that the wagon and carriage industry was fairly small with only a few thousand manufacturers scattered over the whole country. Over time, I was able to locate period books, directories, trade publications, and other resources that added clarity and valuable insights. Now we know that there were literally tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicle builders and repairers in the U.S. In fact, Clement Studebaker (then-president of Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Co.) stated in 1887 that he conservatively estimated the United States had at least 80,000 vehicle makers. Talk about competition!
It’s a tough industry to fully study since the majority of these builders were small and often didn’t stay in business for an extended time. Some engaged in carriage and wagon making as a sideline to another primary business like hardware, lumber, and even undertaking! Complicating matters a bit more, most did very little, if any, promotion beyond the local shop signage and word-of-mouth advertising. The end result is that there tends to be very little (if any) surviving information on many builders. In tribute to the small and mid-sized vehicle makers, I thought we’d share a few more of the countless manufacturing-related images we have in our collection. There’s a wide variety of subject matter in those photos since horse-drawn vehicle production required at least four categories of skillsets – blacksmiths, wheelwrights, wainwrights, and painters. Enjoy!
This extremely rare photo shows how A. Meister’s shop in Sacramento, California looked in 1872. The well-known firm survived into the early 1920’s.
This old image shows the employees of Short & Smith. The firm built carriages, spring wagons, and sleighs in Syracuse, New York.
Note the workers in the second story of this building. These upper sections were often used for painting as they had less dust and debris compared to the ground floor where blacksmithing and woodwork were done.
This super-scarce image shows a group of wagon and carriage makers comprised predominantly of African-American craftsmen. They're standing in front of wood stock that's being air-seasoned versus the kiln-drying process.
Small blacksmith shops were common to almost every community across the United States. This one was located in West, Texas. It was owned by Frank Divin, the inventor and patentee of a 2-row cultivator.
This 1880 photo provides a rare glimpse of a period, Jackson-brand wagon as well as the legendary J.A. Polley vehicle shops in Topeka, Kansas. Photos like this are invaluable when determining levels of originality and authenticity.
Dated to 1896, this photo shows a builder in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Note the stepped ramp allowing vehicles to be moved upstairs for painting and striping work.
The artwork on the entrances of some old blacksmithing buildings was amazing. This one includes a mural of the builder’s wagons. To the right, additional signage promotes “Horse-Shoeing, Wagon Work, & Plow Work.”
While early vehicles were designed with their share of art and style, additional creativity was displayed in other areas as well. Either of the 1890’s-era signs on this building would be a great addition to an early vehicle collection today.
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