Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Carriage Industry in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 8, 2016.

A visitor to Exeter in the early 1800s would have quickly noticed that one of the busiest industries in town was carriage manufacturing. Today we’re used to a landscape peppered with businesses associated with our cars. There are gas stations, repair stations, glass repair, body shops, muffler and oil change shops, car dealerships and tire sales. It’s not uncommon for our car to be serviced at three or four different types of establishments. Although it may seem like the horse and buggy days were a simpler time, the carriage industry required similar numbers of diverse support services.

Before the nineteenth century few people owned their own carriage. People traveled by walking, riding horseback or paddling across water. Goods were moved from one place to another largely with two-wheeled carts, either pulled by people or a single horse. It was so uncommon for individuals to own a light carriage that most towns in New England documented the first person to have one. Indeed, Exeter is no exception as historian Charles Bell notes in History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, “The first light carriage used in the town, according to tradition, was introduced by the Rev. Daniel Rogers, about the year 1754. It was of two wheels, and without a top, much like what in later times, was termed a gig. Before that time Mr. Rogers always rode to his meetings on horseback. A few years afterwards, Brigadier Peter Gilman brought into town the first fall-back chaise with a square top.”

The chaise (sometimes spelled and pronounced ‘shay’ as in the ‘one-horse shay’) was well suited to the rough roads of the early nineteenth century. The wheels were quite large, lifting the rider well above the mud and slush of the unpaved roadway, and two wheels allowed it to bump along fairly easily. The names chaise and gig are often used interchangeably, but the distinction is that a gig, as Bell mentioned, did not have a top. A chaise had a retractable cover called a calash, which could be pulled overhead in case of rain or to provide shade. These early vehicles were purchased primarily by the wealthier people in town or, as in the case of the Rev. Rogers, those whose livelihoods required a great deal of travel such as ministers or doctors. Carriages were made slowly by local craftsmen and could be quite expensive.

Still, there was demand for less expensive models and this, combined with improvements in roads, created a strong market for four-wheeled carriages. By mid-century, the industry took off in Exeter. Bell says, “Chaise, carriage and harness making became subsequently a very considerable business in Exeter, for a long period, extending from the latter part of the last century down to near the present time (1888).

Records at the Exeter Historical Society tell us that in the 1872 town directory, when the population of Exeter was about 3,440, there were 41 men connected with the carriage business, and this doesn’t include apprentices. The businesses associated with the industry are described as: carriage manufacturer, carriage maker, carriage works, wagon maker, carriage trimmer, harness maker and trimmer, carriage woodworker, machine and carriage blacksmith, carriage painter, sign and carriage painter, carriage and sleigh painter, carriage painter and builder and carriage dealer. Nancy Merrill, the curator until 2000, wasn’t able to locate any wheelwrights in 1872, but there had been wheelwrights in town in previous decades. Perhaps the carriage makers in 1872 were securing the wheels from another town.

This diversification of the industry into select parts may seem inefficient, but it actually brought down both the price and production time of carriages. The basic frame and assembly might be completed in one shop and the paint job – and the paint was important to protect the wood and add an esthetically pleasing look – in another. Iron parts were produced and repaired in the same blacksmith shop that shoed one’s horse. And speaking of the horse, this was an entirely separate industry. The family horse needed to be housed either in the barn at home or boarded at the local livery stable. It needed medical care, proper shoes and a harness suited to its personal needs. Just as we have to put gas in the car and make sure the oil is changed regularly, a horse needed feed, water and regular stall cleaning. You couldn’t just park it for the season and forget about it.

With all the carriage manufacturing that went on in town, it’s a bit odd that we don’t have any examples of Exeter carriages to look at. They’re probably out there, but carriage makers didn’t commonly sign their work and unlike other craftsmen, they didn’t leave detailed plans describing their designs. Most of the wagons and carriages made in Exeter were produced before the 1890s and were simply allowed to decay in the following decades. By the turn of the century, carriage making in Exeter was on the decline. Bell’s theory was that there weren’t enough young men willing to take up the craft. This might be true, or it could be that the rise of the mail order catalog - the Amazon of its day – cut into local production. A lightweight carriage could be ordered from Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward and it would arrive by rail. Either way, as we look back on the era from modern times we know that the carriage industry was doomed as soon as automobiles were invented. Who wants to muck out the horse stall when you can simply buy a few gallons of gas instead?

Fear not, however, the entire horse and buggy industry converted to the modern era. Livery stables and blacksmith shops became the mechanics garage. Gas stations popped up all over the place. As technology changes so does the commercial landscape. We no longer have video stores and travel agencies are waning, but smart phone repair shops are doing well. Soon we’ll all be lining up for self-driving car rental services and we’ll wonder why we ever bothered with car payments.

Photo: George Green poses in front of his carriage painting shop on Court Street in the mid 1870s. As both a blacksmith and painter, Green was part of the large carriage producing industry that once thrived in Exeter.

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