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The Carriage Trade: Making Horse-Drawn Vehicles in America

Author(s):Kinney, Thomas A.
Reviewer(s):Dicke, Tom

Published by EH.NET (July 2005)

Thomas A. Kinney, The Carriage Trade: Making Horse-Drawn Vehicles in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xi + 301 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-7946-9

Reviewed for EH.NET by Tom Dicke, Department of History, Southwest Missouri State University.

The Carriage Trade is the first industry-wide study of the horse-drawn vehicle business in the United States. This alone should guarantee it a place as the standard work on the subject for years to come. Fortunately this finely crafted study fills that role nicely. Kinney’s research is through and his analysis is careful and thoughtful. He examines the industry from its origins in the colonial period through its rapid demise in the 1920s. As the subtitle suggests, the focus is on manufacturing, but the book provides adequate coverage of distribution and marketing. Kinney also includes perceptive coverage of the extensive parts and paint industry that served wagon and carriage makers. Aside from its obvious appeal to those interested in the horse-drawn vehicle industry, this book has much to offer any reader interested in how several generations of craft workers, small shop owners, and large-scale family firms adopted and adapted to industrialization.

The horse-dawn vehicle industry in the United States was always complicated. From the colonial period until the mid-nineteenth century Americans drove a wide variety of carts, wagons, chaises, sleighs and miscellaneous other vehicles most of which were generally either homemade with specialized parts purchased from local craftsmen or sometimes purchased ready-made from carpenters, smiths, and wheelwrights who made them as a sideline. Carriage makers were the only dedicated vehicle makers. They produced a custom product for an elite market and kept busy in slack times by building wagons, stages and similar vehicles for the general market. The work required highly specialized skills in design as well as expertise in working wood and metal, painting, sewing, and leatherwork. The vast majority of shops subcontracted at least part of this work.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century a mass market began to develop for wagons, buggies, and carriages. Partly this was driven by systematization and other advances in manufacturing which dropped the price of an good quality buggy from roughly $135 in the 1860s to around $100 in the 1870s and under $50 in the 1880s. Beginning in the 1860s a few large manufacturers such as G. & D. Cook & Company appeared but their appearance did not radically transform the trade. In 1900 the 3400 plus wagon and carriage makers in the U.S. with five or fewer employees managed to coexist with the 134 companies with more than one hundred workers. One of Kinney’s main concerns in writing this study was to explain how thousands of shops making a few dozen to a few hundred vehicles a year existed along side those such as Studebaker Brothers who produced 15,000 vehicles in 1875. Kinney develops several explanations. As might be expected, some cultivated a niche that kept them out of direct competition with their larger counterparts. Kinney illustrates this approach with a detailed study of the carriage business established by James Brewster in 1808 that shows how Brewster and his descendants managed to position themselves as exclusive carriage makers flying above the turbulence of the mass market. Repair work and specialized markets such as ambulances or ice wagons provided some security to others. Most surprising, however, is Kinney’s discovery that most small and medium-sized shops were able to more or less match the prices of their larger, and supposedly more efficient, counterparts by buying most of their components from large, specialized parts suppliers. These firms gave even a small shop access to economies of scale and this combined with effective use of machine tools allowed small makers to produce a nearly custom product out of mass produced parts.

Several features in this extremely well organized study deserve mention. Kinney provides detailed case studies of a small shop, Brewster, and a large manufacturer, Studebaker, and well as several parts suppliers. The result is a solid mix of useful generalization supported by extensive detail. Kinney gives a thorough description and analysis of the breakdown of the craft tradition and its replacement with new arrangements, each with its own set of opportunities and restrictions. Incidentally, his case studies also provide a powerful illustration of the often-fractious nature of proprietary capitalism as he traces the various legal battles that divided partners and families and rippled through several generations of Brewsters and others. The book is adequately illustrated, although the illustrations are inconveniently clustered in a single section that necessitates a fair amount of flipping back and forth. Kinney includes a detailed glossary for the uninitiated and a bibliographic essay that shows a clear command of the relevant literatures and research collections. This is a solid addition to the fine series Studies in Industry and Society, published with assistance from the Hagley Museum and Library

Tom Dicke is Associate Professor of History at Southwest Missouri State University. His most recent work, “Red Gold of the Ozarks: The Rise and Decline of Tomato Canning, 1885-1955,” appears in the Winter 2005 issue of Agricultural History. He is currently researching a project on the Springfield Wagon Company.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII