I recently visited the Autry, a museum in Los Angeles dedicated to showcasing the experience of the American West.
Among other displays (Wyatt Earp's Colt 45, for starters), I was eager to see a Gold-Rush era stagecoach. We historical writers set our characters in all sorts of conveyances—from Regency phaetons to farm wagons—and I couldn’t resist seeing the historical form of transportation up close. Although I knew I couldn’t touch or approach the coach, I looked forward to “putting myself into the scene” as much as I could: seeing how tall I was in relation to it, wondering what it must have felt like to raise the hem of my skirt and petticoats and climb aboard, just as my heroines might.
I was surprised by the beauty and craftsmanship I saw.
According to a display photo taken before its restoration, Stagecoach Number 65 was well-used and of questionable color from numerous repainting. Restorers set to work and discovered a gorgeous surprise underneath the years of grime and paint.
This Concord stagecoach, Abbot Downing Company, was built in New Hampshire around 1850. Concord stagecoaches often featured landscapes painted on the sides, and it’s said the benches were cushioned with quality fabrics. In addition, “thorough braces” of cured leather strung in pairs under the coach, allowing the coach to swing back and forth like a cradle and sparing the riders from the jolts and bumps of the road.
According to the docent on hand, however, the passengers traversing Gold-Rush era Northern California in this coach would not have endured a pleasant journey.
The roads were primitive; the journeys, long. Four to six horses pulled the coach, which could seat nine people within on three bench-type seats (and perhaps more on top). Only three of those passengers inside could be female. It was not seemly for a man to have his boots, or knee, or any other part of his person between a woman’s legs. Therefore, the men riding on the center bench (which appears to have been backless) had to face the other row of menfolk.
I couldn't figure out how nine people crammed inside. I felt very spoiled by my Mom-mobile SUV.
And despite the “thorough brace” supporting the coach, passengers were often “sea-sick,” and invariably, the inside of a stagecoach was an unpleasant place to be after a while. The coaches didn’t stop to accommodate bouts of illness. No wonder passengers brought along remedies to help allay the symptoms of motion sickness.
Note the portable utensils and travel-sized salt container in the photo, as well.
Besides medicine and sanitary spoons, what did one bring along for a journey by stagecoach? Only twenty-five pounds of luggage was allotted per person, so one had to be choosy. Travel-size playing cards seemed to be a popular choice, from the number of them I saw at the Autry (It's not easy to tell in the photo, but they are quite tiny, like children's party favors.)
Here’s a satchel and the sorts of things one might pack inside--you've seen the medicines and cards, but this photo also shows a warm bonnet, tooth powder, soap, and tools. One imagines very few changes of clothing fit in the satchel, too.
It may not have been a romantic way to travel at the time, but the relics of a bygone era certainly spark the imagination!
I'll post more of my discoveries soon!