Lighting the Way

A late 1800’s newspaper in Honeoye Falls, New York reports a collision of two carriages on Maple Street at 9:00 p.m. The shaft of one carriage pierced the chest of the oncoming horse, resulting in a fatal injury. The article goes on to explain that neither carriage had been equipped with lamps or bells.

Travel in the nineteenth century connotes a romance and excitement; but to the carriage driver of that era, the hazards of the road came in many forms. The greatest risk was to collide with another carriage when traveling at night or in low-visibility weather. Such occasions necessitated the use of either bells or lamps to declare one’s presence on the road. One needed to be seen and heard from a distance, since illuminating one’s way had not yet been perfected.

When we think of bells and horses, we most frequently think of sleigh bells; and rightly so. The sleigh’s runners and the horses’ hooves on the snow made very little noise. Blowing and drifting snow necessitated travel with bells to alert oncoming traffic that your horse and sleigh were on the roadway. Bells were tuned to “ring clear” at wintertime temperatures of below freezing.
In the nineteenth century, wintertime travel was extremely popular. In other seasons of the year, most households were actively involved in the production of food for the family and farm animals. Spring was given to the planting of gardens and field crops, summer to tending them, and fall to harvesting and preserving the fruits of one’s labor. Only in winter was there leisure time for travel. After gathering eggs and milking the family cow, the family would be off to visit relatives or neighbors in the family sleigh.

As proof of the popularity of winter travel, it has been recorded that in 1880, there were 12,000 sleighs manufactured in Amesbury, Massachusetts alone. Sleigh building was a million dollar industry. In East Hampton, Connecticut, production of sleigh bells was the “bread and butter” of the town. Bells were purchased for wintertime use, but also for areas where foggy conditions could occur and visibility was limited. Like the post horn, bells also heralded the arrival of the horse and carriage; thus the expression, “arriving with your bells on.” And bells also meant, “Clear the way!” since some drivers of the past had little respect for those on foot.

Particular types of harness made the use of bells popular too. Posting harness, where the driver of the carriage rides the near horse in a pair or four, required the use of neck bells for the horse. Conestoga Wagon harness had bells on the back pad—three on the wheelers, four on the swing team, and five on the leaders. Sleigh bells could be found on the back pad, shafts, pole or around the horse’s girth. A tandem often had a single bell hung from the martingale of the leader.

Carriage lamps were another early means of detection on the road. One often assumes that lamps illuminated the way for the carriage driver; but in fact, they were a means of being seen from a distance. Lamps were fired by either candles or oil (colza or mineral). Neither of these forms of illumination would give off enough light to see any distance down the roadway. The horses, with superior sight to man, would frequently block the candle light and had to pick their footing carefully. The advantage of using lamps on vehicles was clearly to be seen from a distance.

Lamps were additionally a symbol of one’s status in society. Since they were an additional expense and viewed as a luxury, one could display his wealth and status by having lamps on his carriage.

One specialty lamp, the toe-board carriage lamp, was designed for illuminating the horses. It was to aid the driver in seeing the harness of the four-in- hand he was driving. These lamps appeared on mail coaches, stagecoaches, large breaks and park drags. Driving a four required the driver to see if reins were entangled and if his leaders were in draft. Sometimes a white handkerchief or paper would be tied to the leader’s trace to make it more visible at night. This would help the coachman to know if the leaders were pulling on properly. There were also dash lamps for the same purpose but used when driving a pair to a carriage with a dashboard. A dash lamp was never used with a single horse.

In the 1800’s, nighttime and bad weather travel was hazardous; and travelers were often at the mercy of highwaymen. But the greatest hazard was colliding with another horse and carriage. It was absolutely necessary to warn others that you were on the road. Bells and lamps served this purpose and helped to prevent many collisions.