“Gentleman to Drive”

In the 21st century, we associate soccer moms with minivans and construction men with pick-up trucks. These broad generalizations are based on some truth: Women who transport the team need a vehicle with multiple seats and a cargo area. Men who haul materials and tools need a bigger cargo area and less passenger space.

Matching need to vehicle was the same in the golden age of carriages (1865 to 1910), but there was a social/gender issue as well. Vehicles were marketed either as for a lady or for a gentleman. Among the collection of antique carriages and sleighs at the Granger Homestead – nearly 100 that were either used or built in western New York – are some that were specifically designed for men. They will be displayed in the museum’s main carriage barn through 2010.

In general, women’s long skirts, bustles and hoops often made it difficult for them to climb into a gentlemen’s carriage, which generally sat high above the muddy road and provided greater visibility of the area ahead. Compared to women drivers, men chose faster horses and vehicles that offered great stability for quickly traveling across town for a business meeting, or winning an occasional impromptu race to the oak tree and back. Many gentlemen’s vehicles had stiff suspension springs and were short coupled between the front and back axle for maneuvering fast turns. Their colors were often more subdued, leaving the brighter colors for the ladies.

The vehicles featured in the “Gentleman to Drive” exhibit – a Park Drag, phaeton, game cart, gig and brake – help us to interpret the lives of the people who drove them. The Park Drag, for instance, made by Healy and Company, was the showpiece of any carriage barn; only the rich members of upper society could afford one. It holds 14 people and needs four horses to pull it. The Park Drag was used for fun outings, like a holiday drive to watch the horse races or a Sunday picnic, complete with china, silver, and multi-course dinner.

The gentleman owner might have driven it, or he may have hired a coachman. Society fashions gave clues as to the status of the driver. If the driver was also the owner, he wore a gray top hat. If the driver was a hired coachman, he wore a black top hat.

The Roof Seat Brake for commercial use, built by Keeler & Jennings in Rochester, carried passengers and their possessions from Rochester to Avon on a regular commercial schedule. The seats are on the top (roof) to keep passengers away from the muddy roads as much as possible. There was no covered area in case of rain. The body of the brake contains compartments where items ranging from personal luggage to small livestock, such as chickens, could be stowed.

The Stanhope Phaeton, created by Fitzroy Stanhope, announced to all onlookers the superior taste and upper-middle-class social standing of the driver. Phaetons have a horizontal floorboard that blends into a 45-degree-angled toe-board and then a vertical dashboard in front of the driver. Because this design took more time and skill to create than the square box of the ordinary buggy, it was immediately recognized for its superior craftsmanship by “people in the know.” It also commanded a higher price tag. The Stanhope vehicle has a comfortable suspension and is close coupled for easy maneuvering within traffic.

Stanhope also designed a gig, a tall two-wheeled vehicle that holds two passengers in a forward-facing seat. Because it’s smaller than a buggy, it’s easier to maneuver in traffic or on narrow roads. The high wheels lifted the driver into a position where he could easily see traffic and obstacles, and be away from some of the road mud.

Gigs became popular in the 1830s as a vehicle businessmen could drive to and from work. It needed only one horse to pull it and it took up minimal parking space.

Gigs presented a problem for ladies. Passengers entered it from behind the horse, but in front of the wheels. A man in pants could easily step over the tall wheel, but a lady might soil her skirts if the wheel was muddy. Courteous gentlemen would place a woven wicker wheel cover over the dirty wheel temporarily when assisting a lady into this gentlemen’s gig. Eventually, manufacturers did make ladies’ gigs with easier access and brighter, more feminine colors.

The Gentlemen’s Game Cart is not really a cart at all, but a full-sized, four-wheeled specialty vehicle used when groups went hunting. Its upholstered seats could accommodate the owner and three guests for a day in the woods. The game cart featured a cargo area where dogs could be carried to the hunt and game could be transported back home.

If the owner desired privacy without the distraction of driving, he could opt for his horses to be driven postillion. This meant that a separate driver rode one of the horses and held the reins for the other horse in the carriage pair. Since the driver would be several feet in front of the carriage, it would be difficult for him to overhear the conversations of the game cart passengers. In addition, he wouldn’t take up a seat in the game cart.

The magnificent 1816 Federal-style Granger mansion was built by Gideon Granger, postmaster general for Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He came to Canandaigua to assist in settling the estate of his boyhood friend, Oliver Phelps. Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, both of Massachusetts, purchased land after the Revolutionary War that opened up western New York for settlement.

One of Granger’s original 1816 barns is still on the property and is home to an agricultural tool display. Two other barns house the carriage collection, one of the premier public collections in the northeast United States.

The Granger Homestead and Carriage Museum is open from June to October. Guided tours are available from 1 to 5 p.m. A 45-minute narrated tour in a restored antique carriage with a period-costumed driver is also available. On Fridays and Sundays, take the path from the Granger Homestead through the historic district onto the grounds of historic Sonnenberg Gardens. On Thursdays, learn about Canandaigua’s famous and infamous former residents as you tour nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.

Carriages are available for weddings, parties or corporate events. Visit the website at www.grangerhomestead.org or call 585-394-1272 to learn about upcoming events.

by Jane Clark

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