Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America

Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America

Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America

Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America

Synopsis

What was travel like in the 1880s? Was it easy to get from place to place? Were the rides comfortable? How long did journeys take? Wet Britches and Muddy Boots describes all forms of public transport from canal boats to oceangoing vessels, passenger trains to the overland stage. Trips over long distances often involved several modes of transportation and many days, even weeks. Baggage and sometimes even children were lost en route. Travelers might start out with a walk down to the river to meet a boat for the journey to a town where they caught a stagecoach for the rail junction to catch the train for a ride to the city. John H. White Jr. discusses not only the means of travel but also the people who made the system run-riverboat pilots, locomotive engineers, stewards, stagecoach drivers, seamen. He provides a fascinating glimpse into a time when travel within the United States was a true adventure.

Excerpt

One of the most arresting images in the HBO adaptation of David McCullough’s best-selling biography of John Adams is the departure of the president from Washington, D.C., in March 1801. A huge horse-drawn coach pulls up in front of the White House. With some difficulty, the sixty-seven-year-old Adams climbs onto it, taking a seat among a group of ordinary Americans. Then the coach pulls away, launching Adams on his long journey back to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts.

The scene startled me because it was so unfamiliar. I knew I could hold forth at length on why Adams was leaving Washington against his will and the significance of his mingling with his fellow citizens. But I had no idea what this form of public transportation was, how long it had been in operation, how much it cost, how long it took to get from one place to another, and what it felt like. Like most of my academic peers, I was so used to thinking about large-scale questions of power and change that I had virtually no idea of what it was like to get around in the United States in 1800. It quickly dawned on me, of course, that I had just experienced the gap between the kind of knowledge constructed by academic specialists and the kind of knowledge most people want to know. The latter included the details of the Adams’s family life, especially the relationship between John and Abigail, which had made McCullough’s book so popular. It is, after all, the specifics of what we call material culture – the sights, sounds, and texture of ordinary life – that most satisfies a human curiosity about the concrete and personal aspects of the past.

When John Adams left Washington, most human beings traveled as their ancestors had traveled for centuries. They walked. But as the coach he boarded suggested, ordinary people were slowly joining the powerful and privileged in being carried, either by other people or by animals. The major exception to this rule was waterborne commerce. Then suddenly in the space of a couple of generations everything changed. The development of steam engines, telegraphs, railroads, and steel made it easier and cheaper to move people, goods, and ideas over long distances and to . . .

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