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article number 421
article date 02-12-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Carriage Industry 1873, Wooden Carriages, Iron Axels and Springs
by Horace Greeley, et al.

From the 1873 book, The Great Industries of the United States.


THE “palace cars” of these days of railroad history have twelve wheels. Mr. Edgeworth, the father of Maria Edgeworth, the novelist, and a man of many fancies, invented a gig with only one wheel, — a horse-wheelbarrow, so to speak, — which was kept upright by girthing the shafts fast at the horse’s sides, at the saddle.

These, however, as well as three-wheeled vehicles, are exceptional cases, not to mention the proverbial case of the “fifth wheel” of a coach.

A carriage, properly so called, has four wheels.

Two-wheeled vehicles — seemingly used at first exclusively for war — were, however, undoubtedly the most ancient, and their first use was at a period before either printed, carved, or painted records. These chariots are named in the Book of ‘Exodus,’ painted on the Egyptian tombs, and carved on the ruins of the Assyrian palaces; so that they were in ordinary use from 1500 to 2500 years before Christ.

Thus the wheel, which is the chief invention in everything of the carriage kind, was one of the primeval human devices.

As is the case with many other things, the modern carriage has been brought to its present perfection within a comparatively very short period, after wheeled vehicles generally had remained between thirty and forty centuries without any very great changes.

In the age of chivalry, and afterwards, it was reckoned discreditable for men to ride in covered carriages, which began to be known a little after A. D. 1500. Something of the kind had been used among the Romans, but had apparently gone out of remembrance.

This opinion of the shamefulness of using a carriage was remarkably suitable for an age when war and hunting were the chief employments of men, and the wretched condition of the few existing roads made it necessary to go about on horseback.

Coaches, however, gradually crept into use, though not without a good deal of opposition. A German writer gives the following description of the coaches used by the Emperor Leopold at his wedding, about 1657, or a little later. It will be seen that they were, in some points, like our coaches of the present day, and were decorated in the same general style: ——

“In the imperial coaches no great magnificence was to be seen. They were covered over with red cloth and black nails. The harness was black, and in the whole work there was no gold. The panels were of glass, and on this account they were called the imperial glass coaches.

On festivals the harness was ornamented with red silk fringes. The imperial coaches were distinguished only by their having leather traces; but the ladies in the imperial suite were obliged to be contented with carriages the traces of which were made of ropes.”

A decidedly inferior style was that of the ambassador of Brandenburg, at the election of the Emperor Matthias, in 1612, who, it is reported, had three coaches; but “they were coarse coaches, composed of four boards put together in a clumsy manner.” Coarse indeed!

These early coaches had no springs at all, as nearly as can be learned from such representations of them as survive. The leathern straps, which are still used under stage-coach bodies, were the first contrivance of the kind. They are known to have been in use in the time of Louis XIV.


From these lumbering old machines to the assortment of elegant forms and astonishing combinations of strength and lightness, winch are to be found in the show-rooms of a first-class carriage maker of the present day, is a very long step.

The good qualities of the present style of wheeled carriages are better shown in those of American makers than anywhere else, and the American vehicles are greatly admired abroad.

Few of European make reach this country; but when they do, their massive weight and clumsy, blocky structure present a striking contrast to the elastic strength and slender, though enduring, fabric of good American carriage makers’ work.

Some of the best examples of American carriage-building are afforded by men who have risen from obscurity and poverty to wealth, success, and reputation by their own energy, industry, and intelligence. Such an instance is that of the extensive carriage warehouse and factory of the firm of William B. Rogers & Co., of Philadelphia, whose history and present condition well illustrate the present attainments of American carriage-making, and the power of the personal qualities just mentioned, in the American business world.

In the year 1846, in a small building belonging to the Girard estate, on the corner of Sixth and Brown Streets, Philadelphia, Mr. Rogers, then a very young man, began the manufacture of coaches and carriages, and laid the foundation of a name which now stands high throughout the United States and a great part of Europe.

He employed only seven men at the outset, but being himself a practical coach-builder, as well as an energetic and judicious foreman and manager, it would be hardly an exaggeration to estimate the force employed at several more than seven.

Mr. Rogers remained in this location until 1853, when he erected new shops at the corner of Sixth and Master Streets, and for the first time possessed an establishment in some measure adequate to the rapid increase of his business, and to his own ideas of arrangement and equipment. It is four stories high, covered a space of one hundred and seventy-two by one hundred and thirty-seven feet, and was so completely finished and fitted that it might really have been reckoned, at the time, the model coach shop of America.

In 1857 Mr. Rogers, having found the office and sales-rooms at the factory insufficient and inconveniently placed, fitted up and opened his present extensive and commodious Bazaar at Nos. 1009 and 1011 Chestnut Street. This enlargement sufficed for a few years, but a large custom trade had by this time grown up, the natural consequence of the durable and tasteful character of the work turned out by the house.

As this class of business requires especially close supervision, Mr. Rogers rebuilt the rear portion of the Chestnut Street buildings in 1860, and fitted them up as workshops, in order the more conveniently to oversee them himself. More room being still required, a large, four-story building on Filbert Street, directly in rear of the main building, was added in 1865.


The last step in this series of enlargements took place in December, 1870. Mr. Roger had a little before this time associated in partnership with him Mr. Joseph Moore, Jr., a son of the president of the Bank of Northern Liberties, a young man of financial abilities, executive talent, valuable business connections, and excellent address.

Thus re-enforced, and after some months of consideration, the new firm, now William D. Rogers & Co., transferred their principal manufacturing operations to the extensive and commodious premises formerly occupied by George W. Watson & Co., at Thirteenth and Parrish Streets, this firm retiring from business.

The new factory was thoroughly remodelled and refitted from office to roof, and is now in full operation, filling the whole of a four-story building one hundred and eighty feet by ninety-five, and there is some expectation that the demands of the business for “more room” will be quiet for a little while at least.

The factory and repository are connected by telegraph, — a fact which shows the completeness with which the business is organized.

No single item will give a better idea of the patience and scrupulous care, as well as the important investment of time and money required for such a business as this, than that of the lumber and stock department.

The woods used in carriage-making are principally, for bodies, ash, cherry, and poplar; for wheels and running-gear, hickory. All this must be seasoned during from two to five years before it is fit to be put into first-class work and accordingly there must always be stored in the lumber department from two to five years’ stock of wood. The quantity thus kept on hand is at least seventy thousand or eighty thousand feet. Nor is this tedious preparatory process confined to rough lumber merely.

From one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five sets of wheels are always kept in stock, in order that the additional shrinkage, which always comes after finishing and fitting, shall take place in the shop, thus preventing its appearance during actual service, and rendering the work more durable, besides saving dissatisfaction and bills for repairs.

The chief other departments, of course, are the smith shop, wheel shop, body room, and painting and trimming rooms. These are duplicated in Messrs: Rogers & Co.’s business, each being equally indispensable in the factory and at the Chestnut Street house.

At the former, however, where the main stock of lumber is kept, there is also a saw-mill, run by a steam engine, which furnishes whatever power is needed for any purpose throughout the works.

The smith shop consists of a room for jobbing, a room for what is called the “four-spring work,” and another for “light work.” These contain about twelve forges, and along with them there goes a good deal of room occupied by finished work waiting to be united with carriage bodies, racks for selected iron of all kinds, etc., etc.

All the iron-work is made in the shop, except the bolts. The iron used is Norway, Ulster, and Lowmoor iron, the experience of the firm having shown that these are best suited for its work.

The “body room” is really, however, the place where the carriage begins, for here it is that the body of the carriage is made, and from here it goes to the smith shop to be ironed. All the work here is done by hand, from the full-sized drawings furnished by the designer. It then receives one coat of paint, when it goes to be ironed.


A second period of patience and delay comes while the carriage is receiving its glossy coat of color. The care and labor of the process of painting carriages are extraordinary, as it requires eighteen separate coats of paint and varnish before a carriage body is thoroughly finished, each having to be carefully laid on, slowly dried, and laboriously rubbed down — a process which cannot be hurried, and must occupy many days.

The work from Rogers & Co. has a reputation for beautiful finish, which may possibly have led to the supposition that some chemical secret is employed. There is nothing of the kind, however, the effect being produced only by the extraordinary care used to maintain an even temperature in the rooms, and to exclude dust.

The former object is attained by constant reference to a thermometer, and adjustments accordingly; the latter by having the walls of the finishing room hard finished, painted, and varnished, by having the floor double, and interlined with two separate layers of roof felting, and by having the windows and doors so closely fitted as to be dust-proof.

So far does this anxious solicitude extend, that, in order to avoid any unnecessary opening of doors, a small glazed opening is arranged, through which the room can be looked into from without when requisite, without moving the door itself.

The special advance supply of wheels, kept on hand in the wheel department, has been mentioned. This is by no means the only precaution used, however.

The wood itself used in the wheels is selected with the greatest care, and to insure the greatest degree of uniformity and thoroughness in this most important part of the structure, one and the same steady, skilful, and experienced workmen has, for the last nineteen years, driven every spoke used in the factory.

The rigid scrupulousness used in the choice of stock for wheels makes their first cost greater than that of a power wheel; but there is no wastage in buying on this principle, and the repairing on the finished work is a minimum, so that the wheels are the cheapest in the end.

The same thoroughness and care are bestowed on the choice and use of materials in the trimming room, as in all the rest of the work. The leather used, for which the establishment has a special reputation, is made to Messrs. W. D. Rogers & Co.’s own order. The carpets, silks, etc., are mostly imported.

In inspecting the whole of the two portions of this great establishment, it is impossible to avoid being greatly impressed by the extreme thoroughness and completeness with which its departments have been organized, systematized, and arranged with reference to each other, and their remarkable economy of room and fullness of equipment.

This secures to every workman the power of accomplishing the greatest quantity of work with time least possible expenditure and waste of time.

However, the establishment itself, the obvious excellence of the finished work it turns out, the efficiency, regularity, and ease of all its daily operations, and its great and increasing reputation are all the result of one and the same original motive power — the vivid, wide-awake, inexhaustible, incessant, and close personal supervision and stimulus of its founder.

How much such a force amounts to in twenty years may be gathered from a patient examination of this concern. Nor can any intelligent observer pass even a short time in the company of Mr. Rogers himself without being convinced that the force is at least adequate to the result.


Mr. Rogers is a compactly and strongly-built man, with abundance of brain, unusually quick motions, keen, bright eyes, a very ready and at the same time a very thoughtful expression, an open, intelligent face, a prompt and pleasant smile — altogether a fine personification of intelligent strength and activity.

As might be expected, the conduct of his business is marked at once by liberality, foresight, and kindness, as well as by the strictness and regularity of a mere business man.

This is well shown by the fact — one of the highest of all testimonies — that his workmen remain with him so long; many of them, indeed, began their apprenticeship in the concern, and show no signs of leaving it yet.

Nor, after a quarter of a century of labor, does this remarkable “prime mover” relax his oversight. The vigilant supervision of the experienced department foremen, able and constant as it is, is not enough. Mr. Rogers visits the factory daily, and carefully inspects all that is going on in each branch, and during the rest of the day he is on duty at the office and warerooms in Chestnut Street.

No effort has been made by William D. Rogers & Co. to turn out “cheap work.” Such work could not pay for the sort of labor and care exercised in their establishment, nor could the mind that habitually exercises such labor and care be satisfied with cheap work. The point aimed at, and reached, has been, by thorough attention to excellence in detail, to secure the utmost excellence in whatever work should be turned out, whether little or much.

A proper price has been charged. And the result shows that there are abundance of customers who are better satisfied to pay what is necessary for the sake of obtaining a strong and enduring fabric than to buy at a cheap rate some “rattle-trap’ that will cost its original price for repairs within a little while.

Messrs. Rogers & Co. ship their carriages to all parts of America; they have regular patrons in England, France, and Italy, and orders from other foreign countries are from time to time reaching them.

What the future of the firm is to be, it is useless to conjecture; but it is certain that it has by no means approached the limits of practical and prosperous development.


PERHAPS nothing in the history of human progress is more marked than are modern improvements in vehicles of transportation, especially those adapted to the conveyance of persons. And among these improvements none are more important than those which have been effected in axletrees, and by the invention of various springs, to make the coach, wagon, or whatever the vehicle may be, more comfortable to its occupant.

Chariots, or two-wheeled vehicles, always clumsy in their moving parts, and made tolerable to the eye only by the graceful shape of their upper, or box work, existed in the earliest historic periods. These were mostly used by kings and grandees on state occasions, or by soldiers in battle, sometimes having scythes and crooked knives affixed to their axles.

When Pharaoh set Joseph over Egypt, he “made him to ride in the second chariot which he had” (Gen. xli. 43), which, though a nominal honor, must have been a sort of “cross’ for poor Joseph to bear, inasmuch as without springs the clumsy chariot could hardly have been equal for ease to a modern lumber-box wagon.

Solomon did more or less business in the chariot line, as is evident from 1 Kings x. 29. The business was probably a profitable one, as those poor vehicles sold for six hundred shekels, or about three hundred and seventy-five dollars of our money.

In reading of these clumsy affairs in the Scriptures, and reflecting upon Solomon’s having been a man of superior wisdom, one is led to wonder that some improvements in these vehicles were not made by him. He ought at least to have displayed the small modicum of genius which it requires to invent carriage springs of a poor kind.

But the history of man shows that talent and genius have been distributed along down the line of the ages among men with a sort of parsimony on the part of Nature, as if the good dame’s gifts, or source of the same, were limited. Perhaps it is; and this would account for Solomon’s stupidity in persisting in riding in, and dealing in, lumber-box chariots, constructed with bungling axles.


The Greeks and Romans used chariots to some extent, but the general use of these or other wheeled vehicles was impossible in early times on account of the want of suitable roads. Even till after the middle ages, during which riding was principally done on horseback, carriages were uncommon, so much so that one of an indifferent and uncomely structure was thought fit to be mentioned in history, if it chanced on occasion to bear a king.

Even in 1550 there were only three coaches to be found in Paris, then a distinguished city. Coaches were introduced into England in 1554, the first by a Dutchman, for Queen Elizabeth’s use.

Soon after “divers great ladies,” in jealousy of the queen, caused coaches to be made for themselves, to ride up and down the country in; and after a period of a quarter of a century the coach-making trade obtained some foothold in England.

In the early settlement of this country nothing better than the common ox-cart, or the most cumbersome wooden-axle lumber-box wagon was known up to a comparatively recent date. In the early part of this century the greatest advance made in carriages was the adaptation to some of the leathern side-spring.

To the introduction and perfection of the iron axle and the best class of steel springs, permitting lightness of structure, is due the present elegance of our wagons and carriages, which have no equals in the world. The traveller from this country to Europe is at once struck with the comparative cumbersomeness and inelegance of European vehicles.

The axle and spring manufacture in this country constitutes a large business interest, employing a great amount of capital and a large number of hands in various parts of the land.

The representative establishment of the United States in the manufacture of springs and axles, both in the matter of quality and in that of quantity as regards the perfectly finished kinds of the same, is that of The Mowry Axle and Machine Company, of Greenville, Conn., who make all kinds of axles and springs, from the lightest and most tasteful, such as we use in trotting sulkies, to the heaviest, for omnibuses, for example.

The business of this company was established in 1845 by Mr. Samuel Mowry, then a man in middle life, and a pioneer of cotton manufacturing in this country, and who had accumulated a large estate, enabling him to at once enter upon the axle and spring business with every advantage and facility which the state of the art then permitted, taking at once the leading position, which the establishment has continued to hold. The business was conducted under the firm name of Samuel Mowry & Sons till 1869, when it was incorporated under the style of “The Mowry Axle and Machine Company.”


At this establishment in the manufacture of axles, only the best Salisbury iron is used, brought to the factory directly from the mill in bars. It is first cut into proper lengths by immense shears heated to a red heat, and drawn out under trip-hammers.

The collar of the axle is formed in dies, as well as the “arm,” that portion on which the wheel runs. The arm is then turned to the right size, and receives whatever grooves are necessary in its construction, and is then “steel-converted,” as to its surface, to the depth of about one sixteenth or an eighth of an inch, the surface becoming so hard that a file will make no impression upon it.

The process of steel-converting is this: hollow boxes or cylinders of cast iron, twice as large, perhaps, as an axle arm, are filled with bone dust and other materials containing carbon, and into these the axle arms are thrust, and, thus covered, placed in a fire made of charcoal, and of intense heat. The bone dust, etc., become speedily calcined, parting with their carbon, which is imparted directly to the red-heated arms, converting the surfaces of the same into steel.

The arms are taken from this fire when at a red heat, denuded of the boxes, and plunged into a cold bath, hardening them to such a degree that no amount of friction, even that of grindstones or emery wheels, produces any effect upon them. Hence it is necessary that they be duly polished and finished, having the thread cut upon their ends, etc., before being subjected to this process.

Salisbury iron is the most tough and tenacious iron in use, and therefore the best for these axles. All the axles of this company are brought to given sizes by a gauge, so that all axles of a certain size could run in the same box, and may be interchanged.

The nuts attached to these axles are made of a peculiar composition, and the boxes of cast iron lined with the same. Constructed of this, the boxes are far more durable than if made of iron.

Most of the improvements which have been made in axles in the last quarter of a century have originated at this establishment. Perhaps the most noticeable of them is the leaving of a small shoulder on the arm at the point where it unites with the collar.

When the arm is cut down so that its line at that point forms a right angle with the collar, the axle is liable to break there. Oil and dirt gather at that point, and by the tremor of the axle when in running use are made to cut into the axle at the collar joint, and so weaken the axle there.

Had this house secured the improvement by letters patent, instead of generously abandoning it to the public, this item alone would have brought to them a vast fortune in addition to their large capital.

As an example of the perfect axle work of this establishment, the fact may be mentioned that, after ten years’ constant use, these axles are found to bear the impression of the makers’ name, stamped on the arm before being steel-converted, as clear and distinct as when first placed in use, and this at points where the whole weight of the vehicle or loads are felt.

The carriage springs of The Mowry Axle and Machine Company are unequalled for finish, elasticity, and durability. These are made of the best English or Swedes steel. When the business was commenced by this house, springs were but little in use. Several manufacturers, in attempting to establish the business, had failed. English steel was used, which was not then good.


The steel-makers made it of English iron, which was then not so durable as now, Many years transpired before steel springs were brought to the durable and economical point, and great credit is due to Mr. Samuel Mowry, especially, for the genius arid industry which he used in putting the facture of steel springs in this country on a permanent basis.

The steel comes to the factory in bars, which are cut into required lengths.

The ends of those intended for the “backs,” or the longest parts which are attached to each other by “heads,” are heated to red heat, and the heads, first struck out into the right shape from Swedes iron, are welded on under a power-hammer, which “forms” the head. These heads are uniform in shape, so that they will all, of a given size, apply to backs of a certain size.

This method of heading is a very great improvement over the common process, and is an invention of great value.

The several plates of the springs are rolled from their centres, gradually thinning to their ends, where they present a sharp edge under a gauge, so that the spring when made, presents on its surface a perfectly regular declension in thickness from the centre to the ends of the backs, where the latter are united to the heads.

There are many advantages in springs thus made, both as regards elasticity and durability, as well as elegance.

The workman first shapes out the backs to suit his pattern, and then adjusts each plate to it. When otherwise finished the spring is tempered in oil. No spring is allowed to leave the establishment till it has undergone the most thorough tests.

Having won their high reputation by extreme care in the manufacture of their wares, this house continues to preserve it by the same means.

Aside from its axles and springs, this establishment is worthy of comment here in the fact that it controls the manufacture of several most important machines for working in iron. Among these we have selected three for especial mention, one of them being the so-called “Reed and Bowen Punch” (a cut of which we here give, and which will better describe the machine than can mere words), for blacksmiths’ and carriage smiths’ use.

Another machine is “Sibley’s Self-oiler Journal Box,” which we will describe farther on; and the third being one of the most marvellous inventions ever made in mechanics, and known as “West’s American Tire-setter,” representations of which accompany this article on the annexed page of cuts.


The punch is of immense power, and comprises in its construction a pair of shears. Its combination of levers, four in number, is such that, with 100 lbs. power on the lever, a pressure of more than 70,000 lbs. is given to the punch proper, and more than 52,000 lbs. to the shears. The whole machine weighs but 350 lbs.

On the top of the machine, where two wheels, like, with handles, are observed attached, two ends of a tire, for example, may be placed, held by these notched wheels, and be thoroughly “upset” with one motion of the lever, rendering cutting and welding entirely unnecessary; and a perfect circle of any size can be formed by placing an iron bar in a “bender” at the end of the shears.

By this machine saws are gummed with a freedom and celerity never obtained by any other machine. Only one man is required to work the machine. This punch has already acquired the reputation among first-class manufactures due to its great merits.

The Sibley self-oiler journal box is a specimen of perfect mechanism. It is the invention of Mr. Rufus Sibley, the superintendent of the establishment. The journal box may be fixed on a stand or suspended in “hangers.” The journal box is united with the improved hanger by bolt and check-nuts, and is so constructed externally as to adapt itself, being hung on trunnions, to any up and-down or lateral motion of the shaft, fulfilling perfectly in this regard the long-felt desideratum.

It is constructed in two pieces, a base and cap fitting to each other. Within, in each part, is cut half of an oil-chamber; within this chamber, and affixed by a screw to the shaft, is an iron ring with a small scoop attached to it, and which revolves with the shaft, the scoop at every revolution dipping up the oil from the chamber arid carrying it upward so as to constantly lubricate the shaft.

A groove is made in either end of the base leading to the oil-chamber, through which whatever oil may have found its way to the ends of the journal, after being there prevented from leaking out by grooves formed in the ends of the journal, may trickle back to the chamber.

In each end of the cap are cut sockets, in which sponges or cotton waste are placed, which duly spread the oil upon the shaft, as well as aid in preventing its escape at the ends. This journal needs supplying with oil but once a year, and saves at least 90 percent of the amount of oil which would be required in other journals.

These journals have undergone some two years’ constant trial in some of our largest manufactories, and persons using the like could not be induced to forego them.

Another advantage of this journal is, that it is easily adaptable to the shaft, the simplest mechanic being able to put it up.

The “West Tire-setter,” the invention of a Mr. Jonathan B. West, whose name is worthy of a place among those of the most important inventors of the world, consists of a band formed of four or more thin leaves of iron or steel, an eighth of an inch thick and six inches wide.

This flexible band of immense strength, adapts itself to close contact with the whole circumference of any ordinary sized wheel, and by the action of a powerful steel screw, operated by hand, lever, or other power, brings sufficient pressure upon the tire to compress or upset it any required amount, to properly and effectually tighten any new or old loose tire in less than two minutes, without removing the bolts, scratching the varnish, or in any way injuring the wheel.

It requires ordinarily about twenty minutes to set the tires on a set of carriage wheels. At a test of a large size power machine at the factory, an iron tire, three inches wide and one inch thick, was shortened three inches with perfect ease, and without injury, and without being placed on a wheel. This would seem incredible to most scientists, but it is nevertheless true.


The saving by this method is obvious. No beat, no water, no taking out bolts, no breaking, scratching, or burning the paint or varnish, and saving in time to the person using the machine, and to the customer, by having his carriage to use, full eighty per cent, over the old method.

Every carriage-maker should be provided with one of these machines, and no village blacksmith should be without one. The prices of these machines range from $150 to $650, according to size. One man alone can work the machine easily. We feel a peculiar pleasure in commending this marvel of mechanism to public consideration.

The Mowry Axle and Machine Company are also sole manufacturers of Sibley’s Photograph Press, which may be described as an inverted car working within a frame on four wheels, which are so connected with the roller by which the picture is rolled as to move along with it.

This action prevents the card from “curling,” and obviating the artistic deformity which always follows the use of the rollers, by the elongation of the picture which they produce. Good pictures are thus usually spoiled.

This establishment also manufactures paper engines, rag boilers, and all the machinery connected with paper-making, up to the Fourdinier machine.

The Mowry Axle and Machine Company will be seen by the above to be, not only the leading manufacturers of carriage axles and springs in this country, but peculiarly alive to the promotion of excellent machinery of various kinds.

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