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John H. White, Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America.

John H. White, Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America, Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press (2013), 513 pp.

Not since Seymour Dunbar's pioneering history of travel (1915) have we had such a thorough survey of public transportation in nineteenth-century America --until now. Wet Britches and Muddy Boots blends social, geographic and technological history into a people-based narrative that evokes the sights, sounds and smells of what it was really like to bounce in a stagecoach across the dusty plains, sail across the Mississippi in a packet boat, rock back and forth in a wooden day coach choked with dirty dust and cinders aboard an express train, or settle into the hold of a seagoing vessel as an immigrant in search of the New World. In addition to technology, safety, comfort, costs and speed are addressed, providing the reader with a perspective that it was the going, and not the getting there, that was important.

White, who was Curator of Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution, presents this history in a simple, yet masterful way by drawing heavily upon primary source materials, engineering journals, newspapers and contemporaneous accounts. His diverse background in land and maritime history, particularly railroads, is brought to bear throughout the narrative. The book's goal is to survey how and why Americans got around from colonial times to the close of the frontier using the diverse modes of public transport--starting with individual travel on foot during which a traveller could cross the continent in a little less than three and a half months. Tedious forms of transport soon progressed in the form of sedan chairs, taxis, cabriolets and Hansoms which continued steadily into the horseless age, and often were powered by human burden whenever animal power was undesirable.

Omnibus and horse-car travel in urban cities, especially in New York and Boston, afforded cheap, reliable travel for all citizens and hence allowed the democracy to flourish. Hotels and resorts in the mountains received city guests via carriages and stages who escaped the heat of summer for the cooler air. But none of these modes operated without skilled drivers, conductors and mechanics whose livelihoods were 'predictable and dull', and could be terminated by unhappy passengers complaining to management or cut short by injury or death. The horse-power age, ruled by equines, truly the unsung heroes of the transport story, saw their ranks thinned by the epizootic influenza of 1870. Animal-rights groups pushed to end horse traction and cable railways and dummy locomotives answered this need for more humane working and travel conditions.

In pursuit of manifest destiny to open the American frontier, restless Americans took to crossing waters of various means: rivers and bays via ferries and rafts. Enterprising operators soon utilized steam-powered ferryboats to cross harbours and allowed travellers to access the opposite bank. Another chapter surveys early American canals. Opened in New York in 1825, the Erie Canal was the longest man-made civil engineering feat of its day, and inspired Americans to travel long distances albeit at a much slower pace. Others boarded inland packet boats to cross rivers of considerable length. Deck passengers paid $8 to sail aboard the Diana, a first-class boat, for a 4%-day journey to New Orleans in the 1840s, but received no meals or sleeping accommodation. Boiler explosions and river snags caused sinkings and tragedies but relatively few passengers died. Various statistical tables and graphs offer evidence of monthly wages of riverboat crews and judging by the generous rates, the work was steady, demanding but lucrative. Lake steamers, coastal and sound steamers are also given their due by the author, who argues that despite the hazards of weather and water, travelers were attracted by the finest amenities--particularly ornate cabins replete with the comforts of luxury and restaurant-quality food service that a first-class ticket could buy. But American travellers refused to confine themselves to continental shores.

Travel by ocean sail and steam, in which square-riggers and clipper ships were at the mercy of the wind and choppy seas, took almost a month to endure. White also discusses the story of trans-Atlantic emigrant travel to the New World. Accommodation was often poor, he argues, but the price was right and most immigrants were accustomed to hardship. The final two chapters recalled the romance of travel by passenger train, both by first class and coach class. While the rich enjoyed plush Pullman Palace cars on transcontinental excursions, the majority of passengers of more modest means slept on a simple coach seat and ate their meals out of a paper bag.

No doubt this work is an excellent primer for students of American transportation history. In fact, the book's origins grew out of an undergraduate survey class taught by the author at a Midwestern university. Each chapter features useful suggested reading lists related to a mode of transport, and useful interpretive graphics orient the reader unfamiliar with maritime vessel terminology. Of delight to English language etymologists is a concluding chapter on the derivations of misused travel words and tales.

For all of its strengths, the reproduction of certain vintage graphics sourced from Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper are of lesser quality, as a few images are untouched photo-stats. Aspects of private modes of transportation, such as carriages, sleds, sleighs and early automobiles are entirely absent. While the deficits of this work are few, readers are reminded that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each book will be donated by the publisher to the Miami University Rare Book Collection where the author was an adjunct professor of history.

Wet Britches and Muddy Boots succeeds admirably as an introductory survey of the early American travel experience. The content and organization is highly organized and the text is clearly written with a breadth of expression and vivid richness in detail. The narrative flows as smoothly as a raft or keelboat down a lazy river, enticing readers to look ahead around the next bend to discover a time when travel was a true adventure and arguably the most democratic conveyance available to a young, yet hopeful nation. 10.7227/TJTH.35.2.11

Kurt R. Bell

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, PA
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Author:Bell, Kurt R.
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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