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When The Coachman Was A Millionare
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century you could ride in a handsome coach-and-four from a fashionable hotel on Fifth Avenue to Tuxedo Park or even to Philadelphia. The fare was just three dollars, and your driver might be a Roosevelt or a Vanderbilt.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
Briefly, public coaching meant simply this: a gentleman or a group of gentlemen, of sufficient wealth and ample leisure, would undertake to drive a coach on a regular schedule over a specified route, carrying passengers who had paid a fare. Anyone, theoretically at least, could reserve a seat on such a coach, and by paying fifty cents or a dollar extra, he could ride on the box beside the coachman, who might be DeLancey Astor Kane or Reginald Rives or even, if he were very lucky, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. It may be too much to expect to fathom why the Messrs. Kane, Rives, and Vanderbilt should have derived pleasure from such employment, but it is indisputable that they did. Were they, perhaps, classic examples of those punctilious gentlemen, blessed with the dignity and self-importance arising from the possession of wealth, whose conspicuous leisure was expressed in what Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class termed “acts of substantial futility"? Perhaps. But no theory can account for the twinkle in Reg Rives’s eyes as he posed for a picture, whip in hand and in full coaching regalia, nor even for his humble boast that “It was my good fortune, from the fact that I was not in business, to get a good deal more driving than my fellow committee men.” And it certainly does not account for Alfred Vanderbilt’s devotion to public coaching, which was unalloyed by any conceivable motives of social or pecuniary advantage. Mr. Vanderbilt was young and handsome, charming and unassuming, and yet he devoted a good part of his short life to driving coaches for hire. It may be wiser to accept such men and their zeal for public coaching in the simple terms they themselves would have used and understood.
In 1900, a year after Professor Veblen’s now famous work appeared, Fairman Rogers, a member of the club since 1876, published A Manual of Coaching, the definitive work on the subject in America. Mr. Rogers’ magnum opus, a labor of love brimming with erudite details painstakingly gathered over many years, would undoubtedly have been classified as a prime example of “substantial futility” by Professor Veblen. It is unlikely, however, that Mr. Rogers, or any of his fellow members for that matter, had ever heard of Professor Veblen; if they had, they would not have been impressed in the slightest. Writing in a bland, matter-of-fact style that somehow manages to convey an air of almost pontifical condescension, Mr. Rogers explained the lure of public coaching as a sport for gentlemen of his class:
Driving a coach on the road between fixed points, according to a regular time-table, with changes of horses, in imitation of old-fashioned business coaching, has a great fascination for the coaching man, and with good reason. It bears much the same relation to taking an afternoon drive at one’s leisure that playing an instrument in an orchestra bears to practising solos at home. … A coachman never detects how little he knows until he undertakes to drive a fast road-coach. … In an afternoon drive in the park, if the reins are not quite right, if one horse pulls, if any one of many inaccuracies troubles the coachman, he can stop, try experiments, and re-arrange matters, and as he has no time to keep, he is not afraid of losing any; but on a fast road-coach it is very different; it is usually all that the teams can do to get over their ground in the time allotted; there is no opportunity to slow down in order to cool a fretful leader; if he will gallop, he has to gallop, or else to be handled with such skill as to bring him down to a trot without materially diminishing the pace; for minutes are precious. … Horses have to be shifted from one stage to another to make the best use of them or to counteract their peculiarities. Some horses go best in town, others in the country, a bad wheeler may make a good leader, changing sides may turn a troublesome horse into a good one, and all these matters are interesting and require judgment on the part of the coachman. …
The driving itself, however, was only one of the joys of putting a coach on the road. As Reginald Rives pointed out, in a history of the club published in 1935, the fun commenced with the purchasing of the horses. The accepted rule, for a fast coach running out and back—or “down and up” in proper coaching usage—on the same day, was that there should be a horse to each mile of road. For a run of thirty miles, for instance, broken into six stages five miles apart, thirty horses would be required so as to have six teams plus one rest horse for each team. The economics peculiar to public coaching as a simulated commercial enterprise dictated the use of new horses each year and their sale, usually at a handsome profit, at the end of the season. The profit from the sale of these meticulously trained and matched animals was a matter of great pride, and on the rare occasions when the profit was sufficient so that a dividend could be declared on the whole operation, there was great rejoicing. Thus each February the gentlemen who planned to put a coach on the road during the coming season would brave the rigors of winter in Maine, where the proper type of horse was then to be obtained, to match wits with the horse dealers who lay eagerly in wait for them. Temperatures were chilly, but spirits were warm, and driving a hard bargain or even avoiding being fleeced too badly by the down-Easters produced a glow of achievement that may have been all the more satisfying because wealth made it so unnecessary.