Stagecoach travel: slow, costly, and dangerous

In earlier times, when mail was dispatched, there was no guarantee of swift delivery. Travel by stagecoach often involved significant hardships until the advent of the railroad, which made transportation more convenient.

Just before reaching Wasserburg am Inn, the inevitable occurred: the carriage wheel broke. Six-year-old Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, along with his sister Nannerl and their parents, found themselves stranded by the carriage. They were en route to Munich to perform for the Wittelsbach Elector, showcasing their children’s remarkable talents. Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

Time and again, accidents occurred when traveling by stagecoach: the roads were simply too bad. Colored wood engraving from around 1895, after a painting by Albert Müller-Lingke.
Time and again, accidents occurred when traveling by stagecoach: the roads were simply too bad. Colored wood engraving from around 1895, after a painting by Albert Müller-Lingke.

A wheel came off

However, for the moment, nothing came of it. The diagnosis: a wheel had come off—either due to the rough, rutted tracks in the dried mud of the road or because the coachman had neglected a crack in the iron wheel fitting for too long. In any case, the journey was temporarily halted. Instead of royal seats and grand views, there were clover fields and curious cows. The travelers had no choice but to tend to their bruises and wait until servants from the nearby mill arrived to clear the road, reposition the wagon, and raise the high-legged vehicle. Meanwhile, the wagon driver was in discussions with the miller about replacing the damaged part.

Anyone journeying by stagecoach, such as the Mozart’s did in 1762, faced significant delays due to the poor condition of roads during that era. The primary culprit behind these delays was the state of the roads, which were often unpaved and in constant disrepair. Unless travelers were fortunate enough to follow an established route like those along ancient Roman roads, they were subjected to bumpy paths exposed to the elements. In winter, these routes frequently led to dead ends at washed-out bridges.

King Frederick II of Prussia Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

Known as Old Fritz (1712-1786), believed that improving roads would only encourage rural residents to leave, which is why he opposed the development of better roads. Throughout the 18th century, and gradually at that, engineered roads with stable surfaces began to emerge—known at the time as “Chausseen” or artificial roads.

The coachmen posed another hazard. These men, known as “brother-in-law” as a sign of respect, tightly controlled both the reins and the passengers. Their reputation for ruthlessness and colorful language was well-known. They also demanded “bribes” to ensure smooth operations at the wheel hub and throughout the journey. Any delay incurred a high cost. In the worst cases, travelers paid with their lives, as some regions still harbored gangs of highwaymen well into the 19th century. At best, there was the risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals who preyed on the vulnerability of stranded travelers. Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) often lamented being stranded at country borders while moneychangers brazenly exploited the situation, a situation he humorously described as “a pain in the butt.”

18th Century travel costs Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

It was characterized by slowness, expense, and danger. Even without any mishaps, the cost of a journey was substantial. Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father and the vice-chapel master to the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, earned an annual salary of 500 guilders plus payment in kind. Despite this income, he incurred significant debt multiple times, nearly leading to financial ruin, due to expenses related to travel and family upkeep.

For instance, a journey from Vienna to Prague required a payment of 13 guilders. In a different example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s return journey from Italy in 1788 amounted to 120 guilders—a sum approximately six times the annual salary a farmer paid to a farmhand on Candlemas for a year’s service.

At such exorbitant prices, the only individuals interested in leisure trips were the unconventional English. Meanwhile, young noblemen embarking on their cavalier tours were not solely focused on the allure of Venetian prostitutes but primarily sought career-enhancing encounters. Common folk, on the other hand, preferred to avoid travel altogether, and if necessary, they opted for “Schusters Rappen” – rough black boots enabling them to reach their destination much more affordably and not significantly slower, for that matter. In times before well-established roads, carriages could travel at most twice the speed of pedestrians during daylight hours. Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

Reaching the destination often meant enduring discomfort

Especially for travelers who relied on coaches. The essential quality for these journeys was a high tolerance for suffering. Many coaches carried more passengers outside than inside, leaving them exposed to the elements without protection. Even those who could afford the more luxurious interior seats often found themselves seated on hard wooden benches, sometimes with only carpets or furs for cushioning. Young Mozart, for instance, resorted to makeshift support, recalling how he “leaned on two posts with his hands while his backside hovered in the air” during long rides lasting up to eight hours.

To combat the biting winter cold, travelers used furs around their legs or bundled up with straw in the footwells. The cramped quarters added the sensory assault of fellow passengers, their food, and their conversation—up to five individuals sharing the space. Passengers cherished companions who could share entertaining stories or riddles to pass the time. For those seeking distraction, books known as “Wegkürzer,” or travel shortcuts, provided much-needed relief during these challenging journeys in the early modern era. Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

The painting by Gilbert S. Wright (1880-1958) shows a stagecoach between York and London.
The painting by Gilbert S. Wright (1880-1958) shows a stagecoach between York and London.

Reading while traveling was quite challenging due to the continuous shaking of the carriage, which frequently caused passengers to lose their balance. They would often tumble onto their neighbors’ laps, collide with the windows, or end up on the knees of the person sitting across from them. When Goethe likened life to a fast carriage ride in his poem, he surely wasn’t composing it under these conditions but rather in the evening, comfortably settled in his inn.

A monopolist took their time making everything seem ideal

In 1597, Emperor Rudolf II granted the dynasty of the Princes of Thurn and Taxis the “highly exempt imperial right” (essentially a monopoly) to transport letters, valuables, and money across the empire. The underlying message was clear: proceed without worry, as I will keep competitors at bay for the foreseeable future. Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

And proceed they did. Initially focusing on postal services, and later expanding into passenger transportation from the Thirty Years’ War onwards, the princes established what were known as coach routes. They strategically placed stations at irregular intervals of approximately five miles (equivalent to 37 kilometers). Early “post charts,” akin to today’s road maps, detailed the routes and distances. This system allowed individuals to estimate with reasonable accuracy how long it would take for them or their correspondence to reach its intended destination.

Competition | The era of the stagecoach came to an end with the advent of railroads. Inventions like this did nothing to change that. The crane was designed to enable a seamless transition between the two systems according to the plans of the French express mail service.
Competition. The era of the stagecoach came to an end with the advent of railroads. Inventions like this did nothing to change that. The crane was designed to enable a seamless transition between the two systems according to the plans of the French express mail service.

The princes proceeded with deliberation, as they were compensated by a fixed fee from the emperor. With such a blend of challenge and unhurried pace, it’s not surprising that letters, rather than personal encounters, became the primary mode of exchanging ideas among the educated. This trend led to the late 18th century being hailed as an era of letter-writing, fostering the development of the epistolary novel as a narrative form. Numerous significant works of this period, including Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela,” Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” are composed of fictional correspondence. Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), known for collecting fairy tales, corresponded with over 1600 individuals during his lifetime. Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

However, the letters could only reach their intended recipients if they successfully passed from one mailbag to another at the stations where they needed to be reloaded. At these stations, wagons could also be repaired, and tired horses could be exchanged for fresh ones, as well as fed, watered, or even bathed.

These stations also offered meals for travelers, though they were often basic and bland, unless one was fortunate. Overnight accommodations were also available, though the quality varied greatly and could sometimes be infested with pests.

Post offices were bustling hubs where small traders, various service providers, and beggars gathered. In this era of widespread scarcity, perhaps a small coin was occasionally given to them.

The primary concern was reaching one’s destination Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

On favorable days, an 18th-century stagecoach covered a modest seven to twelve miles, equivalent to about 80 kilometers at most. However, on less fortunate days, progress could be negligible—leaving passengers yearning for magical seven-league boots and hoping to reach the safety of a walled city before nightfall. As the day wore on, gate guards grew increasingly wary, subjecting travelers to thorough searches of their belongings and probing questions about their journeys, motives, finances, and health.

If the guards neglected to raise the barrier or closed the heavy gates abruptly, they would confront unruly suburban tavern patrons and itinerant travelers such as peddlers, showmen, tinkers, and rural dwellers who also had to wait outside.

The city was densely populated and did not provide refuge for all. Its narrow confines often necessitated small openings in the city walls. Coachmen had to extend the draw bars of their carriages outside to prevent anyone from tripping over them in the darkness, while postilions rested in the straw beside their animals after their strenuous labor.

The postal service underwent a transformation at the start of the 19th century

Marking the professionalization of stagecoach transport. Influences from France and England, particularly the introduction of express mail coaches, extended into what is now Germany. These vehicles, known as “Diligences,” operated day and night on engineered roads, offering smoother rides thanks to improved suspension systems that were less taxing on passengers.

To expedite operations at horse-changing stations, postilions began signaling their approach with horn melodies from a distance. These tunes conveyed specific information such as the number of carriages or horses and whether it was a regular, express, or freight delivery. Stagecoach travel slow dangerous

Suddenly, it was no longer just a matter of arriving and completing the journey with relief, but of adhering to strict schedules. This shift in focus highlighted the competition faced by stagecoaches from a rapidly emerging and advancing mode of transportation: the railroad. The railroad not only offered greater speed and comfort but was also more cost-effective. Consequently, the once-thriving stagecoaches, with their rumbling four-horse teams, came to symbolize a fading era, and the sound of the post horn evoked nostalgia for days gone by.

By the time poet Rudolf Baumbach penned the lyrics in 1870, later popularized as the German folk song “Hoch auf dem gelben Wagen” (High on the Yellow Wagon), stagecoach travel had likely become a rare experience for most travelers, relegated to the status of a remarkable exception.

By the way: “Sitting in front with the brother-in-law”

As in the German folk song was, God knows, not a privilege, as romantic romanticization would have us believe. It is true that you could see “fields, meadows and meadows” better from the buckboard than through windows blinded by dust. But at the same time, you were almost defenselessly exposed to the elements and what the horses’ hooves threw backwards – not to mention the coachman’s breakdowns.

“At the brother-in-law’s in front” was the cheapest place. The place for the have-nots that the poets, tired of their possessions and stiff ceremonies, so romantically glorified.

Stagecoach Ticket 1840

Stagecoach ticket from Carlsruhe to Kehl, Germany, 1840
Stagecoach ticket from Karlsruhe to Kehl, Germany, 1840

This “Reise-Schein” 1840 for a stagecoach service from the Grand Duchy of Baden is a great example of travel documents back in time.

What traveling in medieval England was like

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