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Are we there yet? 19th c travel

I don’t know about where you live, but the days here are lengthening and warming up nicely. Summer vacation season will be here soon!

I’ve been researching 19th century traveling for Book 4 of my Something Wonderful series. In Jilting Jory, Miss Anna Pepper finds herself working as a common barmaid in a coaching inn after jilting her latest fiancé, and the inn’s coffee room serves as a Cheers-like gathering place for the town. Be sure to pre-order your copy so you don’t miss this inn-spired tale!

Here are some fun facts to consider as you make your own travel plans:

Rules of the Road

There were none. Although evidence suggests traffic was expected to travel on the “proper” side (the left in Britain), this rule was not formally adopted throughout the British Empire until the Highway Act of 1835.

Traveling by Stagecoach

The average speed of a stagecoach was about 10-12 miles per hour. That means a 200-mile trip would require 20 hours in the stagecoach or approximately 127 “Are we there yets?”

You would have appreciated the slow pace, however, as the roads were horrific. Before John MacAdam’s innovations (where we get the term "macadam road"), it was common to simply throw a few large stones into the ruts and potholes. Arthur Young, 19th century travel writer, had this to say about a road in Lancashire: "I know not, in the whole range of language, terms sufficiently expressive to describe this infernal road."

Don't grease your hair

“Don’t grease your hair before starting out or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable ‘tater’ patch.” While private coaches typically had glassed windows, public stagecoaches often had open-air windows. This was the case in both the UK and the US, prompting the above warning from The Omaha Herald.

When a mile's not a mile

There were coaching inns about every 10-15 miles, where the stagecoach would stop to change horses. But a mile wasn’t always a mile... Some travelers complained that the milestones that lined many roads were inaccurate. Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, wrote of her travels to Leicester: "This place is called seventy eight miles from London but the miles are so long in this country that I am sure that it is a great deal more."

19th century pit crews

The guard who sat with the driver would blow a horn to announce their arrival at a coaching inn so a new team could be prepared. Teams could be switched out in 3-4 minutes by coordinated ostlers that must have looked something like a 19th century pit crew.

G. Hulme, The Telegraph stagecoach racing the Pilot', Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Inn Life

Female innkeepers, while not the majority, were not uncommon. Innkeepers had to register annually, along with two bondsmen to vouch for their good behavior. These “Victualler’s Recognizances” are a good source of information about inn ownership.

Accommodations varied much like they do today, with some inns providing private rooms. In others, guests might share a bed with strangers. Um, I dunno... 🤷‍♀️

Would you like a lock with that room?

There were no locks on the doors, merely wooden catches. The Tremont House, which opened in Boston in 1829, has been cited as the first hotel to offer “inside toilets and baths, locks on the doors, and bellboys.”

Cheers of the Regency

A common dining room, or “coffee room,” was a place for locals to gather and travelers to stop for food and drink. I imagine a lot of writerly inspiration must have passed through the coffee rooms of the 19th century. Does this make anyone else think of the series Cheers?

Predictably, food varied from inn to inn. While some accounts describe abundant tables full of fowl, fish, pies and game, one traveler described the less-than-stellar fare he received: "Dinner…generally consists of a piece of half-boiled or half-roasted meat, and a few cabbage leaves boiled in plain water, on which they pour a sauce made of flour and water. The toast is incomparably good." Yay for toast!

What are your travel plans for the summer? Wherever your journey takes you, I wish you “incomparably good" toast!”

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