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Mail Coaches

Appearance and characteristics of the mail coach

For the traveler who was not in a hurry and wished to save money, there was the alternative of the mail coach.

It was toward the end of the 16th century that the first mail coaches began to appear, replacing the carts that had been used hitherto (up until 1564 in England). At that time, the most obvious innovation was «the isolation of the central body, with the passenger compartment, from the structure of the vehicle by suspending it from chains or belts, neutralizing as far as possible the bumps in the road. Whence the name, in use for some time, of rolling carriage or women's wagon» (Brilli, 2004).

The diligence or mail coach was a vehicle with a fairly ponderous appearance, divided in its most advanced version into three compartments, the front ( coupé or cabriolet ), the central (berlin), and the rear ( tonneau ). On the roof of the coupé sat the postilion and, behind him, on a seat that frequently lacked a cover, the “second-class” travelers. A second seat, this time often fitted with a hood, was set behind the tonneau . To be able to use all the space inside, the baggage was carried not only in the rear section, but on the top, called the imperial “in homage to its elevation.”

Lack of comfort

Although improvements continued to be made, culminating in the important 19th-century innovations of leaf springs and tie rods to provide better suspension and increase the vehicle's stability, the coaches earned a reputation for not being particularly comfortable. The truth is they were downright uncomfortable and very slow, fitted with heavy curtains of cloth or leather that turned them into suffocating prisons in the heat but did not provide sufficient defense against the cold and bad weather. The sense of smell was the one that suffered most and, in the view of the English, the Italians were the chief culprits, ignoring the most basic rules of hygiene and eating large quantities of garlic into the bargain. Traveling on the outside, in turn, was not very comfortable either, did not offer adequate shelter and obliged the passenger to put up with the delivery and reception of packages which took place at each stage. Heralded by a long blast on the post horn that was used to announce the coach's arrival to the minister of the post, these halts kept the passengers awake as well.

Supporters and detractors

As we learn not only from accounts of journeys but also from many stories by Dickens or Maupassant, the distinguishing feature of the stagecoach was that it was a world in miniature, in which all social classes, trades, nationalities and mentalities were thrown together. There were those who enjoyed plunging into this world, a journey in unpredictable company that might comprise monks or officials, Grand Tourists or courtesans, pilgrims, servants or adventurers, but most people found it odious and embarrassing. While Leigh Hunt's enthusiastic account of a coach journey (1822), describing its promiscuity, discomfort, cold and heat with good humor and great openness of mind and reveling in the democracy that it imposed and encouraged, much more common were the critical and even vitriolic comments that portrayed mail coaches as mobile prisons, as slave galleys where one spent hours in hell. It was, after all, a question of packing up to thirty passengers into a carriage that proceeded at walking pace, bouncing continually and preventing any chance of sleep.


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