WAGON MANUFACTURE. Even as the United States changed from a largely agricultural society to an industrial one in the nineteenth century, the wagon maker remained indispensable. Farmers depended on all-purpose wagons no less than did teamsters on freight wagons. Railroads decreased the need for cross-country wagons, but the in town need greatly increased along with the growth of commerce and industry.
Local craftsmen in small shops only a few miles from their customers dominated wagon manufacture in the eighteenth and early ninteenth century. During the American Industrial Revolution, simple machinery came into use for carriage-and wagon-building in the 1820s, although substantial progress was not made in this area until the 1870s. This machinery permitted interchangeable parts, thus lowering costs by eliminating hand fitting. It also gave rise to a separate parts industry, enabling still further cost reduction.
Early specialists focused on producing machine-made wheels, for laboriously handmade wheels were a major factor preventing low-cost wagons. Improved wheel making and wood-bending machinery—the latter for bending rims—cut wagon costs shortly after the Civil War. Increasing use of malleable iron castings eliminated many hours of smith work needed for each wagon.
These twin features of mechanization and specialization led to more precisely constructed wagons. Wagon manufacturers thus became assemblers, purchasing all necessary components at discount prices from parts manufacturers. By the early 1900s these methods had reduced prices of lightweight farm and delivery wagons to as little as $30, while heavier wagons cost as little as $60. Equally important, these features of wagon and carriage manufacture were carried over into the infant automobile industry and helped to introduce the techniques of automotive mass production.
Goldman, Joanne Abel, Merri McIntyre Ferrell, et al. Nineteenth Century American Carriages: Their Manufacture, Decoration, and Use. Stony Brook, N.Y.: Museums at Stony Brook, 1987.
Snyder, Charles McCool. Buggy Town: An Era in American Transportation. Lewisburg: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1984.
Don H.Berkebile/c. w.