In the second half of the eighteenth century, as roads improved, so did the vehicles that traveled them. Among the vehicles on the road was the gig, also called a chaise or a chair. It was a lightweight, two-wheeled cart with road springs pulled by one or sometimes two horses. Passengers rode facing forward and the driver’s seat was constructed so the driver sat higher than the shaft. This gave the driver a good view of the road and made it a favorite among tandem drivers. The gig could be used for many types of driving, including formal or pleasure driving but because it had a high center of gravity, it could be precarious when off-road.
The gig was more formal than a village cart but less formal than other carriages or coaches. It also had a somewhat cheap reputation having received its name from a contraction of “whirligig,” because similar to the whirligig, the gig whirled rapidly. According to the June 1900 edition of Outing, a monthly illustrated magazine for sports, travel, and adventure, when the gig made its first appearance in 1754 it was “quite the most attractive and most practical cart of [its time and] … became immediately popular.”
Efforts to refine and improve the gig resulted in the following vehicles:
Curricle: This two-wheeled curvaceous vehicle accommodated a driver and a passenger. It was somewhat different from most gigs in that it had two horses driven abreast. It did not have a shaft but rather a pole fixed to a frame that supported the body,. The pole passed between the horses and was suspended from a bright shiny bar that rested on the horses’ backs.
The ultra-fashionable curricle acquired its name from the Latin word curriculum, which essentially means chariot or racing. It was a top-heavy vehicle and notorious for accidents — with two wheels it was prone to tipping and if one horse fell, so did the other, which often threw the passengers out too. Prince Regent, George IV, who was known by his familiars as Prinny, popularized this dashing vehicle. It quickly became known as a “man’s carriage.” To ensure a comfortable, buoyant ride, the horses needed to be of equal size and gait, and, so, the fashion was to pair them in color too.
Sometimes a young groom rode at the rear of this chariot-like vehicle. He was known as a tiger because of his yellow and black striped waist coat. Thus, his seat was quickly dubbed a “tiger” seat. Tiger seats were advantageous because the young groom became “a part of the equipage, [and was] always at hand.” One person wrote:
[The groom is good for] opening gates, or in case of accidents; besides he never can be left behind at the inns … which is for ever the case when a servant is on horseback: he is hardly ever with you, when you most want him; and often comes galloping after you, at the risk of his own neck, and to the great detriment of the poor post-horse.
Cabriolet: The word cabriolet is French for “to caper” or “to prance.” This vehicle superseded the curricle. It was also related to the coach family because of its springy suspension. It was well suited for town but not for country driving. According to the Outing, it was invented by a Frenchman named Colonel Grobert. The cabriolet was doorless, made to comfortably hold two people, and decidedly more elegant and showy than the curricle as it had a nautilus or shell shape and numerous graceful curves. It also had a moveable head that could be opened or closed, an apron to shelter people from inclement weather, and a removable tiger seat. Additionally, it was both heavy in weight and draught.
Whisky or Whiskey: This smart moving vehicle “whisked” onto the scene in 1812. Because it “whisked” passed other vehicles quickly and easily, it acquired its name. When a woven cane exterior version appeared, its acquired another nickname, the “caned whiskey.” The whisky was a smaller, lighter version of the one-horse shay. It resembled a chair, had a shell-shaped body, and was drawn by one horse. It was also mounted on a flexible shaft with leather braces attached to springs. The whisky was intended for good weather and jaunts to large urban parks.
Dennett: The dennett (sometimes spelled dennet) gig was similar to other gigs in that it was enclosed at the rear and had room for luggage. It was also a one-horse vehicle with a jointed hood or head and a driving box. It appeared around 1814. Supposedly, it acquired its name from one of three fashionable Dennett sisters. (One was a singer and the other two were stage dancers, known only as B., F., and H. Dennett. These sisters appeared with the Great Belzoni at Sadler Wells in 1803.) What made the dennett unique was its three spring suspension: two lengthwise and one crosswise, with at least one of these springs being named after “Miss Dennett,” although which Miss Dennett is unclear and argued by some people as improbable.
Tilbury: The Tilbury was similar to the cabriolet but adapted for large horses and meant to be driven short distances around town. It was a lightweight, two-wheeled, spindled-back seat carriage, with no boot and no top. This two-person rigid-shaft vehicle was drawn by a single horse. It acquired its name from its builder, the famous John Tilbury. Although the tilbury was not that comfortable of ride, it was an improvement because “the action of the springs and braces [were] sufficient to relieve the rider from the concussions arising from the uneven payments of the London streets.”
Stanhope: Hoping to improve on the dennett and the tilbury, Captain Hon. Henry FitzRoy Stanhope designed the stanhope. Stanhope was a friend to Tilbury and he introduced Tilbury into fashionable circles. The stanhope was thought to be introduced in 1815 or 1816 and was the death knell to the curricle. In papers read before the British Carriage and Automotive Manufacturers, it was stated that a Mr. Fuller of Bath supposedly “perfected the stanhope,” but it acquired the name of Stanhope after Tilbury insisted it carry the designer’s name. The stanhope was a lightweight vehicle, similar to a phaeton. It typically had a high seat with a closed back and plenty of storage room for luggage underneath it. However, this gig “require[d] fine-actioned horses with plenty of bone,” but its cross springs “made it too hard on the horse,” and, so, it quickly fell out of favor.
Various gigs remained popular throughout the 1800s. However, in 1836, the gig and the curricle were combined into one vehicle with the body set lower, “which proved to be the lightest one-horse vehicle in England, and promptly superseded all others.” This was the model that was still in use in the 1890s, and one of the latest gigs in 1896 was the hackney gig shown at the right. According to The Hub, the entire upper work, with the exception of the toe boards and seat bottoms, was made of iron. The “tiger” seat was adjustable, and when the tiger was removed, the driving seat could be pushed back.
- Chambers Encyclopaedia
- Curricle, on Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Dennet Gig, on Swingletree Carriage Collection
- Fuller, T., An Essay on Wheel Carriages, 1828
- Hillfill, Philip H., A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, 1975
- Ingram, Arthur, Horse-Drawn Vehicles Since 1760, Dorset, 1977
- Papers Read Before the Institute of British Carriage Manufacturers, 1883-1901, 1902
- Philipson, John, The Technicalities of the Art of Coach-body-making, 1885
- Sidney, Samuel, etal., The Book of the Horse, 1893
- The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, 1800
- The Automotive Manufacturer, 1872
- The Automotive Manufacturer, 1877
- The Automotive Manufacturer, 1883
- The Automotive Manufacturer, 1886
- The Automotive Manufacturer, 1896
- The Saturday Magazine, 1840
- Walsh, John Henry, Manual of British Rural Sports, 1856
- Williams, J. Frederick Lake, An Historical Account of Inventions and Discoveries in Those Arts and Sciences, 1820
- Underhill, Francis T., Driving for Pleasure: Or, The Harness Stable and Its Appointments, 1896
- Whitney, Caspar, Outing, 1900