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When Fifth Avenue became a one-way street, Emily Thorne Vanderbilt declared it killed society. Image courtesy Detroit Publishing Company

CONNECTIONS: Coaching and driving in the Gilded Age

By Tuesday, Feb 27, 2018 Life In the Berkshires 3

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

In 1894, George Hibbard put Lenox on the map not as the agricultural community it had been, but as the Gilded Age resort it would ever after be known as. In an article for Scribner’s Magazine simply titled “Lenox,” he dubbed it “a place where society gathers.”

Among the pleasures he described–and William S. Vanderbilt Allen illustrated–were the drives. “There is a great deal of driving but it is done all over. There is not a direction where there are not good roads.”

Brewster and Baldwin made the most sought after carriages. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

That sounds delightful but, for “society,” it was something of a drawback. In the more formal resort of Newport or the center of Gilded Age society–New York City–there were formal drives and definite times for driving. On Fifth Avenue in the city and Bellevue Avenue in Newport, at the appointed times, the carriages, Lady’s Phaetons, Breaks/brakes and even tubs would pass one another. Stock would be taken of a new hat, new livery, new coach, a new beau. It was called society’s “dress parade”: a time to take the measure of one another. It was also society’s daily meet and greet to find out who was in town and who was not, who was under the weather and who was in the pink.

Emily Thorne Vanderbilt Sloane, grand dame of New York and Elm Court, declared that, when they made Fifth Avenue a one-way street, they dealt a death blow to society.

Lenox, the least formal of the Gilded Age resorts, had no place for a formal drive and no established time. However, one local recalls:

“Sunday morning everyone gathered at the Post Office after church. Since they were all going to the same place, it was like a parade with beautiful coaches and horses; the footmen dressed just like the ones in England and all the colors of the ladies dresses.”

It was a sight to behold.

Unlike golf–gentlemen only, ladies forbidden–by the turn of the century in New York, there was a four-in-hand society for women. Four-in-hand meant just what it sounded like: a coach drawn by four horses and driven by one person who had all four in hand. The women honed their skills in their new city club and took them to the country. The daughters of Elm Court and Eastover and Wyndhurst were on the road in smaller vehicles or great coaches with the driver and all riders on the top, not inside.

Some ladies preferred the various smaller vehicles drawn by one horse or even a pony–phaetons or even tubs. The George IV Phaeton was built at the roly-poly king’s request–for easier access. As it became more common for the ladies to drive themselves, this design appealed to them because it gave ease of access to ladies in full long gowns, Soon, George was forgotten and it became known as the Lady’s Phaeton.

Brewster and Baldwin’s offices. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Imagine it is early on a summer morning in the late 19th century. Among the Berkshire cottagers are coaching enthusiasts. The hostess of Elm Court or Ventfort or Wyndhurst finishes breakfast and retires to her morning room. There she creates lists of the coaches and coaching teams available–the horses better suited to individual riders. She matches her guests to the conveyance–coach riders, horse riders and even walkers. The list includes hours for tennis on the estate’s courts, for boating and perhaps badminton or golf. It is then posted at the bottom of the staircase or in the breakfast room. The guests see to which morning activity they are assigned.

“He was a crack shot, an excellent horseman, a devotee of polo and coaching.” That was the proper resume for a Gilded Age gentleman, and a lady was also a sportswoman.

While the hostess prepares her list for the day, upon her instructions her butler is calling the butler of Cortland Field Bishop and the Count de Heredia. It is imperative to know if either intends to drive this morning and, if so, by what route. Unlike the others, to de Heredia and Bishop, driving does not mean taking the reins of horses. They have new fangled horseless carriages. It is very important that the horses do not cross paths with their autos–the noise and speed scare the animals.

During the Gilded Age, the equipage, the livery, the horses as well as the skill in driving were sources of great pride. A local newspaper in the 1890s even gave a whole column for the length of the page to recounting the teams and mounts of local cottagers. Their “finest mahogany carriage horses, high stepping greys, and teams of bays over sixteen hands high – hard to beat for style and action” were given special mention

In an age before television, movies or the internet, the coaching society was a visual spectacular. People stopped and stared. It was always a sight, but not always lovely. On July 14, 1905, Miss Ethel Cram was driving her pony cart home from the Lenox Library. Home was Highwood (on the grounds of Tanglewood today). In the cart were three other ladies. As she passed Count de Heredia in his horseless carriage, he stopped, turned off his motor and let her pass. She thanked him for his courtesy. All was wreathed in smiles when tragedy struck.

One of the Sloane daughters of Elm Court with liveried footman and passengers driving a four-in-hand–in this case a ‘brake/break,’ a name derived from it being used to break in coach horses. Image courtesy ‘The Berkshire Cottages’ by Carole Owens (1984)

The pony shied and started to run. An older woman in the cart was considered the better driver and the reins were passed to her but, sadly, one dropped. Ethel Cram reached to recover it and the wild pony kicked her in the head. She toppled forward among the hooves and was repeatedly kicked.

There were witnesses everywhere, on the road and in the houses. They all were aghast and helpless. Finally the pony was calmed and Miss Cram was taken to a nearby house. From there she was moved to her mother at Highwood where four doctors attended her.

The New York Times printed the final chapter: “July 15: Miss Cram Is Dying – Surgeons in Attendance Hold Out no Hope.”

When the stagecoaches were replaced by faster, smoother riding trains, coaching became the sport of the rich. In time the automobile replaced the coach for transportation, sport and leisure.

In 1939 a local paper reported “Coaching is all but at an end in the summer colony.”

Miss Cary, the renowned horsewoman of Lenox, retreated to her cinder tracks and did not take her carriages and teams on the Berkshire roads. Harris Fahnestock, among the most enthusiastic of Lenox drivers, reputedly the last member of the New York Coaching Society, gave his fine collection of carriages to the New York Historical Society. The era of coaching was officially at an end.

Today if you Google “coaching,” you will find football, baseball and life coaches. If you Google “driving,” you will find the photograph of an automobile or a golf club.

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