Post-houses and Stage-houses in the Early 1800s
If you were taking a trip before the onset of rail travel, you’d likely be spending time at a post-house. Post-houses – often called stage-houses, especially in the United States – were essential stopping places in the days when vehicles were pulled by horses. Situated approximately every 10-15 miles (16-24 km) along routes known as post roads or stage roads, post-houses were houses or inns with stables, where coaches could obtain a fresh set of horses for the next stage of the journey. Mail, packages, and passengers could be dropped off and picked up. Drivers could be swapped out. Travellers could get something to eat, and spend the night. If you wanted to travel in a private vehicle, rather than a public one, you could rent horses and a small carriage at a post-house, along with postilions. The postilions (also known as post boys or post riders) would steer the horses and return them to the original post-house after they were exchanged at the next post. At least that’s the range of amenities one could find at a post-house in a large town or a city. Post-houses in smaller places, or along less-populated routes, could offer considerably less. Here’s a peek at what some travellers found at post-houses and stage-houses in the early 1800s.
Post-houses in England
In 1807, English poet Robert Southey published Letters from England, ostensibly written by a Spanish tourist named Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Although Espriella was fictitious, the comments Southey made about post-houses undoubtedly drew on his own experience. This is how he described a post-house between Truro and Bodmin in Cornwall.
Our second stage was to a single house called the Indian Queens, which is rather a post-house than an inn. These places are not distinguished by a bush, though that was once the custom here also, but by a large painting swung from a sort of gallows before the door, or nailed above it, and the house takes its name from the sign. Lambs, horses, bulls, and stags, are common; sometimes they have red lions, green dragons, or blue boars, or the head of the king or queen, or the arms of the nearest nobleman. One inconvenience attends their mode of travelling, which is, that at every stage the chaise is changed, and of course there is the trouble of removing all the baggage. (1)
He went into details about the change of horses and chaise (a light travelling carriage) at the post-house in Honiton, East Devon.
There was a demur about procuring horses for us; a pair were fetched from the field, as we afterwards discovered, who had either never been in harness before, or so long out of it as to have become completely unmanageable. As soon as we were shut in, and the driver shook the reins, they ran off – a danger which had been apprehended; for a number of persons had collected round the inn door to see what would be the issue. The driver…had no command whatever over the frightened beasts; he lost his seat presently, and was thrown upon the pole between the horses; still he kept the reins, and almost miraculously prevented himself from falling under the wheels, till the horses were topped at a time when we momently expected that he would be run over and the chaise overturned.
This adventure occasioned considerable delay. At length a chaise arrived; and the poor horses, instead of being suffered to rest, weary as they were, for they had just returned from Exeter, were immediately put-to for another journey. One of them had been rubbed raw by the harness. I was in pain the whole way, and could not but consider myself as accessory to an act of cruelty: at every stroke of the whip my conscience upbraided me, and the driver was not sparing of it. It was luckily a short stage of only two leagues and a quarter. …
The life of a post-horse is truly wretched…post-masters find it more profitable to overwork their beasts and kill them by hard labour in two or three years, than to let them do half the work and live out their natural length of life.” (2)
Later, travelling from London to Oxford in a stagecoach (this was public transport, as opposed to the private chaises), he had breakfast at the post-house in Slough.
The room into which we were shown was not so well furnished as those which were reserved for travelers in chaises; in other respects we were quite as well served, and perhaps more expeditiously. The breakfast service was on the table and the kettle boiling. When we paid the reckoning, the woman’s share was divided among us; it is the custom in stage coaches that if there be but one woman in company, the other passengers pay for her at the inns. (3)
Overall, Southey found the journey agreeable.
These stage-coaches are admirably managed: relays of horses are ready at every post: as soon as the coach drives up they are brought out, and we are scarcely detained ten minutes. The coachman seems to know everybody along the road; he drops a parcel at one door, nods to a woman at another, delivers a message at a third, and stops at a fourth to receive a glass of spirits or a cup of ale, which has been filled for him as soon as the sound of his wheels was heard. In fact, he lives upon the road, and is at home when upon his coach-box. (4)
Post-houses in Europe
Accustomed to the conveniences of English post-houses, British traveller Robert Bremner found things less to his liking in a journey across Russia in 1836.
[N]ight found us only forty-seven miles from Moscow, in the long miserable village of Plotawa, where we were doomed to meet a specimen of the pleasures of travelling in Russia more impressive even than any we had yet seen. We had already experienced delay from coming in contact with the emperor, and now had to do penance for encountering one of his couriers, Prince Butera, whom we met here on his way from a journey through the Ural Mountains. As his convoy of three or four carriages required nearly twenty horses, none remained for us. It was impossible to go farther that night. This, it will be said, could be no great misfortune; better to sleep in peace than be jolted all night on a villainous road. But the reader forgets that we were not in England, the land of beds and comfort: here there was not a single bed to be got in the post-house – nay, not even a room to sit or lie down in, till the horses should return. We could not get so much as hole to eat our dinner in; and therefore putting as good a face on matters as possible, we set bravely to work, and made a dining-room of our carriage, devouring in our hungry wrath a whole hetacomb of cold fowls; an operation which we performed to the complete satisfaction of all the boys and girls of the village, who had gathered round us on the occasion. The poor vehicle was also our bed-room, for – not a single hole having been opened to us, not even an out-house of any kind – unless we had chosen to sleep on the cold ground and in the open air, there was absolutely no place in which we could shelter ourselves but in the useful limits of the carriage. As already hinted, it was not…of the smallest dimensions; but nothing that ever ran on wheels could have been a very sufficient bed-chamber for four persons with such gifts of chest and limb as all of us laid claim to. (5)
Travelling in Sweden in 1845, Austrian explorer Ida Pfeiffer described the post-houses she encountered on a journey to Uppsala.
On this short excursion I had travelled post; and having no carriage of my own, I found it necessary to engage a conveyance at every station, which was nothing more than a common cart with two wheels, the seat being a bundle of hay covered with a horse-blanket. …
The stations are unequal, some longer and some shorter. The post-horses are owned, as in Norway, by the country people, who go by the name Dschus peasants; every evening they are obliged to collect a certain number of horses, and when a traveller presents himself, he can ascertain from a book how many horses a peasant owns, how many are then in use, and how many still in the stable; he must, on his side, enter his name on the book, as well as the hour of his departure, and the number of animals he requires; in this manner the whole thing is easily settled, and if any difficulty arise, it is soon adjusted. …
At every station there was a delay of fifteen or twenty minutes, to prepare the wagon and harness the horse, but never longer; and I must do the Swedish postmasters the justice to say, that they never exacted a double price, or endeavoured to tire me into offering it. (6)
Bribes were not infrequent complaints among travellers visiting European post-houses. French nobleman Pierre-Marie-Louis de Boisgelin de Kerdu experienced this on a journey to Scandinavia in 1805.
There are conveniences for sleeping at all the post-houses between Hamburgh and Copenhagen; though some indeed are very indifferent; and we would recommend to all travelers to make their bargains beforehand, otherwise they run a chance of being most completely duped. (7)
At a post-house in what is today northern Germany, he was told that there were no horses ready, and that he could not possibly have any for seven or eight hours.
Two light carriages-and-four arrived at the same moment, and received the same answer as myself. I entered into conversation with these travellers, who were Jews from Leipsick [Leipzig], and who told me they had been constantly within sight of the French [army] ever since they had left that town; adding that they would give any sum for horses sooner than fall into their hands. This induced me to bribe my postilion with a species dollar, who presently procured me a pair, and I went the twenty miles into Escheburg so fast that I soon passed the two light carriages, though they had paid enormously for double the usual number of horses, and rewarded the postillions most handsomely. (8)
Stage-houses in the United States
In the United States, the first regular stagecoach runs were established in New England in the 1700s. The stagecoaches stopped at taverns that provided food and accommodation for passengers and stables for the horses. These stage-houses were also gathering places for the locals, and way stations for private travellers, like Joseph Bonaparte and his entourage in Napoleon in America.
Scottish traveler John M. Duncan visited the United States in 1818-1819. He wrote:
One great inconvenience connected with stage travelling here is the frequency with which you are obliged to shift from one carriage to another. Travelling by land between New Haven and New York we were in no less than five different carriages, and obliged to keep a sharp look-out at each change that our luggage did not go astray; this in bad weather is excessively annoying. The fare by the road is collected in the same piecemeal way, half a dollar here, three quarters there; each stage proprietor taking payment for his own portion of the road, and turning you out of his vehicle as soon as he has got you to the end of it. …
The inns are the least comfortable part of road accommodation; and it is almost impossible for a stranger to enjoy in them that quietness, retirement, and sedulous attention to his comfort and convenience, which in general are so easily attainable at home. On arriving, the traveller and his luggage are ushered into the bar-room, as it is called, opening in general immediately from the street; behind a railing at one corner stands a man making punch at almost all hours, and a number of idlers hang about smoking cigars and reading newspapers. In this room or in your bed-room you must spend your leisure time, as you best can; every door open and every person at liberty to scrutinize your motions, and you his. I have been told that a private parlour may sometimes be obtained, but I never saw one, nor ever heard it asked for. (9)
American writer Jacob Abbott described a stage-house in Connecticut in the 1830s:
Our driver, for the purpose of watering his animals, or changing them for a fresh team, frequently draws up his horses at the door of a small tavern, standing close to the road, with its light sign creaking in the wind. If your feet are cold, you descend from the coach and go in, following your fellow passengers into an apartment with the inscription, ‘Bar Room,’ upon the door. An open stove stands upon a sheet-iron hearth, in front of the place where the fireplace once was, and a crooked, crazy pipe, confined in its place by wires in all directions, carries the smoke to the chimney. Around this fire the stage passengers hover, excepting the ladies and their friends, who go into a rather more parlor-like looking apartment, on the other side of the entry. The floor of the bar room is sanded. Old worn out newspapers are lying about upon the chairs, and especially upon the lid of a great chest, whose top serves customers for a seat by day, and whose interior makes the ostler’s bed by night. On the back side of the room, or in one corner of it, is an enclosure, made by a partition about four feet high, within which are drawers, and shelves filled with bottles of ardent spirits, with a tray of biscuit and gingerbread, and another of applies, and a row of tumblers, bottom upwards, surmounted each with a lemon or an orange. Coarse, rough looking men are lounging about the room, smoking or drinking. Some are mere idlers, and others are wagoners, or travellers of that description, who have stopped to warm themselves and eat their bread and cheese by the bar room fire.
While we are speculating upon this scene…the driver enters, buttoning up his coat and drawing on his mittens, with his ‘stage is ready, gentlemen,’ and we are soon re-established in our seats and again upon our way. (10)
Scottish politician James Stuart journeyed by stagecoach across the southern United States in 1830. Between Montgomery and Mobile, Alabama, the coach stopped at a stage-house in the form of a small cabin kept by a person whose last name was Bonum. Stuart and his companion had some difficulty procuring a meal.
[We] found Mrs. Bonum seated at the head of a table, on which there was still some remains of a breakfast. The driver who was to proceed with us was just about finishing his meal. Mrs. Bonum seemed to remain inactive on our taking our places at the table; and upon our telling her that we could not breakfast upon what we saw on the table, she said that was none of her business, that she had put a good breakfast on the table at the stage hour, but that we were far too late. In the meantime, she appeared to commence making some preparation, and I, for the sake of talking, asked the driver where in the world he lodged, as there did not seem to be another habitation in the forest… He replied that he lived in the same apartments with the landlord and landlady and their children. My question and the reply enraged…Mrs. Bonum to such a degree that she intermitted all preparation for breakfast, muttering that the inquisitiveness of stage-passengers was past bearing. I immediately gave her to understand that unless we got a good breakfast, the half dollar, which is exacted at all the hotels in the south for breakfast, would not be paid; and that we must have broiled chickens and eggs, of which we saw the first breakfast had been composed. She denied having any eggs for a long time, but at last, finding us resolute, she produced them. Still, however, to preserve a consistency of character, she told me, when I asked for salt, which was nowhere to be found on the table, that she ‘thought I had no occasion for it, as the butter was salted, and would make very good spice for the eggs.’
In the end, however, we prevailed, and got everything necessary for making a good breakfast, though from the worst-tempered American female I had seen on my travels; but this road passes through a country, a very small portion of which is yet settled, and where there are no other hotels than those at which the mail-stage stops. The hotel-keepers, therefore, if they deserve the name, and the drivers, usurp an authority which would not be submitted to in peopled parts of the country. The drivers place the mails in the stage so as very much to annoy the passengers, and give themselves no trouble about [the passengers’] baggage, which must be constantly looked after from the interior of the stage. It would be far better for the passenger to give a regulated trifling fee to the driver, than to be subjected to this never-failing sort of annoyance. (11)
A post-house in Lower Canada (Quebec)
Lieutenant Francis Hall, a member of Britain’s 14th Regiment of Light Dragoons, travelled from Albany to Quebec City in the winter of 1816-1817. He wrote:
I prefer the travelling of Lower Canada to that of every other part of the American Continent. You arrive at the post house (as the words ‘maison de post,’ scrawled over the door give you notice, though the premises present no further hint of the appointment, than perhaps a tattered caliche under the adjoining shed.) ‘Have you horses, Madame?’ ‘Oui, Monsieur, tout de suite.’ – A loud cry of ‘Oh! bon homme’ succeeds to forward the intelligence to her husband, at work in the adjacent field – ‘Mais, asseyez vous, Monsieur,’ – and if you have patience to do this quietly for a few minutes, you will see Crebillon, Papillon, or some other ‘on’ arrive from pasture, mounted by honest Jean in his blue night-cap, with all his habiliments shaking in the wind, at a full canter. The invariable preliminary of splicing and compounding the broken harness having been adjusted, the whip cracks, and you start to the exhilarating cry of ‘marche donc,’ at the rate of six, and often, seven miles an hour, with no stoppages. Should a further degree of speed be required, the place of the English ‘extra shilling’ is cheaply supplied by a few flowers of rhetoric, bestowed in the shape of an eulogium on Jean’s punchy, fumbling nag. ‘Oh Monsieur, il est bien capable,’ is his complacent reply…and straight-way, an additional mile in his hour’s driving makes good his boast, and places beyond the slur of sceptical doubt or criticism, Crebillon’s fame. (12)
The end of the post-house
The growth of passenger rail service in the mid-1800s, followed by the emergence of the automobile, led to the death of most post-houses and stage-houses. Some still survive as atmospheric old inns or taverns, often with “post,” “stage” or “coach” in their names, where you can have a drink and a bite to eat and imagine yourself in the era that produced them.
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- Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella [Robert Southey], Letters from England, Vol. I, Third Edition (London, 1814), p. 11.
- Ibid., pp. 31-33.
- Ibid., p. 358.
- Ibid., pp. 362-363.
- Robert Bremner, Excursions in the Interior of Russia, Vol. II (London, 1839), pp. 188-190.
- Ida Pfeiffer, Journey to Iceland: and Travels in Sweden and Norway (London, 1852), pp. 318-319.
- Pierre-Marie-Louis de Boisgelin de Kerdu, Travels through Denmark and Sweden, to which is prefixed a Journal of a Voyage Down the Elbe from Dresden to Hamburgh, Vol. I (London, 1810), p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 23.
- John M. Duncan, Travels Through Part of the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819, Vol. II (Glasgow, 1823), pp. 317-319.
- Jacob Abbott, New England and Her Institutions (Boston, 1835), pp. 204-206.
- James Stuart, Three Years in North America, Vol. I (New York, 1833), pp. 113-114.
- Francis Hall, Travels in Canada and the United States, in 1816 and 1817, Second Edition (London, 1819), pp. 97-98.
There was not a single bed to be got in the post-house – nay, not even a room to sit or lie down in, till the horses should return. We could not get so much as hole to eat our dinner in.