Lew Wallace’s Carriage

Gen. Wallace's carriage when owned by the Oliver family in 1915
Gen. Wallace’s carriage when owned by the Oliver family in 1915

In 1873, perhaps feeling flush with royalties from his book The Fair God, Lew Wallace ordered a new carriage. This was not just any carriage. It was a made to order French Victoria Carriage that cost $1,000 with an additional $200 for shipping. At this same time, Lew and Susan were completing work on their new Carriage House immediately north of their home.

It has a relatively low body with one forward-facing seat for two passengers and a raised driver’s seat supported by an iron frame, all beneath a calash top (one that folds back in accordion style). In front adjacent to the driver’s seat, there are mounted brass lanterns and a holder for the buggy whip. Behind the main seating there is a footman’s seat. The wheels all have expensive brass boxings (a part of axle and hub connections) and the two front wheels were removable so that they could be attached to another body to make a two wheeled cart. The carriage has leather curtains, cushions, and fenders. With a simple conversion, this one horse buggy could be pulled by a beautiful matched pair of horses. The front drivers’ seat was also removable so that the driver (Lew Wallace himself) could sit in the main compartment of the carriage.

A carriage of this general form might have been called a phaeton in the early 19th century. These were sporty open carriages drawn by a single horse or a pair, typically with four extravagantly large wheels, very lightly sprung, with a minimal body, fast and even considered dangerous. Phaetons usually had no sidepieces in front of the seats. The name phaeton refers to the disastrous ride of the mythical “Phaëton,” son of Helios, who nearly set the earth on fire while attempting to drive the chariot of the sun. American versions often had a higher carriage of light construction, with a covered seat in front and a footman’s seat behind just as Wallace’s carriage has.

The Victoria version was an elegant French carriage based on a phaeton that had been made for King George IV who ruled Great Britain until 1830. The name Victoria was not actually attached to this kind of carriage until 1869, when one was imported to England by Prince Albert for his wife, Queen Victoria. As a result of its association with the Queen these carriages became very popular with the wealthy in the late 19th century.

Wallace owned this carriage for over 30 years and probably did not begin to retire it from service until he purchased his horseless carriage around 1900. In 1915, ten years after his death, it was purchased by Frank Oliver of Crawfordsville, for this mother. Sometime after her death it was returned to the Study. Over the years it was exhibited at community gatherings across Indiana and around the country and it was shown several times at the Indiana State Fair. Years ago, some enterprising person disassembled the carriage and moved it to the basement of the Study where is continues to be on display.

To see a phaeton in action, each June, during the official “Queen’s Birthday” celebrations, Queen Elizabeth II travels to and from Trooping the Colour Horse Guards Parade in an ivory-mounted phaeton carriage made in 1842 for her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. In this country, another vehicle carries on the tradition of Wallace’s French Victoria Carriage if in name only—the Ford Crown Victoria.


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