October is Transport Month in South Africa, and to celebrate, we worked with DITSONG’S Willem Prinsloo Agriculture Museum to look at some of the fascinating uses of the horse-drawn phaeton carriage throughout history.
The first carts were simple structures made up of a cart with wheels. By the 1700s, suspension was added to make the carts more comfortable. The interiors of the carts were also improved and became a symbol of status.
The Spider (also spaider) or phaeton (also phaéton) was a form of sporty open carriage which became popular in the late 18th and early 19th century and was drawn by one or two horses. The springs used in phaeton carriages were the same as those used in mail coaches and this gave the vehicle extra, independent movement. The suspension of the Spider works with two sets of laminated springs fitted top and bottom and therefore ‘jumping’ like the insect namesake. The phaeton also comprised a small, very lightly sprung body situated above four extravagantly large wheels, making the vehicle very fast.
History and mythology
The mail phaeton was used to convey passengers with luggage, and as a traveling and posting carriage. The Spider phaeton, of American origin, was a light vehicle made for gentlemen drivers. The seats were open which made the vehicle very dangerous, and this is what gave the vehicle its mythological name Phaëton, son of Helios. In Greek mythology, Phaëton almost set the Earth on fire while attempting to drive the chariot of the Sun, which was later struck down by Zeus, killing Phaëton in the process.
This mythological tale has been the source of many stories, artistic plays, ballets and musical compositions.
Many people have also used phaetons to make outlandish statements or carry out daring acts. In the 1880s Valerie, Lady Meux, never accepted by her husband’s family or by polite society, was a flamboyant and controversial figure, who was given to driving herself around London in a high phaeton, drawn by a pair of zebras.
The 1907 Tiflis Bank Robbery was also carried out using a phaeton coach (illustrating their diversity and use in various situations).
The robbery was organised by a number of top-level Bolsheviks, including Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Maxim Litvinov, Leonid Krasin, and Alexander Bogdanov, and executed by a party of revolutionaries led by Stalin’s early associate Simon Ter-Petrosian, also known as ‘Kamo’.
Disguised as peasants, the revolutionaries posted themselves on street corners with revolvers and grenades. Kamo was disguised as a cavalry captain and approached the square in a horse-drawn phaeton. They attacked a bank stagecoach transporting money through Erivansky Square (now Freedom Square) resulting in a firefight with police officers and soldiers.
The attack killed and injured many and became a divisive moment in Bolshevik leadership. The robbers escaped with 241,000 rubles although, because the serial numbers on the bank notes were known to the police, the money could not be used.