All posts by Kathleen

Cleaning Harness – Museum edition

Q) We have a lot of good harness in our museum collection, but no member of the staff really knows anything about how to care for it properly. Can you help?

A) We recently asked Gerry Glazier, who has cleaned the harness here at the CAA office as well as for several museums, what he uses. He recommends Bienenwachs Lederfit-Oel, a beeswax oil from Germany that many tack stores carry, but added that “any quality leather conditioner” can be used. We’d also like to share tips and hints that Russ Fagan shared with the CAA. Mr. Fagan was a harness maker of long experience.

Harness and saddlery keep in military stores for long periods were given a heavy dressing of “dubbin” before being packed away. This dubbin was made from pure tallow and neatsfoot oil in the proportions of three to one, by weight. A small amount of beeswax was also added sometimes. Leather treated like this was difficult to polish before all the dubbin had been removed from the surface. Dubbin should not be applied to patent leather, but it could be used on the inside surfaces of straps on harness stored away.

Some Hints For The Care and Maintenance of Harness by Russ Fagan
A good carriage and well-trained horse can offer good sport and a lot of pleasure, but even the best whip cannot prevent an accident if the harness is weak and unsafe.

General Care

State Harness
David Saunders did a fantastic job of cleaning the State Harness owned by Gloria Austin prior to the 2017 CAA Conference. Each piece of harness was taken apart and cleaned individually.
A lot of old harness is used these days, and it should be cared for and inspected regularly to prevent accidents.

A good way to keep harness soft and strong is to wash it with Ivory or Castile soap and warm, but not hot, water, scrubbing well to remove sweat and dirt. Afterwards, be sure to hang it straight, or lay it out, to dry away from sun or heat. After it is dry, apply a good lubricating dressing, preferably one made from animal oils and fats. Let this penetrate thoroughly, then rub in black paste saddle soap or yellow soap for russet harness or reins. This should be done two or three times a year, but the harness should be cleaned after every use, using a damp sponge and glycerine saddle soap, to remove sweat or mud. More frequent applications may be necessary if the harness is used often, and especially for those parts that are most exposed to sweat.

Metal hardware should also be cleaned after every use. Brass tarnishes very quickly when exposed to sweat and the dust from horses’ coats. If it is rubbed thoroughly with a clean cloth immediately after it is taken off the horse, it will be easier to polish later. (Editor’s note: Some people spray a little Endust on the cloth first, or even directly on the brass, which seems to help with this task.)

Modern patent leather is cleaned with water and dried with a soft cloth.

When a high polish is wanted on the harness for shows or special occasions, a good paste shoe polish should be used. Any accumulated polish should be scrubbed off after the show season and the leather fed. If this is not done the surface of the leather will dry and flake because of the build-up of wax.

Examination of Worn Parts
The harness should be checked each time it is used, and weak places noted for repair or replacement.

The bridle, because it is light and subject to the heat and sweat of the horse’s head, is often the first to show wear. Inspect the crown billets, and the bit billets, for wear and tears. The cheeks, at the top buckle, and just below the winker, are trouble spots.

On pair harness, the pole-straps (pole-pieces) are often left on the pole and, not consequently, do not get cleaned with the harness. As they control the vehicle, it is important that they be strong and safe. The leather center of a neck-yoke can be dangerous if allowed to become hard and dry. This weak condition is often hidden by a coat of paint.

The bit billets at the end of the reins wear through use and may also get chewed. These should be watched, as also should the body of pair reins where the coupling reins (inside cheeks) buckle in; this part takes a lot of strain and needs extra care.

The breastplate (or choke-strap or false martingale) gets a lot of heat and sweat where it passes between the horse’s legs, and, with harness that has the breeching attached to the center of the girth, the breastplate has to play a part in holding back the carriage. It needs to be kept in sound, supple condition with extra feeding.

Carriage and Harness Care
Carriage and Harness Care, part of the CAA Guide to Carriage Turnout and Appointments, is available for purchase through the CAA. Topics include dust, heat and humidity, care of wicker, and the cleaning of carriages.
On single harness, the backband (or shaft bearer) should get special attention and, if it is of the sliding type, be sure to get to the center portion. Shaft tugs, whether round, French or Tilbury, get a lot of wear in use and need care.

All styles of single harness have some sort of safety strap to hold down the shafts. This may be a straight bellyband, or there can be wrap straps, but they must be strong and pliable. If the safety strap breaks, the horse has no way of controlling the vehicle and it can run up under him, or, in the case of a two-wheeler, it can upset backwards. Breeching straps (or hold-back straps) are sometimes fitted with snap hooks and may be left on the shafts without getting the attention they need. Since they are as important to a single horse as the pole straps are to a pair, they should get special care.

All parts of the harness need to be looked after, and the above are those that need repair most frequently.

From the Summer 1997, Vol. 35, No. 1 edition of The Carriage Journal.

Jump on the Bandwagon…or Circus Wagon…or Bandchariot…?

Mainesville Sax Horn Band
The Mainesville (Ohio) Sax Horn Band, ca. 1860, was beautifully outfitted with the latest in upright and bell-front instruments, fancy hats, and a gaily painted bandwagon. The percussion section, as usual, was prominently situated at the rear of the vehicle.- The Expansion of Jazz by Dr. Karl Koenig

It is safe to say that most carriage collections do not include a bandwagon, however, many historical societies and museums have photographs of community bandwagons within their collections. Those vehicles can look very different from each other leading to the question, “Are there different types of bandwagons?”

Richard E. Conover, in his book, The Fielding Bandchariots, defined bandwagons where the musician’s feet were on the floor of the wagon bed as shell bandwagons or bandchariots. Bandwagons where the musicians rode on the roof were known as tableau baggage bandwagons.  By contrast most carriage makers tend to simply defined bandwagons as either bandwagons or circus bandwagons. Matt Holdzkom, a circus history enthusiast shares on his website, “Tableaus were decorated with carvings, mirrors, and sometimes painted murals. Tableaus were also often used as bandwagons for secondary bands.” By contrast most carriage makers tend to simply defined bandwagons as either bandwagons or circus bandwagons.

Georgetown Silver Coronet Band Wagon
Georgetown Silver Coronet Band Wagon at the opening of the Carriage Museum at The Museums at Stony Brook. – Photo by Carmine Fergo


Afton Citizen Band (NY)
JH Nickerson has recently had the band wagon enlarged, and is to have it repainted. — The Weekly Press, July 20, 1880, Afton, New York

Villages, lodges, and even factories had bands during the mid-1800s, it was seen as a sign of culture and civilization. As a result the bandwagon or village bandwagon was often decorated in rich colors befitting the bands social status but without the ornateness seen in circus wagons. Front wheels were typically in the 40-43″ range with the rear wheels in the 50s – high enough that the musicians were above the crowd as they played their instruments.

If an organization did not own their own bandwagon it was possible to rent one.  The Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio) on August 20, 1882 makes mention of a 10-mile parade, “One of the biggest street parades the West has ever seen.” Pageant notes include an approval of $30.00 for Captain P. R. Way to procure a large Band-wagon to seat forty young ladies, to be drawn by six white horses.

Seabrook Band WagonThis bandwagon was made in Scranton, Pennsylvania about 1912 and was part of the John M. Seabrook Collection. In 1982 it was the carriage part was painted royal blue, the body was white and blue.  We’re fortunate to have detailed information about this particular vehicle in the archives:

Length of body – 19 feet, 6 inches

Wheels – front 42 inches, rear 57 inches

Seats – 7 seats, rear seat 84 inches wide, others 56 inches

Height of running rail – 48 inches

Splinter bar – 76 inches wide, 36 inches high

Pole – 9 feet, 8 inches long, from splinter bar to pole hook end

Brakes – brakes to rear wheels, hand lever with locking ratchet

Complete with common grease axles, fifth wheel and platform springs.

Ben Hur Band Wagon
Band Wagon, United States, 1901 – used as band wagon at Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, New York, 1901, and as a sightseeing bus at Niagara Falls.
H. B. Witty & Co
H. B. Witty & Co Carriage Factory and Stable – The Brooklyn Union , Brooklyn, New York, 23 Aug 1870

Carriage makers throughout the United States could make a basic bandwagon. Very few specialized in them as it would be impossible to make a living just making bandwagons.  This H.B. Witty & Co ad illustrates the diversity an average carriage maker might need.

Today it is still fairly common for villages and lodges to have bands but less common to see them use an actual horse-drawn bandwagon. One place you can still see one in use is the Great American Brass Band Festival (GABBF) in Danville, Kentucky.

Built during the 1990s the driver/ passenger box appears to have been completed for the GABBF by a Darrell Shannon, according to Tom Tye of GABBF.   The vehicle, with basic farm wagon running gear, currently experiences difficulty turning on modern streets due to the wheels being so close to the box.  A renovation is expected in 2019/2020 to address the issue, a common one in bandwagons.

Interested in knowing more about bandwagons?

The Lehi (Utah) Silver Band Wagon history can be found here.

Iowa’s Town Bands 1890-1930 website

Circus Bandwagons

Circus bandwagon
Circus bandwagon, sometimes called a shell bandwagon or bandchariot. The Carriage Monthly, vol. 30, Jan 1895

“The style of circus bandwagons was entirely different from village bandwagons, for the intention was to be gaudy. The musicians sat at a considerable height, and there were usually compartments under the floor for storage of the instruments. This wagon was built by the Schultz Wagon Co. of Dalton, Ohio. The body and gear were white. The figures were painted many colors, and gold leaf was freely used on the scrolls. Striping of the gear was heavy and ornate. Wheels 40″ and 52”.  Horse-Drawn Commercial Vehicles, edited by Don H. Berkebile

Circus Bandwagon Model
Circus Bandwagon Model – you can see the band on the top of the vehicle, the space below could be used to store instruments.

There were makers who specialized in circus bandwagons including the Sebastian Manufacturing Company, the Fielding Brothers, and John Stephenson, all of New York.  The Moeller Brothers Wagon Co. of Baraboo, Wisconsin and Bode Wagon Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio were also major players in the circus wagon market.

Interested in learning more about circus wagons?

Circus Wagons: An Educational project of the Circus Historical Society, Inc website

Four Things to Know about Showing in the Pleasure Driving Ring

Summer is here and so is the pleasure driving show season!  Just getting started in carriage driving?  Here are a few things to know before you go to your first carriage driving show.

  1. “Brown or russet harness is appropriate for vehicles of natural wood finish, black harness with painted vehicles.”¹ In all cases your lines are not dyed.
  2. The metal on the harness should match the metal on the carriage. For example, the brass turret rings on your harness saddle should be matched with a brass rein rail on the carriage.  The horse’s bit is not required to match the rest of the metal.
  3. There are three things that every driver should have – an driving apron or lap robe, gloves and a hat.  Your gloves should be brown leather.  Helmets are encouraged.  “A driver’s summer apron is made long enough to reach from a little below the waist to just above the ankles and wide enough to be tucked under the legs at both sides.”²
  4. Driving whips are required.  A proper whip should reach the horse’s shoulder when the driver is seated.  The whip should be in the driver’s hand, not left in the whip holder. ³  (A well balanced whip is worth investing in!)


  • Be sure to clean and polish your harness, carriage and horse!  Even if you don’t have the most expensive turnout in the ring you can catch the judge’s eye by having a really polished turnout.
  • Read the show’s rules.  They can and do differ from organization to organization.

Good luck and have fun!


  1. Driving the Horse in Harness by Charles Kellogg
  2. Carriage Turnouts: Guidelines for the users of horse-drawn vehicles edited by Tom Ryder  Available for purchase here.
  3. American Driving Society Rule Book – Article 8: “An appropriate whip should be carried in hand at all times while driving. The thong on the whip should be long enough to reach the shoulder of the farthest horse.”