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Monday, August 4, 2014

Sedan-chairs in Colonial America

Sedan chairs were a mode of transportation in around the world for centuries. THey name sedan comes from the French town where they were first used in Europe. In the early 17th century, the Duke of Buckingham made the first use of them in England. The controversial mode of transportation employing human beasts of burden. They were also used in Georgian England. Who doesn't recall the hillarious sedan chair scene from BBC's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford?


Wealthy ladies and gentlemen who did not wish to travel far but wanted to avoid the mud and dirt of the unpaved streets went about in Sedan chairs. These often elaborately painted closed boxes were large enough for a single passenger. They had windows and were often handsomely cushioned. They were carried by two or four servants in livery who would lift them from the ground by long stout poles passed through rings on each side. In this way the lady or gentleman could go about without soiling handsome satin shoes in the mud of the city streets. 

With sedan chairs so fashionable and plentiful in England they soon came to the American colonies. An elegant Spanish sedan chair was presented to Governor Winthrop in 1646 by Captain Cromwell who captured it from a Spanish galleon. When Parson Oxenbridge was striken with apoplexy in the pulpit of the First Church in Boston he was carried home in a "Cedan."

In 1687, Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston wrote in his diary that Capt. Gerrish was carried in a "Sedan to the Wharf and so takes boat for Salem." In 1706 he wrote that five Indians carried a Mr. Bromfield in a chair at Cape Cod.  Again in 1715 he writes that the Governor, who had a bad attack of gout, "comes first to Town, was carried from Mr. Dudley's to the Town House in Cous. Dumers Sedan, but twas too tall for the Stairs so was fain to be taken out near the top of them."

1931 cover of Literary Digest showing painting of
Benjamin Franklin in his sedan chair by
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Wealthy Americans in colonial cities of New York and Philadelphia also used the sedan chair as a mode of tranportation. Benjamin Franklin brought the first sedan chair to Philadelphia in the late 18th century. The then 83 year old invalid rode to the statehouse in 1787 for the Constitutional Convention. In the memoirs of Eliza Quincey she speaks of riding in a sedan and of seeing Dr. Franklin in one in 1789.

I love this old poem and with the illustrations from 1885 Century Magazine, The Old Sedan Chair, by English poet, Austin Dobson. Enjoy!

Have you ever ridden in or seen a sedan chair? Are you traveling this summer? How are you getting there?


  1. Interesting post regarding sedan chairs. I have only seen them in the movies and in pictures.

    This summer I traveled by plane. Thanks for sharing.

  2. They are referred to in Frances Burney's books in a way that makes me think it was perhaps a safe way for a woman to travel unescorted. For a young lady, taking a chair might be done not so much for convenience as propriety. I wonder how much they were used in the US? I have seen very little on the subject


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