|By Larry LeMasters
A buggy whip, as the name implies, is a horsewhip with a long stiff shaft and short lash used for driving a horse harnessed to a buggy or small carriage. A single horse pulled most buggies, so buggy whips are smaller in length than coach whips (coaches were usually pulled by a team of horses, sometimes four or six so there were horses in front of other horses).
Although a few buggy whips are still made, as an industry, buggy whips became extinct at the dawn of the automobile industry. Buggy whips are often used to illustrate, in economics, a market example of an industry that ceases to exist because its market niche and the need for it as a product cease to exist. The term “buggy whip” has been applied to many items and industries that are no longer needed because of new and better technology, such as a VCR. Sadly, with electronic books of every type now popular, paper books are becoming something of a buggy whip industry too.
In 1890, there were approximately 13,000 businesses in America that were part of the carriage industry. By 1920, nearly all 13,000 were gone. And, as the buggy and carriage industries rapidly declined, so did the need for buggy whips.
Westfield, Mass. once had more than 40 businesses that manufactured whips and carriage accessories (tools and parts). Today, only one company, Westfield Whip Manufacturing, is still in business. They make — among other things — buggy whips that are now called carriage whips.
Historically, buggy whips had long, rigid handles and flexible end lashes. Braiding fiber created a hard but flexible core so the whip bent and flexed when used, giving it a snapping motion.
Used every day and sometimes several times a day by both buggy owners and stylized drivers, buggy whips were special items, deserving special care. When a buggy was not in use, horses were stalled or pastured, and buggy whips were hung or slotted into freestanding or wall mounted buggy whip stands, much like keys to cars are hung on key holders today.
Buggy whip holders were made in many different styles, which interested buggy owners in the 1800s and still interest collectors in the 21st century. Among the different whip holder styles is the country store buggy whip display holder, which was used in stores to hold whips that were offered for sale. Many of these store display racks were hand-welded by blacksmiths. These buggy whip racks often hung from a pole, like a coat rack, and displayed buggy whips in a circle around the pole. Recently, I saw a beautiful, two-toned painted, freestanding general store buggy whip display stand at Hidden Treasures in Sherwood, Ark., manufactured by S.C. Tatum & Company, circa 1885. Stands similar to this one are seldom painted.
Buggy whip display racks for barns were also welded metal pieces, but usually they were smaller and hung on a nail in the barn, holding four to six whips. Following the Industrial Revolution, companies such as Crown Mfg. Company and S.C. Tatum manufactured many barn-size whip display racks.
Some buggy whip holders were designed to hold a single whip and were elaborately decorated so the owner could display his buggy whip on his office wall or in the den or library of his home. Some of the most elaborate buggy whip holders were hand-carved in the Black Forest of Germany and doubled as key-wound musical boxes. Made around 1870–1880, these holders depicted animals, such as a rabbit dressed for the hunt with a gun and overcoat, a bear playing the lute, or a fox, monkey, or owl. Each of these holders had a key-wound musical box that was activated when the whip was hung below the rabbit or other animal. Today, Black Forest buggy whip holders often bring $3,000 at auction.
Nostalgic pieces like buggy whip stands are losing ground in the antique and collectible industry as Baby Boomers reach retirement and Gen X and Millennial collectors do not desire such obscure, vintage collectibles, making the collecting of buggy whip stands also a “buggy whip” industry. Still, standing in an antique store, touching a buggy whip stand from 150 years ago, makes a person’s heart race just a little, kind of like a buggy horse, waiting to hear the sound of a whip snap over its head.