“Over the River and Through the Woods…

…to grandmother’s house we go,” for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays or so the song implies. As the colder winter months approach and we turn to sweaters, boots and cozy nights by the fire, we take a look back at how people kept warm while traveling 100 years ago. Before seat warmers, heat or even windows were standard features on cars, people had to find ways to stay warm while riding to and from their destinations. This could be achieved in a variety of ways from heated bricks to heavy fur coats. One of the most common methods, however, was the carriage blanket. The carriage blanket, also known as a lap robe, was a necessity in the winter. For more information on lap robes and wonderful period photos of advertisements featuring them, check out this blog post from the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum . Our post discusses three such fur blankets that are a part of the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection. It is important to remember that fur was one of the few options people had to stay warm during the winter. Synthetic fibers such as acrylic, polyester, Thinsulate and polar fleece would not be available until years later.

lap robe sleigh photo

c.1915-1920 Sleigh, New Jersey


The fur lap robes worn in open carriages and sleighs, and later automobiles, were often made of durable furs such as bear, or American bison to withstand the wear and tear. Bison was almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century because of its hide. This animal, which provided many staple products used for centuries by inhabitants of the North American plains, was heavily hunted and exported to the British military during the Crimean War (1854-56), and exploited by passengers in railroad cars wantonly shooting bison on the way to California in the 1870s. The buffalo lap robe featured in this post was used in Oklahoma between 1909 and 1912. It belonged to Henry Paul Miller, the son of a farmer, who was born in Galena, Ohio in 1865. Henry engaged in farming as well before graduating from Ohio State University Veterinary College in 1897. He married Emma Pierson in 1891 and had four sons before taking a teaching position with the Agriculture College of Oklahoma in 1909. The family would spend about three years in Oklahoma before Henry was appointed the first County Agricultural agent in Ohio for Portage County in 1913. While riding in their horse-drawn carriage or sleigh, this lap robe would have provided a warm barrier between the Miller family and cold Oklahoma winters.

1917 Chase Car Robe  Advertisement

1917 Chase Car Robe Advertisement

The second featured lap robe is made of brown and white vicuña fur and belonged to Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Vicuña is an animal related to the llama or alpaca and is a much more luxurious fur than bison or bear. Phoebe Hearst was the wife of George Hearst and the mother of publisher William Randolph Hearst. Mrs. Hearst used this lap robe for a number of years, both in her carriage and her Pierce-Arrow automobile, the first of which was manufactured in 1908.

1912 Pierce Arrow

1912 Pierce Arrow

Mrs. Hearst was born in Missouri in 1842 and married George Hearst in 1862. Phoebe and George moved to California after their marriage where George was a successful miner and later senator. George passed away in 1891 at which time Phoebe engaged in numerous philanthropic endeavors which took her to various locations along both coasts. Mrs. Hearst lived to age 77, passing away in 1919.


The third lap robe is made of muskrat and is lined in panné velvet with side by side kangaroo pockets for two passengers to warm their hands. It dates from the late 1910’s to the mid-1920’s, and like the vicuña is much less bulky than the bison. It belonged Martha Kerslake, who was born in England in 1869. She and her husband George moved to Rhode Island in 1904 where George ran a woolen mill. Martha and George became naturalized citizens of the U.S. in 1909. Muskrat was a highly popular and fashionable fur during this time. In addition to lap robes, muffs and stoles were also made of this fur, often with tails dangling off the ends. This lap robe features 40 muskrat tails as a decorative element.

1920s Fur Carriage Boots Gift of Mrs. Charles Hyatt

1920s Fur Carriage Boots
Gift of Mrs. Charles Hyatt

In addition to carriage blankets, travelers could also wear carriage boots. Carriage boots were worn by women in winter over ordinary shoes or slippers as protection against the cold weather. Originally worn in horse-drawn carriages, hence their name, they were also later worn in automobiles. The black carriage boots from our collection have the updated additional weather protection of a rubber sole with the word, “Hood” stamped on the bottom. The Hood Rubber Company of Watertown, Mass. primarily manufactured footwear, providing American, British and French troops in WWI with several models of boots. In August 1929, the company was purchased by the B. F. Goodrich Company of Akron, Ohio, who moved its footwear division to Watertown.


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