Sunday, April 3, 2011


Phaeton is the early 19th-century term for a sporty open carriage drawn by a single horse or a pair, typically with four extravagantly large wheels, very lightly sprung, with a minimal body, fast and dangerous. It usually had no sidepieces in front of the seats. The rather self-consciously classicizing name refers to the disastrous ride of mythical Phaëton, son of Helios, who set the earth on fire while attempting to drive the chariot of the sun.

The most spectacular phaeton was the English four-wheeled high flyer. The mail and spider phaetons were much more conservatively constructed. The mail phaeton was used chiefly to convey passengers with luggage and was named for its construction, using "mail" springs originally designed for use on mail coaches. The spider phaeton, of American origin and made for gentlemen drivers, had a very high carriage of light construction, with a covered seat in front and a footman's seat behind. Fashionable phaetons used at horse shows included the Stanhope, typically having a high seat and closed back, and the Tilbury, a light two-wheeled carriage with an elaborate spring suspension system, with or without a top.

Each June, during the official Queen's Birthday celebrations, Queen Elizabeth II travels to and from Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards Parade in an ivory-mounted phaeton carriage made in 1842 for her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.

In Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, Sutpen's wife Ellen had a phaeton that caused her daughter to become greatly distressed when it arrived in place of their normal carriage.

In the short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Roger Button, Benjamin's father, owns a phaeton that is his primary mode of transportation until Benjamin buys the first automobile in Baltimore.

The character Mr. Spenlow from the novel David Copperfield dies suddenly of a heart attack while driving his phaeton home.

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