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A hay wagon in Germany, of a type common throughout Europe (the leiterwagen). The sides are actually ladders attached to serve as containment of hay or grain, and may be removed, such as for hauling timber. Bad Schussenried - Museumsdorf Kurnbach Holz Jauchefass auf Leiterwagen.jpg
A hay wagon in Germany, of a type common throughout Europe (the leiterwagen ). The sides are actually ladders attached to serve as containment of hay or grain, and may be removed, such as for hauling timber.

A wagon or waggon is a heavy four-wheeled vehicle pulled by draught animals or on occasion by humans, used for transporting goods, commodities, agricultural materials, supplies and sometimes people.


Wagons are immediately distinguished from carts (which have two wheels) and from lighter four-wheeled vehicles primarily for carrying people, such as carriages. Animals such as horses, mules, or oxen usually pull wagons. One animal or several, often in pairs or teams may pull wagons. However, there are examples of human-propelled wagons, such as mining corfs.

A wagon was formerly called a wain and one who builds or repairs wagons is a wainwright. More specifically, a wain is a type of horse- or oxen-drawn, load-carrying vehicle, used for agricultural purposes rather than transporting people. A wagon or cart, usually four-wheeled; [1] for example, a haywain, normally has four wheels, but the term has now acquired slightly poetical connotations, so is not always used with technical correctness. However, a two-wheeled "haywain" would be a hay cart, as opposed to a carriage. Wain is also an archaic term for a chariot. Wain can also be a verb, to carry or deliver, and has other meanings.

A person who drives wagons is called a "wagoner", [2] [3] a "teamster", a "bullocky", a "muleskinner", or simply a "driver".

Terminology and design

The exact name and terminology used is often dependent on the design or shape of the wagon. If low and sideless it may be called a dray, trolley or float. When traveling over long distances and periods, wagons may be covered with cloth to protect their contents from the elements; these are "covered wagons". If it has a permanent top enclosing it, it may be called a "van".

Turning radius was a longstanding problem with wagons, dictated by the distance between the front wheels and the bed of the wagon—namely, the point where the rotating wheels collide with the side of the wagon when turning. [4] Many earlier designs required a very large turning radius; however, shrinking the width of the bed means decreasing the size of the load. [4] As this is a problem that carts (by virtue of their two-wheeled nature) do not face, this factor, combined with their lighter weight, meant that carts were long preferred over wagons for many uses. [4]

The general solutions to this problem involved several modifications to the front-axle assembly. The front axle assembly of a wagon consists of an axle, a pair of wheels and a round plate with a pin in its centre that sits halfway between the wheels. A round plate with a hole in its centre is located on the underside of the wagon. The plate on the wagon, in turn, sits on the plate on the axle between the wheels. This arrangement allows the axle and wheels to turn horizontally. The pin and hole arrangement could be reversed. The horse harness is attached to this assembly. To enable the wagon to turn in as little space as possible, the front pair of wheels are often made smaller than the rear pair to allow them to turn close under the vehicle sides, [5] and to allow them to turn still further, the wagon body may be waisted. This technique eventually led to further designs well-adapted to narrow areas; the front wheels of express wagons, trolleys and floats are small enough to turn under the vehicle's body.

Types of wagons

A Conestoga wagon, a type of freight wagon used extensively in the United States and Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries for long-distance hauling Senator John Heinz History Center - IMG 7649.JPG
A Conestoga wagon, a type of freight wagon used extensively in the United States and Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries for long-distance hauling
A bakery delivery wagon in Queensland, Australia Baker's-van-r.jpg
A bakery delivery wagon in Queensland, Australia
A Romani Vardo from England Gipsy caravan, Fishers Farm - geograph.org.uk - 238741.jpg
A Romani Vardo from England
The "Lion Tableau" circus parade wagon, built in 1904 Circus parade wagon.jpg
The "Lion Tableau" circus parade wagon, built in 1904

Wagons have served numerous purposes, with numerous corresponding designs. [4] As with motorized vehicles, some are designed to serve as many functions as possible, while others are highly specialized. This section will discuss a broad overview of the general classes of wagons; for details on specific types of wagons, see the individual links.

Farm wagon

Farm wagons are built for general multi-purpose usage in an agricultural or rural setting. These include gathering hay, crops and wood, and delivering them to the farmstead or market. [4]

A common form found throughout Europe is the leiterwagen ("ladder wagon"), a large wagon where the sides often consist of ladders strapped in place to hold in hay or grain, though these could be removed to serve other needs. [4] A common type of farm wagon particular to North America is the buckboard.

Freight wagon

Freight wagons are wagons used for the overland hauling of freight and bulk commodities. [6]

In the United States and Canada, the Conestoga wagon was a predominant form of wagon used for hauling freight in the late 18th and 19th centuries, often used for hauling goods on the Great Wagon Road in the Appalachian Valley and across the Appalachian Mountains.

Even larger freight wagons existed. For instance, the "twenty-mule team" wagons, used for hauling borax from Death Valley, could haul 36 short tons (33 t) per pair. [7] The wagons’ bodies were 16 feet (4.9 m) long and 6 feet (1.8 m) deep; the rear wheels were 7 feet (2.1 m) in diameter. [7]

Delivery wagon

A delivery wagon is a wagon used to deliver merchandise such as milk, bread, or produce to houses or markets, as well as to commercial customers, often in urban settings. The concept of express wagons and of paneled delivery vans developed in the 19th century. [8] By the end of the 19th century, delivery wagons were often finely painted, lettered and varnished, so as to serve as advertisement for the particular business through the quality of the wagon. [9] [10] Special forms of delivery wagon include an ice wagon and a milk wagon.

Nomadic wagons

Some wagons are intended to serve as mobile residences or workshops. These include the Vardo, a traditional wagon of the 19th-century British Romani people.

Steam wagons

The steam wagon, a self-powered development of the horse-drawn wagon, was a surprisingly late innovation, entering service only in the late nineteenth century.


Horse wagon for irrigation, 2018 Bewasserungsfuhrwerk Gmund.jpeg
Horse wagon for irrigation, 2018

In the city center of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, since 1992 the city's plants are irrigated using a horse-drawn wagon with a water tank. [11]

Wagon train

In migration and military settings, wagons were often found in large groups called wagon trains.

In warfare, large groups of supply wagons were used to support traveling armies with food and munitions, forming "baggage trains". During the American Civil War, these wagon trains would often be accompanied by the wagons of private merchants, known as sutlers, who sold goods to soldiers, as well as the wagons of photographers and news reporters. [12] Special purpose-built support wagons existed for blacksmithing, telegraphy and even observation ballooning. [13]

In migration settings, such as the emigrant trails of the American West and the Great Trek of South Africa, wagons would travel together for support, navigation and protection. A group of wagons may be used to create an improvised fort called a laager, made by circling them to form an enclosure. In these settings, a chuckwagon is a small wagon used for providing food and cooking, essentially a portable kitchen.

Wagons in art

A detail of The Hay Wain by John Constable John constable, il carro di fieno, 1821, 04.jpg
A detail of The Hay Wain by John Constable

As a common, important element in history and life, wagons have been the subjects of artwork. Some examples are the paintings The Hay Wain and The Haywain Triptych , and on the Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar.

Motorized wagons

During a transition to mechanized vehicles from animal powered, the term wagon was sometimes used such as with the Duryea Motor Wagon. In modern times the term station wagon survives as a type of automobile. It describes a car with a passenger compartment that extends to the back of the vehicle, that has no trunk, that has one or more rear seats that can be folded making space for carrying cargo, as well as featuring an opening tailgate or liftgate. [14]

See also

Related Research Articles

Wheel One of the six simple machines, a circular item that rotates about an axle bearing

In its primitive form, a wheel is a circular block of a hard and durable material at whose center has been bored a hole through which is placed an axle bearing about which the wheel rotates when torque is applied to the wheel about its axis. The wheel and axle assembly can be considered one of the six simple machines. When placed vertically under a load-bearing platform or case, the wheel turning on the horizontal axle makes it possible to transport heavy loads; when placed horizontally, the wheel turning on its vertical axle makes it possible to control the spinning motion used to shape materials ; when mounted on a column connected to a rudder or to the steering mechanism of a wheeled vehicle, it can be used to control the direction of a vessel or vehicle ; when connected to a crank or engine, a wheel can store, release, or transmit energy.

Sled Land vehicle used for sliding across snow or ice

A sled, sledge, or sleigh is a land vehicle that slides across a surface, usually of ice or snow. It is built with either a smooth underside or a separate body supported by two or more smooth, relatively narrow, longitudinal runners similar in principle to skis. This reduces the amount of friction, which helps to carry heavy loads.

Cart simple vehicle designed for transport, mostly uniaxial

A cart or dray is a vehicle designed for transport, using two wheels and normally pulled by one or a pair of draught animals. A handcart is pulled or pushed by one or more people.

Carriage Generally horse-drawn means of transport

A carriage is a private four-wheeled vehicle for people and is most commonly horse-drawn. Second-hand private carriages were common public transport, the equivalent of modern cars used as taxis. Carriage suspensions are by leather strapping and, on those made in recent centuries, steel springs. Two-wheeled carriages are informal and usually owner-driven.

Ackermann steering geometry

Ackermann steering geometry is a geometric arrangement of linkages in the steering of a car or other vehicle designed to solve the problem of wheels on the inside and outside of a turn needing to trace out circles of different radii.

Trailer (vehicle) vehicle that has a loading area but does not have its own drive

A trailer is an unpowered vehicle towed by a powered vehicle. It is commonly used for the transport of goods and materials.

Horsecar animal-powered tram or streetcar

A horsecar, horse-drawn tram, or (U.S.) horse-drawn streetcar, is an animal-powered tram or streetcar.

A limber is a two-wheeled cart designed to support the trail of an artillery piece, or the stock of a field carriage such as a caisson or traveling forge, allowing it to be towed. The trail is the hinder end of the stock of a gun-carriage, which rests or slides on the ground when the carriage is unlimbered.

A gun carriage is a frame and mount that supports the gun barrel of an artillery piece, allowing it to be manoeuvred and fired.


A buckboard is a four-wheeled wagon of simple construction meant to be drawn by a horse or other large animal. A distinctly American utility vehicle, the buckboard has no springs between the body and the axles. The suspension is provided by the flexible floorboards of the body and a leaf spring under the seat(s). The buckboard has no sideboards on the body, leaving the floor quite mobile. In rough terrain, the floor can flex and "buck", lending the vehicle its name.

Horse-drawn vehicle Vehicle pulled by horse; mechanized piece of equipment pulled by one horse or by a team of horses

A horse-drawn vehicle is a mechanized piece of equipment pulled by one horse or by a team of horses. These vehicles typically had two or four wheels and were used to carry passengers and/or a load. They were once common worldwide, but they have mostly been replaced by automobiles and other forms of self-propelled transport.

Trolley (horse-drawn) Horse drawn goods vehicle

Among horse-drawn vehicles, a trolley was a goods vehicle with a platform body with four small wheels of equal size, mounted underneath it, the front two on a turntable undercarriage. The wheels were rather larger and the deck proportionately higher than those of a lorry. A large trolley is likely to have had a headboard with the driver's seat on it, as on a lorry but a smaller trolley may have had a box at the front of the deck or the driver seated on a corner of the deck and his feet on a shaft. With a very small trolley, the 'driver' may even have led the horse as a pedestrian. They were normally drawn by a single pony or horse but a large trolley would have a pair.


An ox-wagon or bullock wagon is a four-wheeled vehicle pulled by oxen. It was a traditional form of transport, especially in Southern Africa but also in New Zealand and Australia. Ox-wagons were also used in the United States. The first recorded use of an ox-wagon was around 1670, but they continue to be used in some areas up to modern times.

Vardo (Romani wagon) Traditional horse-drawn wagon of British Romani people

A vardo is a traditional horse-drawn wagon used by British Romanichal Travellers as their home. Possessing a chimney, it is commonly thought of as being highly decorated, intricately carved, brightly painted, and even gilded. The Romanichal Traveller tradition of the vardo is seen as a high cultural point of both artistic design and a masterpiece of woodcrafters art. The heyday of the living wagon lasted for roughly 70 years, from the mid-1800s through the first two decades of the twentieth century. Not used for year-round living today, they are shown at the Romanichal horse fairs held throughout the year, the best known of which is Appleby Horse Fair.

Dandy waggon

The dandy waggon is a type of railway carriage used to carry horses on gravity trains. They are particularly associated with the narrow gauge Festiniog Railway (FR) in Wales where they were used between 1836 and 1863.

Driving (horse) The use of horses to pull vehicles or other equipment

Driving, when applied to horses, ponies, mules, or donkeys, is a broad term for hitching equines to a wagon, carriage, cart, sleigh, or other horse-drawn vehicle by means of a harness and working them in this way. It encompasses a wide range of activities from pleasure driving, to harness racing, to farm work, horse shows, and even international combined driving.

Horse harness is a device that connects a horse to a vehicle or another type of load.

Michigan logging wheels

Michigan logging wheels are a type of skidder that was introduced in the nineteenth century United States logging industry as a state-of-the-art technology for transporting lumber and timber over rough terrain. They proved most valuable in the winter months as they could extend the logging season since they were not dependent upon good seasonal weather conditions. It enabled a set of domestic labor animals to be able to transport many heavy logs of various sizes over a long distance of uneven wet ground.

Horseshoe Barn and Annex

The Horseshoe Barn and Horseshoe Barn Annex are two exhibit buildings located at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. Both buildings exhibit a variety of horse-drawn vehicles, including carriages, trade wagons, stagecoaches, and sleighs.

Outline of animal-powered transport Overview of and topical guide to animal-powered transport

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to animal-powered transport:


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  2. "Wagoner". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
  3. "Wagoner". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "WAGGON". Rees's Cyclopædia . 37. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown. 1817–1818.
  5. Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Wagon"  . Encyclopedia Americana .
  6. Gardner, Mark L. (September 1997). "Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail: 1822-1880" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
  7. 1 2 "Twenty Mule Teams". Death Valley National Park. National Park Service. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  8. Stratton, Ezra M. (1878). The World on Wheels. New York: the author. pp.  442–444.
  9. Hillick, M.C. (1898). Practical Carriage and Wagon Painting. Chicago: Press of the Western Painter. pp.  2, 109–116.
  10. Sanders, Walter R. (1922). Ice Delivery. Chicago: Nickerson & Collins Co. pp.  170–172.
  11. Ein PS für 160 Blumenkübel, Gmünder Tagespost, Article dated July 31, 2015
  12. O'Sullivan, Timothy. "Bealton, VA". Library of Congress Prints & Photographs. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
  13. "Thaddeus Lowe with his Inflation Wagons". Smithsonian Institution: National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
  14. "Definition: station wagon". Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
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