Get Your Characters from A to B Authentically: Online Resources for Ground Transportation
Do you need to transport your historical character from Point A to Point B and aren’t sure how he or she will get there? Do you want to get the details correct for your characters’ transport in the late 19th and 20th century?
The websites below offer free-to-view photos and information on historic post-horse drawn ground transportation that can provide images for crafting descriptions in your novel. Browsing the websites could generate story ideas, as well.
This museum located in New Bremen, Ohio offers a neat online “timeline” of the development of the bicycle, with images of the different types of historic bicycles. An “alphabetical” section shows examples of different brands and types, such as recumbents, an 1860s child’s horse tricycle, and the 1968 Orange Krate bike I remember begging my parents for when I was a kid. The alphabetical images let you click on a small button underneath, to see closer-up details of the bikes.
This museum’s aim is to educate young people and stimulate interest in the history of cycling. It is located in Llandrindod Wells, Wales, and run by volunteers. Its website offers a “cycling history” tab, where you can view pictures of velocipedes, folding, or electric bicycles. The “development of cycling” subsection offers examples of bicycle clothing, cycles used in war, and early racing bikes.
This is “the world’s leading place to get a real feel for riding a bicycle in the early years of the hobby,” according to the organization’s website. It offers a wealth of images of historical bicycles, searchable by type (e.g. “tricycles”) or by year or decade from the menu at the top of the home page. The emphasis is evidently on British bicycles, since the home page states that the site is “the easiest way for fellow enthusiasts to find information on vintage bicycles and the time when Britain led the world in the manufacture of top quality bicycles.” Yet it also includes information on cycles from Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, and also offers a separate “U.S. Bikes” menu choice. The “photos” choice on the menu includes examples of historic bicycle clothing. The “history” menu choice has primary source documents on how to learn to ride a bike, and a doctor’s letter from 1897 about the dangers and benefits of riding a bike. A stellar place to start one’s bicycle research.
The U.S. National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, has a nice page of photos and data about historical American motorcycles, starting with one from the third quarter of the 19th century.British Motorbike History, Norton, Triumph and BSA
If you are patient enough to wait through some online ads, this YouTube video from the now-defunct Men & Motors UK TV channel depicts Jeff Stone giving a tour of a motorbike museum, showing highlights of interesting models of British motorcycles from the mid-20th century. The video offers closed captions for a viewer who may need the technical terms Stone mentions spelled out for clarity.
This is another YouTube video, 59 minutes long, from the BBC Timeshift series, narrated by actor John Hannah. Rather than talking about different makes of motorbikes, it uses vintage film clips and interviews to discuss the mid-20th century British “rocker” motorcycle culture.
The “gallery” section of this museum’s website offers photos of some of “Australia’s largest collection of vintage, veteran, and classic motorcycles.” Images include a replica of an 1885 wooden Daimler, a 1920 BSA model E V-twin engine, and a 1912 Indian.
The HVA “aims to help ensure that our automotive heritage is more broadly appreciated and carefully preserved for future generations.” The “documentaries” section of the American organization’s website contains profiles of particular historic cars, such as U.S. President Taft’s 1909 steam car, President Reagan’s 1962 Jeep, and the Marmon Wasp, first car to win the Indianapolis 500 race.The Henry Ford Digital Collections (U.S.)
The Henry Ford is a museum complex near Detroit, Michigan, started by the famous American car manufacturer. Given its roots, one shouldn’t be surprised that its collection includes A LOT of automobile-related material. The HF’s website offers many images from its collections online. The above link will take you to a page where you can search on a particular automobile make: “Tucker car” will bring up an image of a 1948 Tucker sedan, as well as car parts, like a Tucker radio. The collection is heavily American, but I found some British car images when I spot-checked brands like Jaguar and Rolls-Royce. With tens of thousands of digital images available online, this is a really good website to use to research the history of 19th and 20th century technology in general, not just automobiles.
Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey, offers a selection of images of its car collection on its website at the above link. Clicking on “more” beneath the photo will bring up additional images and a description of the car.
The Trust’s website offers scores of searchable automobile images on its website; clicking on an image gives technical information, a brief history, and notes whether that car is currently on display in the physical museum at Beaulieu, New Forest, near Southampton.
This page of the Society’s website offered 189 “snapshots” images of historic British automobile history on the day I checked it. The page says that the images are selected at random; a new image is selected each week, but the older ones seem to be retained. I found a photo of a 1920s dealer’s showroom to be very interesting, with an extensive description. Ditto an image of a 1930s Italian one-passenger car.
This museum is “an international centre for the collection, research, preservation, education and display of Australian road transport history.” Its website offers a selection of images of Australian vehicles, grouped as “Vintage,” “Veteran,” “Antique,” etc., with three or four examples of cars from each era. Clicking on an image will bring up a few sentences about the vehicle.
I found some of the above resources via this page’s extensive list of links to international websites on automotive history. The organization is a “group of automotive enthusiasts from over 20 countries around the globe who are passionate about researching and recording automotive history.” Car enthusiasts could get lost here, clicking back and forth among the many resources.
Digital offerings from the U.K. National Railway Museum in York can be found on this site, which offers “a diverse and internationally significant collection of 7.3 million items from science, technology, engineering, medicine, transport and media.” The site also offers the holdings of several other science and technology-related UK museums. If you need an image of the 1813 “Puffing Billy” locomotive, you can do a keyword search for that and will retrieve several different views of the engine, plus a couple of paragraphs of description. Queen Alexandra’s luxurious 1902 saloon car is another image that is available. If your character is traveling on the Great Northern Railway, search on that term to find examples of GNR rolling stock. However, only a limited percentage of images seem to be available for viewing online. My searches brought up a lot of “hits” of brief descriptions but no viewable image. I thought the problem might have been because I was accessing the site from outside the UK, but a UK-based colleague tried the same search with the same result, some images available, many not. Still, the site is worth trying as a place to start.Railways Archive
“The Archive is a not-for-profit online project which provides access to electronic copies of original documents, together with supporting data, which have played a key role in driving and reflecting change on the railways of the United Kingdom.” Bear in mind that it is run by an individual, not a museum or historical society. Don’t look here for many photos, but the website does provide PDF images of railroad history documents going back to the early 1800s, including a lot of accident-related ones. Select “browse” in upper left corner to be able to browse documents by date. The “documents” bar in the upper left corner will give you a menu where you can narrow your search by document type, date, author, or publisher.
This link will take you to the “railroads” section of this extensive postcard collection held at the Newberry Library in Chicago. You can browse through 283 pages of railroad postcards or do a keyword search. However, I encountered many listings for postcards that were not available for viewing online. If a particular card was of interest to you, you could contact the Newberry Library to ask about it. A subset of about 15,000 postcards from the hundreds of thousands in the collection are offered on this site as digital images.
If you are writing a novel about the old West, this could be a good source of information on Western railroads. The collection includes over 20,000 images, including “images of standard and narrow gauge railroads in Colorado and the West; locomotives, passenger and freight cars, structures, and terminals.” Search for “caboose” or “dining car” to bring up many examples of those kinds of historical rolling stock.
Several historical organizations in Sacramento County, California banded together to offer this collection of digitized historical railroad images. The group aims to “document agriculture and transportation in the Sacramento region from the mid 19th to early 20th century.” The link will take you to where you can browse over 480 railroad-related images, including engines, terminals, and railroad advertising.
The Commission was established in 1960 to help solve a labor dispute between railroad workers and several different US railroads. The unions solicited photographs from members to be used in the case, and the resulting collection “present[s] a remarkably complete picture of the railroad industry and the surrounding American towns, cities, and countryside serviced by the railroads” in the early 1960s. The collection is hosted by Cornell University. Boxes on the left of the screen allow you to limit the results by location or subject.Alberta Railway Museum
This Canadian museum “preserves and interprets significant railway artifacts”, and offers digital images of some of its collection at the above link. Canadian rail cars in various stages of restoration can be viewed on the site.
NOTE: YouTube has a wealth of relevant videos for all of the four types of transportation I’ve covered in this article. Try searching on “automobile history” or “motorcycle history.” Then use what in library circles is called the CRAAP test to determine how useful the video will be for accurate historical research. Is the video:
- Current? (How up to date is the info?)
- Relevant? (Does it answer your research question? What audience is it aimed at?)
- Authority? (Who created it? What are his/her credentials?)
- Accuracy? (Where is the information from? Do the creators back up the info with evidence/sources?)
- Purpose? (Is the video trying to inform you? Sell you something?)
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.