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Horse Trading

Duping the Buyer

It may be useful to think of the cultural history of the buying and selling of personal transportation as a meander in the river of retail history. At some time in the distant past, for reasons that are not altogether clear, men developed a pattern of playful hard bargaining when they dealt in horses. Before the mid-nineteenth century, buyers and sellers, both male and female, haggled over the prices of all marketplace goods, but male horse trading became something of a game. For many it was bit of fun in which each party sought not a fair exchange but an unfair advantage. The continuation of horse-trading forms in car retailing is a meander in the otherwise smooth flow of retailing mainstream (rather than a cutoff oxbow lake) because automobiles are such a large component in the modern family’s budget. The cost is what makes bargaining over personal transportation more than a quaint reminder of bygone behavior like hunting trips or quilting bees. Buying the family’s most expensive manufactured product is a retail transaction that still bears the marks of the gendered performance that was horse trading.

Horses as Masculine Symbols

When horses were the primary means of personal transportation, men judged other men by every aspect of horse ownership. If a man could not exercise his ownership responsibilities in a masculine way, then maybe he did not really own the horse, mused the New York Times in 1889—maybe the horse owned him: “The man who has bought a horse which he is afraid to ride lest he should fall off, afraid not to ride lest he should be called a coward, and afraid to sell lest he should be a loser, is literally a slave and not the master of the beast.”1 Men wanted their horses to project a public image of themselves as powerful, knowledgeable, and shrewd. “Everybody considers a compliment to his horse as fully equivalent to one to himself,” noted a Boston lawyer in 1861.2

Being a respected horseman was a multifaceted role that included understanding horses well enough to at least talk a good game. “I think I have never met a man who didn’t feel it necessary to his reputation to pretend, on occasion, that he knew something of horses,” noted Charles Dickens, who understood that men judged men by how well they judged horses.3 The idlers along Broadway would eye the rigs driving by and scorn the man who could not “‘keep it up’ in proper style.”4 Since this particular observation came from the National Police Gazette, a favorite of pool hall and barbershop loiterers, the double entendre may well have been intentional. It followed that a man who had a good eye for horseflesh was also a man who had a good eye for the fair sex, and nineteenth-century bystanders assumed that a man driving a fast trotter was apt to have a “pretty bit of muliebrity” sitting by his side.5

Nineteenth-century men of all classes understood the symbolic parallel meanings of horses and women. A fine horse, like a fine wife, was a public representation of male wealth and power, and as sociologist Thorstein Veblen recognized, both could be forms of conspicuous consumption. Writing in 1899, just a couple of years too early to include automobiles in his commentary on upper-class wastefulness, Veblen argued that horses were more than an expression of wealth—they were also an extension of the man himself. A man’s horse, he wrote, was a means to “express his own dominating individuality,” especially when it gratified “the owner’s sense of aggression and dominance” by “outstripping his neighbor’s” horse in a race.6

Veblen’s characterization of horses conflates their masculine and feminine meanings. The feminine horse was a possession under the control its male owner, who could relate to it as he would to a female companion. For example, in 1868, reminiscing about his favorite horse named Vix (as in vixen), an army colonel remembered how “with an immense excitement” she fancy-stepped down Fifth Avenue so prettily that “few people allowed us to pass without admiring notice.” He recalled that their relationship “went on for three years, always together,” that they had their differences from time to time when “she was pettish and I was harsh,” but that they always made up to be close friends again.7 The colonel’s commentary was unusual only in the fact that he acknowledged his horse’s biological sex as well as its gendered cultural meaning. Horsemen admired their fellows who were brave or foolish enough to ride stallions rather than mares or geldings, but they usually ignored the sex of their own horses and focused on the animal’s performance. That way fast female horses could have masculine meaning. In 1923, after cars had replaced horses, Alfred Stieglitz sardonically titled a photograph of a castrated horse “Spiritual America.” Before the turn of the century, however, both male and female horses could act as culturally gendered female status symbols and culturally gendered male ego extensions. In either sense, the horse was more than a means to get from here to there; it was a reflection of its owner.

The Manly Art of Horse Trading

Decisions about self-representation involve complex social and psychological variables that make it very difficult to act rationally and very easy to respond emotionally. Because horses were status symbols and ego extensions, the process of buying and selling them also took on special meaning in an environment that admired bargaining skills. Competitive interpersonal commerce of all kinds struck foreigners as peculiarly American. Commenting on his two-year sojourn in the United States, Englishman Frederick Marryat noted with some surprise that he had actually seen American girls swapping hats on a riverboat. By recounting a backwoods joke about a man who boasted that his two sons were so clever at bartering that if he locked them in a room without a cent in their pockets an hour later they both would have made two dollars, Marryat made it clear that bartering was “the ruling passion of the country” in 1839.8

Pride in bartering, or “swapping,” as Americans called it, had a special place in male culture. Boys at a horse fair in western Georgia in 1925 would swap coats or hats just so they would “be a-doin” like their fathers. For these boys swapping was an introduction to the methods and mores of the market system. For their fathers it was an exercise in the principles of masculine economics. Every man who traded wanted to believe that he had gotten the better of the deal. A visitor reported, “No matter how badly he may have been beaten, pride would not permit him to acknowledge it.”9 Thus, for men it was not merely what they rode but how they obtained what they rode that contributed to their sense of pride. It was not enough to receive fair value; each side in the deal wanted to come out ahead. There was a bragging winner and a shamed loser.

According to an 1855 account, a man who had unknowingly bought a horse with “heaves” (a severe and noisy pulmonary disorder) became the laughing stock of his town, with word of his poor choice spreading faster than the winded nag could move. “I was so much ashamed,” the buyer related, that in order to avoid the neighbors, “I took a roundabout road to the stable … and dismounted with a chastened spirit.” He finally decided to sell the sickly beast after a “colored person” stopped to help him when the horse broke down and announced, “I heerd about you, and you hos. Dats de hos dats got de heaves so bad.”10

The only thing as damaging to a white man’s ego as being laughed at by a “colored” man would be being laughed at by a woman, especially over a horse trade. Prior to the twentieth century, men believed that women knew as little about horses as they would later believe they knew about cars. Women who rode or drove horses were considered slightly daring, and women who bought horses committed an act alien to their sex. Dealers, it was said, hated female buyers because they did not know what to look for in a purchase and were invariably unhappy with the lack of perfection in any horse they chose. They would then bad-mouth the dealer unless he returned their money, and when he did, he would find that the female buyer had ruined the horse so that it was no longer saleable to a knowledgeable horseman.11

Horse trading with a woman was a classic double bind; if you cheated her, you were not a gentleman; if you were cheated by her, you were not a man.12 The man in one unusual account of misleading a woman when selling a horse was overwhelmed with remorse and got his just deserts when the woman was unexpectedly able to control the unruly beast.13 The gender-affirming nature of horse trading is illustrated by the comment of a “rascally” dealer who “resolves to ‘take in’ the next greenhorn of a man-milliner” who came his way.14 By combining the naïve “greenhorn” with the homosexual “man-milliner,” the dealer manages to convey both his contempt for the novice untutored in the art of horse trading and his assumption that a male so unskilled was not fully masculine.

The Reputation of Horse Traders

The man who bought a horse from a trader in the nineteenth century felt exactly like the man who bought automobile from a used-car dealer in the twentieth. He proudly but anxiously took his family out for a drive, fearing that first sign of trouble that would mark him as a sucker. Even though being “done” in a horse trade was “the most common of misfortunes,” explained an industry observer in 1895, it still carried with it “a measure of disgrace.”15 Ordinary men knew they were no match for professional dealers because horse traders, like lawyers, were “as a class, great rogues”—but what choice did they have when it came time to buy?16 They could only take the advice that Cicero gave his friend Trebatius Testa, who was going abroad: “Look out in Britain that you are not cheated by the charioteers [horse traders].”17

The seamy reputation of horse traders permeated the equestrian economy. William Henry Herbert, an observer of the New York demimonde in the Gilded Age, said, “There cannot be conceived a race of more arrant cheats and swindlers than the whole set of jockeys, grooms and horse dealers.” Herbert, who also wrote as “Frank Forester,” warned that horse dealers not only cheated but also positively reveled in their cheating. Wall Street brokers and steamboat commodores also defrauded their business associates, he noted, and delighted in their wrongdoing, but at least each had the common decency to do so in his “own secret soul.” Men who engaged in horse trading bragged about their dishonesty, however, and expected to “gain éclat or good report by its publicity.”18

At best, horse traders were viewed as clever scamps or wise rogues from whom one could learn some expensive lessons about life and the marketplace. At worst, they were such conscienceless scoundrels that the term “horse trader” was a universally understood synonym for moral reprobate. For example, in 1863 when the Democratic Party wanted to depict Republican President Abraham Lincoln as both a buffoon and untrustworthy, they produced a bogus election circular in the form of a “public announcement.” The notice informed the residents of Springfield that Lincoln would soon be leaving Washington and returning home, where he would once again be available to swap jokes and horses.19 A horse-swapping man was assumed to be dishonest until shown otherwise.20 In fact, there was a widely held and only half-joking belief that engaging in horse trading would turn a saint into a sinner. Even members of the notably honest Quaker commercial community engaged in dissimulation when they traded horses. A stranger who stopped by a Quaker’s farm in 1894 said he had heard the man wanted to sell a horse and was able to strike a bargain with the farmer. The buyer soon returned, complaining that he had bought the horse as a draft animal, but it would not pull as the Quaker had promised. The farmer said that he had promised no such thing and explained that what he had said was, “Pull! I wish thee could see him pull.”21

Nobody—not your closest neighbor, your best friend, your church brethren, not even the minister himself—could be trusted in a horse trade.22 The very term “jockey” (which prior to the twentieth century meant professional dealer as well as professional rider) was also a verb that meant to cheat, and horse traders were represented as the incarnation of all that was corrupt in society.23 Boosters of Penn Yan, Pennsylvania, admitted that their town had not always been a salubrious place to live. Not too many years prior to 1855, they acknowledged, Penn Yan had been the location of gambling, drinking, horse trading, “and the other proclivities which go to make up an evil reputation.”24 In other words, the real Penn Yan was like the fictional town in an 1870 children’s story where instead of going to church on Sunday, the men “got drunk, or played cards for money, or swapped horses,—those who had any horses to swap and those who had none lounged round to see the others swap, and help do the swearing.”25 If there was a murder in a town and the police needed to round up some suspects, an itinerant horse trader was a good bet.26 If a novelist wanted to depict a lowlife who would starve his own family rather than work, he would make the man a horse swapper, and if the village wiseacres wanted to play a joke by running a useless fool for a meaningless office, they would nominate the town horse dealer.27

In an age when popular opinion about a man’s moral values and consequent standing in the eyes of God was taken seriously, horse trading was an almost sure sign of depravity and damnation. Evangelists preached against whiskey drinking and horse trading as they poured “hot shot” into camp meetings.28 A family man who gave up cursing and drinking nevertheless despaired of salvation because, as he explained to the minister, “I cannot trade horses and be honest and I won’t make a profession unless I can live up to it.”29 Because it was “next door to impossible” to sell a horse without cheating and lying, there was no doubt about the ultimate fate of a horse trader’s soul “unless indeed Providence has arranged for him a special dispensation.”30 Providence was disinclined to hand out such dispensations, according to a 1911 anecdote in which Saint Peter welcomed an honest circulation manager to heaven by observing that their one horse swapper had been there for twenty years and was becoming conceited.31

The public’s generally poor regard for horse dealers was reinforced in the second half of the nineteenth century by the close association between Gypsies and horse trading.32 The vernacular term “gyp” (cheat), used both as a noun and a verb, is a truncation of Gypsy and continued to be applied to shady car dealers long after its ethno-occupational origins had faded. Americans generally recognized two distinct cultural subgroups, both of which they called Gypsies (a name that derives from the Roma’s putative origin in Egypt). One group was made up of the more traditional Roma, the dark-skinned central Europeans of Indo-Asian origin who lived a nomadic lifestyle and engaged in small-time trading, crafts, fortune telling, and, according to popular belief, petty crime. The members of the second group were ethnically Irish and referred to themselves as Travelers, although outsiders called them Gypsies. They followed a lifestyle very similar to the Roma. Because both groups were nomadic, handy with horses, spoke a distinct argot, and lived both literally and legally on the margins of society, the mainstream public often failed to distinguish between them.33 Almost any itinerant horse trader might be called a Gypsy, and by extrapolation all small-scale dealers were tarred by the quasi-ethnic prejudice that linked Gypsies and horse trading.

The Horse Trading Business

The tar brush of dishonesty did not mark every professional horse trader, however. The most trustworthy horse marketers were the large-scale dealers who sold to mines, drayage companies, the military, and other mass consumers of horseflesh. They tended to operate like most other business suppliers filling big orders with specialized products. They signed contracts specifying quantity, quality, and price, and delivered the goods at the designated time with the understanding that the terms of the contract were enforceable in court. The same generally held true for the field agents who bought horses for these large dealers from farmers and breeders.34 These, however, were not the men who captured the public imagination.

The popular culture of horse trading was constructed from the tall tales, humor, and war stories about two men and a horse or two. Smaller scale dealers fell into two broad categories generally called “road traders” and “barn traders.” Road traders were sometimes the storied Yankee peddlers who sold light manufactured goods farm-to-farm in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stocking a few extra horses along with their clocks and pots.35 Others were exclusively horse traders who went out on a circuit with a string of animals, continually swapping for new ones, collecting small cash differences on each trade, selling when they could, buying when they had to, and living from day to day by their wit and wile. Given their propensity for trickery, road traders tended to avoid returning to particular farms and towns—at least until their previous customers had time to cool off.

Barn traders, on the other hand, worked out of a fixed location, usually a livery stable, which was an all-purpose horse and carriage repair shop, public garage, and rental agency. Some village barn traders might refrain from taking gross advantage of their customers because they were dealing with members of their own communities. “Po Boy” Jenkins, a Georgia barn trader in the 1920s, explained: “I wanted to leave my customers satisfied and make a profit. I wasn’t like a gypsy.” The Irish Gypsies would “cheat the hell out of a farmer” and be gone, but “I was here permanent,” he said, and would make good if anything were wrong.36 Jenkins’s willingness to stand behind his sales was an admirable but not widely shared trait. Most barn traders reasoned that the men who bought horses from them “ought to know what they are doing; and if they do not, they should be taught through severe lessons.”37

Urban small-scale traders tended to cluster in horse market neighborhoods. Some of them may have been trustworthy, established businessmen, but many were fly-by-night swindlers who would rent space for a few days. These semi-itinerant dealers would advertise horses for sale by “recent widows” or a “gentleman going abroad” and sell poor-quality horses to men who thought they were getting a great bargain. Any warranties they provided meant nothing when they moved on.38 In New York City, the area around Bull’s Head Tavern at Twenty-fourth Street and Third Avenue was a particularly well-known example of this kind of market. Working on commission, “cappers” roamed through the crowds, looking for likely buyers and steering them toward particular dealers.39 Brooklyn had its version of the Bull’s Head market on Halsey Street, where even more disreputable dealers sold animals so far gone they could hardly stand on their remaining three legs.40

Horse Trading as a Game

Like saloons and pool halls, horse trading settings were venues for the display of male culture. Men were buying and selling equine representations of themselves on a one-to-one basis in a way that they understood to be a contest. The game element in horse trading took on particular importance in liminal spaces. Men who met casually to deal in horses tended to view the occasion as entertainment as much as economics. Militia muster days, court days, national holidays, public hangings, and even Sundays, provided an opportunity for men to swap horses.41 Prior to 1900, said one observer, women used the time between church services to gossip; young people went off to the graveyard to talk of “things not in the sermon”; and men took the time to swap horses, even though it was the Sabbath.42 Horse swapping, like whiskey drinking, was sinful, and a sure way of denigrating a rival minister was to accuse him of doing both.43

Whiskey played a central role in fueling the playful side of the horse-trading business. The inebriated participants at a typical first-Tuesday-of-the-month horse swapping in Georgia hurled good-natured insults at each other and traded horses for pocketknives, watches, and, in one case, a cow that the buyer subsequently saddled up and drunkenly rode home.44 Trading with a drunk could have its pitfalls, however, since there is a least one documented case where an inebriated trader was able to collect damages because the jury sympathized with his impaired ability to judge the horse he was buying.45 Southerners in particular had a reputation for trading under the influence, and when they were not drunk and trading horses, they were drunk and trading horse-trading stories. One member of a group of antebellum southern reprobates gathered around a hotel bar boasted that he had sold a half-dead horse as “a perfect paragon of horseflesh; a real Arab; nimble as a cricket; sounder than a nut; gentler than a cooing dove, and faster than a tornado.”46

Nothing was more likely to drive away women than men expostulating over their horse trading triumphs.47 When the Abingdon County, Virginia, court convened to do business on the fourth Monday of each month, local farmers came into town to drink and swap horses. Their wives were furious because the men wasted time and money only to wind up with useless animals. The men, however, viewed the monthly “jockey lot” as a place to show off their bargaining skills and prove they could put one over on their neighbors. Such exchanges supposedly taught quick thinking and self-reliance because every trader knew that every other trader was lying about his stock.48 So, for instance, a Yankee sold a horse that would not pull to a Kentuckian, but the Kentuckian traded the Yankee a horse that would not move. When the Yankee complained, the Kentuckian explained that you had to “warm him up”—by kindling a fire under him.49

Not appearing to be a fool or a loser in the eyes of the male community was of paramount importance, so the losers either lied or hid.50 A man bought a mare he believed was pregnant by a champion Tennessee walking horse. When the foal was born however, it was a mule (meaning the sire had been a donkey). The unfortunate buyer was so ashamed of having been “snookered” that he took to his bed to recuperate and to “avoid his peers for as long as possible.”51

Buying a champion walking horse in utero and getting a mule instead was a typical horse story punch line. As often as not, tales of horse trades were not about getting the better horse (in the sense of coming out of the deal with a useful animal) but about not getting the worse horse (in the sense that the horse traded away was even more useless than the useless horse gotten in return). This equine equivalent of lowball poker (in which the worst hand wins) had more to do with being cleverer than the next fellow than it did with personal transportation.

The most imaginative of such transactions involved horses that could not carry anybody anywhere but ensured that the reputation of the winner would travel everywhere. In 1849, for example, a couple of Massachusetts jockeys met in a tavern, and to determine which was the sharper trader, they agreed to exchange horses, with the one who got the worst horse buying a round of drinks for the house. The first jockey brought out a horse that was blind, lame, infected with glanders, and prone to both biting and kicking. Then the second jockey fetched his horse, which in comparison looked pretty good. However, before the first trader could claim his prize, the second jockey removed first one false ear and then the other. He then plucked a glass eye out of the horse’s head and proceeded to remove its artificial mane and tail. Those were just the trimmings, he announced proudly. He had “manufactured” this horse especially for such a trade, and now he would begin to unscrew the poor beast’s major body parts, starting with a wooden leg. At that point, the first jockey pulled out his money and ordered the drinks.52

Abraham Lincoln, a famously sharp horse trader, was reputed to have lost a similar wager; but like all good Lincoln stories, the tale was self-deprecating and an example of the future president’s wit. Lincoln and a local judge entered into the swap, agreeing that the one with the worse animal would get not only the other person’s horse but also $25. The judge showed up with an unbelievably broken-down wreck of a horse, but Lincoln returned with a sawhorse. The crowd applauded, but Lincoln took one look at the judge’s animal and promptly handed over both the wooden horse and the $25.53

In more serious horse-for-horse trades, the cash payment was not a wager but a way to cover the difference in perceived value between the two animals. The cash was referred to as “boot,” and that word is still used when sellers try to close a sale by saying they will throw in something extra “to boot.” As this residual usage suggests, boot could be something other than money. So in a horse trade it might be cash, but it might also be a blanket, saddle, tack, or a bottle of whiskey, whatever it took to consummate the deal. When Thomas Jefferson made an even swap of his black horse for John Hylton’s five-year-old sorrel mare in 1774, he promised to pay an additional three pounds if the mare turned out to be pregnant. A couple of days later Hylton had second thoughts, so Jefferson noted in his journal that he sent the unhappy seller forty shillings “to boot.”54

Traders often considered boot the profit in a deal, especially if it was cash. Serious traders frequently told unhappy customers that they would trade back but keep the boot (or sometimes buy back the horse at a discount, which amounted to the same thing).55 Nevertheless, there was no automatic expectation that a deal could be undone. Given the tradition of exaggeration in horse trading, there were bound to be a large number of unhappy customers, and boot made it easy to trade back at a profit without any additional money changing hands.

Because trade-backs and refunds were never the norm, traders considered it a major concession to reconsider a deal at all and usually expected to earn something for their trouble. Some dealers figured out how to turn this apparent act of beneficence into a moneymaking swindle. They stocked attractive horses with easily hidden faults or, in extreme cases, would teach a horse a vice that would not be immediately obvious.56 The dealer would take a trade plus boot for the good-looking animal. As soon as the new owner discovered the problem, he would come back to complain that the horse would turn only left, bite fellow animals, break down after an hour of work, or had some such deficiency. The trader would then magnanimously agree to reverse the trade less the boot. The buyer usually considered that a fair price to pay to be rid of the problem, and then of course the dealer could trade the horse to the next unsuspecting victim. Such a horse, known as a “snide,” was worth more to a dealer than a sound, well-mannered horse, because it could be repeatedly sold, generating a profit each time it was returned.57 Knowing this ruse, canny buyers would occasionally confound the con artist by refusing to the return the horse as expected but instead hold it for ransom, forcing the dealer to buy it back at a premium if he wanted to continue the con.58 Whether these double-crosses actually occurred or were simply part of the folk legends of horse trading, they emphasize the gamesmanship that lay at the heart of much small-time horse trading. Getting a good deal in a horse trade was rewarding, but turning the tables on somebody who was trying to take unfair advantage was even more satisfying.

The “snide” double-cross illustrates how a participant could win the horse-trading game without getting a usable horse. For the symbolic victory to be more important than the value of the commodity, the winner had to feel that he had come out ahead both psychologically and sociologically. Unlike a regular game, where the score determined the winner, the horse-trade game had to be won twice. First the individual (it could be either the buyer or the seller) himself had to believe that he had won, then he had to convince other members of his community that he had won. In fact, many horse trade stories turned on this two-stage process. One of the parties would be set up to boast of the good deal he had gotten and then be shamed in the eyes of his peers when the real winner demonstrated that he had tricked the would-be trickster.

The Rules of the Game

The morality—or more precisely, the immorality—of horse trading derived from the way it operated as a game. Games have their own rules: nobody is punished for stealing second base in baseball or stealing a pass in basketball. To the extent that it was a game, horse trading was exempt from broader principles of behavior. Horse traders expected to be judged by the ethics of the game, not the ethics of the larger commercial world. They carved out a unique business space that balanced the competing demands of law, morality, and game playing. As late as 1977, an old Appalachian horse trader who admitted to half a dozen different ways of hiding a horse’s faults could claim, “I didn’t play any tricks.” As far as he was concerned, what he had done was part of the accepted game conduct, and he said he dismissed threats of legal action, knowing that a jury of his peers would not find his actions out of bounds.59 The fraternity of horse swappers created a precedent of retail exceptionalism that would become its legacy to automobile dealing.

The horse-trading game had rules, but because it was an informal sport, the rules were not codified and they varied over time and geography. Ultimately, the players viewed their transaction as a contest in which a game-like victory was more desirable than a business-like equal exchange of value. At stake on the one side was the buyer’s perceived ability to judge the quality of a horse without depending on the word of the seller. On the other side was the ability of the seller to obscure his animal’s faults without actually lying about them. “Honest” horse traders tried to avoid the sin of commission—that is, deliberately not telling the truth—but celebrated the sin of omission in which the fault lay with the horse not the trader.60

In the purest form of the horse-trading game, the seller actually acknowledged or even volunteered his horses’ shortcomings. The buyer, however, was so convinced that everything the seller said was a lie that he fooled himself into not believing the truth. In his commentaries on Jacksonian Georgia, Augustus Longstreet wrote of a couple of horse swappers who expatiated at such length about their respective horses’ faults that neither side would believe the other, even though both were telling the truth.61 The mule trader “Po Boy” Jenkins, who prided himself on not lying, remembered a somewhat similar situation, also in Georgia but about a century later, when a buyer would not let him open his mouth, saying, “I wouldn’t believe nothing no horse trader ever said about a mule [because] I’m my own judge.” In front of a dozen laughing witnesses, Jenkins kept his counsel, asked for $150, accepted $125, and later remarked that if the buyer had not been such a know-it-all, he would have told him the truth about the balky mule and let it go for fifty bucks.62

Traders could not count on buyers refusing to hear about a horse’s faults or disbelieving the truth when they did. More commonly, the seller avoided a direct answer when asked about the horse or, in the standard horse-tale trope, gave an honest answer that was nevertheless misleading.63 Sellers would say that a blind horse “don’t look so good” or that one suitable only for dog food was “fit to go to any hounds.” They might describe a kicking horse as “lifting the feet well up,” and if it had a fractured leg, it was “well broke for a gig or a saddle.”64 Nuncupative misdirection was at the heart of horse trading game. While outright lies transgressed the conventionally established boundaries, clever rhetorical feints were accepted and admired. A particularly nasty bit of verbal byplay combined the two forms so that the seller would warn the buyer about a nonexistent fault to distract him from the real one. Thus early in the twentieth century a North Carolina trader told a buyer he did not want to hear any complaints if one of the horse’s legs fell off. The buyer could the see horse’s legs were perfectly sound but was so busy examining them that he neglected to notice that the beast was blind.65

The fact that the seller did not tell a direct lie did not immunize him from general opprobrium, which is why horse dealing had such an awful reputation. Almost by definition, a good horse trader was a bad citizen. The moral ambiguity rose to the surface when horse trading mixed with religion. Religiously motivated men who were also honest horse traders warranted special mention: a Quaker, for example, who would not bargain and would not lie about his horse, or a Dunkard (another pietistic sect) who refused to take extra payment for a horse sold to the army during the Civil War.66 Much more commonly, horse trading stories emphasized the ways in which religious scruples gave way to shady trading ethics. Thus a typical trader’s elaborate praise of his animals’ assets and apparent blindness to their faults led an early nineteenth-century humorist to muse that the horse dealer must be a true Christian because he “would not disparage the character of even a brute” and “sees only virtue” while gazing at vice.67

Religion or the lack thereof provided a steady subtext to the world of horse trading. Like drinking and gambling, with which it was often linked, competitive horse swapping was a pastime that violated the moral tenets of American Protestantism. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—most of the religious commentary about horse trading was subversive, acknowledging the underlying civic principle of honesty but excusing dishonesty in swapping as unavoidable or at worst merely a venial sin. Underhanded church deacons were stock characters in horse-swapping tales, although real churchmen were not amused.68 In 1901 a Methodist bishop told a New Jersey conference that no one ought to read the wildly popular horse-trading novel David Harum because the story hinged on a minister trying to fool the protagonist but being tricked himself instead. The unsympathetic newspaper account of the bishop’s speech noted, “Everyone knows that there are few things which a Methodist minister likes better than a horse trade.”69

In the 1870s, Uncle Ike Barlow, a Michigan horse swapper, explained the true relationship of horse trading and religion. When he was buying a horse, said Barlow, he was a pretty good member of the church. When he was selling, he would do penance by skipping a prayer meeting or two, but when he was swapping, he would stop going to church for a month or until he knew the victim would not bring a lawsuit.70 Uncle Ike’s prayer hiatus while he waited to see whether he was going to be sued reflects the fact that the rules of the horse-trading game were not merely informal but sometimes illegal. Horse traders had to be constantly aware that if push came to shove in swapping, the legal code outranked the rules of the game. Most game players accepted the outcome of trade, win or lose. As one trader said, “I never goes to law to mend my bargains.”71 However, the traders had to juggle the expectations of those who knew they were playing a game with the expectations of customers who might not know that there was a game, or if they did, how to play it. This second class of customers was less likely to be amused by sharp dealing and more likely to denounce the trader as immoral or criminal.

There were unhappy buyers who sought judicial relief and found it. In 1888 the victims of a Brooklyn “gyp” dealer sued over the sale of a snide named Josiah. Josiah looked so good but was so bad that he had been sold 380 times in a single year. The dealer had warranted the horse in writing, using classic trader doublespeak in which every guaranty had a hidden meaning. For example, the dealer affirmed that “he works equally well in single or double harness,” meaning he would not pull either way, and that he “feeds good and takes his rest well,” meaning nothing at all except that the horse ate and slept. The courtroom rocked with laughter as the defense explained what each of the clauses in the warranty really meant, but the dealer’s verbal legerdemain did not amuse the judge, who sent the defendant to jail.72

The judge in this Brooklyn case may have ordered the stiff sentence because the defendant was a well-known professional conman. The judge in a different Brooklyn suit awarded the plaintiff six cents in damages, a judicial acknowledgement that he had been technically wronged but should have known better.73 In fact, the historical record is replete with stories of judges and jurors who refused to convict or who awarded only pro forma damages for behavior that would have been more severely punished in any other business transaction. In such cases the courts concluded that the plaintiffs should have known that horse-trade ethics were more malleable than those that governed other commercial transactions. There was, as the fictional horse trader David Harum observed, a difference between the “gospel truth” and a “good enough jury truth.”74

The frequency with which these stories appear and their lack of specificity raise doubts about their authenticity but nonetheless attests to a male folk culture that was bent on warning losers not to be crybabies and go running to the courts. Deane C. Davis, an ex-governor of Vermont, approvingly recounted the trial of a local jockey who sold a badly winded horse. The trader denied that he had misrepresented the animal. He testified that he told the buyer that the horse did not kick or bite, that the horse was not lame and was free from various other specific faults. However, when he was asked if the horse had the heaves, he replied, “If this horse has got the heaves, I got the heaves,” and, he explained to the jury in his breathy, asthmatic voice, “Gentlemen, I got the heaves.”75 The plaintiff in a similar case explained that when asked if a team pulled well, the seller replied, “You’ll be surprised to see them work.” When the judge found out the complainant had been horse trading since he was seven years old, he dismissed the case with the clear implication that he was finding the plaintiff guilty of stupidity.76

Hiding Faults

Some judges seemed inclined to excuse incidents of verbal misdirection because the perpetrators had obeyed the rules of the horse-trading game. When it came to false advertising, however, the record is clearer—if less amusing. As natural commodities, every horse was different, and horse advertisements were more analogous to the later used-car ads than to brand-oriented new-car advertising. Like each used car, each horse had to be sold on its own merits. Surprisingly, horse advertisements almost never identified breeds, but they were not modest in their application of complimentary adjectives, invariably describing the animals as fast, strong, elegant, and sound.77

As would be the case later with used-car ads, the public was repeatedly advised to read all horse ads with a jaundiced eye.78 In fact, the most hackneyed cliché of used-car dealing, “This car was only driven to church on Sundays by an old lady,” had its origins in horse advertising. While some men believed women used horses poorly and ruined their training, others thought women used their horses sparingly, so sellers falsely advertised female ownership as a way of indicating that a horse had not been pushed beyond its limits.79 By the same token, horse buyers were warned to avoid any horse advertised as being sold by “a poor widow in order to raise money to pay the rent” or some similarly distressed elderly woman who might not know its value.80

Rather than lie about the animal in advertising, traders could alter the animal so that it lied about itself. These alterations sought to hide diseases, injuries, physical shortcomings, age, and behavioral problems (referred to as vices). There was no shortage of issues to obscure. One legal encyclopedia listed more than eighty different problems that rendered a horse unsound. Alphabetically, they ranged from “abrasions” to “wind sucking,” and bodily, from “nasal gleet” in the top front to “thick urine” in the bottom back.81 Horse buyers were advised to have a veterinarian check over the animal before they paid for it, which they seem to have done as infrequently as secondhand auto buyers take prospective purchases to a mechanic.82

The most storied form of hiding a fault was to rework the appearance of a horse’s teeth to make it look younger. Sellers monkeyed with horse teeth as frequently as used-car dealers reset the odometer. The proverbial advice about not looking a gift horse in the mouth derives from the fact that a horse’s age can be roughly judged by the condition of its teeth—at least until the age of eight. That is why, explained one expert, “no one has a horse more than eight years old for sale!”83 Very occasionally a dealer would pull or pound milk teeth to make a horse look more mature, but much more frequently they doctored older teeth to make the horse appear younger.84 The dental rejuvenation process was often referred to as “bishoping” (the etymology of the term is disputed) and consisted of restoring the ground-away cusps in the incisors by filing and burning them with a hot iron. Horse buyers who wanted to learn how to check teeth could consult detailed descriptions of natural and artificial changes in horse dentition, some of which read suspiciously like how-to-do-it instructions even though the practice required a great deal of skill and was seldom engaged in by amateurs.85 (See fig. 1.)

Besides cosmetic dentistry, sellers used a variety of other devices to obscure the telltale signs of a horse’s age. Older horses develop hollows above their eyes, which traders could temporarily hide by blowing air into them through a quill or straw—Botox for the aging horse.86 Not only do horses’ teeth yellow, gums recede, and faces collapse, but they also go gray as they get older, a fact that made hair dye as popular among owners of old horses as it was among old horse owners.87 The beautician’s talents could be used to enhance a horse’s aesthetic value as well as to disguise its age. A horse with scars, droopy ears, or a thin mane or tail might otherwise be a perfectly functional animal, but the blemishes would make it undesirable for public use. A little bit of strategically applied coloring, some carefully hidden wire ear props, or a fall of extra hair woven into the mane or tail could transform a light work horse into a personal carriage or riding horse.

The horse-trading community may have frowned on purely cosmetic alterations, but it generally accepted them with good humor. Bishoping drew harsher criticism, perhaps because the process was more difficult and therefore more likely to be the work of a professional scoundrel. Whatever its true appearance, however, at least the person who bought a horse that had been given a superficial makeover still got an animal that could do the job, although perhaps for fewer years than the buyer bargained for. Serious health defects or behavioral vices were another matter altogether. A sick, disabled, or badly behaved horse could be anything from a nuisance to a useless waste of feed and barn space. Even if the disability were temporary, the buyer was still not getting a horse that could do the job for which it was being purchased, and hiding that fact violated even the permissive ethical code of horse trading.

Making a horse appear sound when it was not crossed the line into criminal activity. Soundness, that is, being free of serious disability or vice, was a key principle in the contentious world of horse warranties. Hiding unsoundness was widely condemned and almost as widely practiced. Amateurs seem to have avoided tampering with a horse’s basic physiognomy either because the techniques were more arcane or because there was a sense that it violated horse-swapping principles. Professional traders who did not expect to do repeat business were willing to do whatever it took to make a sale. Like the amateurs, the professionals would verbally dissemble and misdirect, but they did not limit themselves to polishing up their animals to look better; they would also take steps to hide more serious shortcomings.

The most notorious “copers” (unscrupulous dealers) were reputed to go so far as to hide glanders, a highly contagious and debilitating disease that rendered a horse useless. Glandered horses were supposed to be quarantined and euthanized, not sold after having their telltale nasal discharge hidden by inducing sneezing and then plugging the nostrils with tow.88 Copers could temporarily suppress heaves, the pulmonary disorder, by wetting the horse’s feed.89 If a symptom could not be hidden, its chronic source could be disguised by inflicting a visible and obviously superficial wound on the disabled horse.90 Shady traders made old, tired horses act young and frisky by feeding them nitroglycerin or inserting an irritant (ginger and red pepper were popular) into the horse’s anus.91 Sometimes they augmented the animating suppositories by putting pebbles in the horse’s ears, causing it to toss its head in a lively manner. On the other hand, a horse that was so frisky as to be unmanageable could be calmed down with a variety of opiates.92 Occasionally an unprincipled buyer, usually a barn dealer who was boarding a horse, would use the dealers’ black arts to make it look sick, rather than vice versa. By inducing symptoms of heaves or glanders, the dealer could buy the horse for pennies on the dollar. The horse would recover as soon as the dealer withdrew the aggravating agent and could then be sold for a fine profit.93


Traders who obscured the truth about their horses walked (and frequently crossed over) the fine line between acceptable praise and polish on one side, and illegal lying and fraud on the other. Just when they crossed that line was hard to determine because the equine branch of contract law was a specialty unto itself. The tradition of obscurantism in horse trading is the contentious nexus between folkways and legal procedures. Folkways allowed for obfuscation, while the law wanted specificity. In the larger commercial realm, contract law recognized that sellers were given to exaggerating the positive qualities of their products, and as long as they did so in general terms, the law did not consider sellers bound to the literal meaning of their terms. This sort of sales language, known as “puffery,” was assumed to be part of all commercial culture.94

When applying this rule to horse trading, the courts held that general statements such as “This is exactly the horse you want” were no more than “badinage” or “allowable chaffer,” not a promise of performance.95 Indeed, one of the English judges in the case that laid the foundation for warranty law used horse sales as an example even though the lawsuit itself involved a goat: “Every one in selling his wares will affirm that they are good, or that the horse which he sells is sound.”96 Well into the nineteenth century a court could find that the statement that a horse was “sound as a bell of brass and quiet as a lamb” was not intended to be a warranty.97

Warranties themselves were subject to a variety of restrictions, most commonly a time limit. Some sellers would warrantee a horse for only a couple of days, while others might extend that to a week or a month or even to several months.98 Experts, however, warned sellers against extended warranties because even the most honest and best-intentioned dealer could not know what troubles might be incubating inside a horse or what injuries or diseases it might sustain after it left his control.99 Buyers understood the unpredictability of living creatures and generally considered themselves fortunate if the seller was willing to give any warranty at all, no matter for how short a time.

Sellers often wrote these time-limited warranties in general terms, broadly warranting the horse “sound.” But what did it mean for a horse to be sound? A lawyer’s idea of soundness would probably be very different from that of a veterinarian, and those, in turn, would differ from that of a buyer or a seller.100 An 1847 treatise on equine law listed over one hundred “diseases, defects or alternations in structure, and bad habits” that would render a horse legally unsound.101 Minimalists (usually sellers) said soundness meant only that the horse suffered from no permanent physical disability. Maximalists (usually buyers) argued that soundness included temporary disabilities such as transitory diseases or minor injuries as well as vices or personality traits that they found objectionable. Needless to say, the interpretation of warranties constituted a large percentage of horse trade cases that showed up in court; and as noted earlier, judges and juries tended to apply looser interpretations to horse warranties than they might to assurances about other goods. When a buyer was able to extract a specific warranty from a seller, and especially if he could get it in writing, the buyer could expect judges and juries to hold the seller accountable. The more general principle was that if the buyer told the seller what he wanted to use the horse for, and if the seller knew that the horse would be unsuitable for that purpose, for example, to pull a plow or to be ridden by a lady, then the seller was violating an implied warranty.102

To avoid legal liability for unsoundness sellers often played a version of the verbal misdirection game. In essence, they issued a limited warranty that covered only a few issues and served to steer the buyer away from recognizing a more serious fault. For example, one seller warranted that a horse was “quiet to ride.” The buyer soon discovered that while it was indeed quiet to ride, it also refused to turn left, which meant the rider had to circle right to go left. Nevertheless, the buyer did not consider this fault a breach of the warranty.103 A trader in Boston before the Civil War warranted a horse “perfectly sound and kind” and even let the buyer take it on trial for a week. It was more than a week later and after he had paid that the buyer discovered that this very fine saddle horse would not pull a carriage. Players of the trading game would normally have chalked that one up in the loss column and moved on, but this buyer was a lawyer. He sued to get back his $250. Lawyer versus horse trader; it was a battle of pariahs. When the jury awarded the buyer only $125, he admitted that it was “probably upon the idea that a lawyer ought not to recover more than half that he is cheated out of.”104

The male culture of competitive horse trading evolved in an environment in which the prices of all goods were determined by bargaining. Before the mid-nineteenth century, buying a horse may have been different in degree from buy buying a teapot, but it was not different in kind. The process of negotiated give and take that marked horse dealing was essentially similar to the dickering over prices that every man or woman did when buying anything. The absence of women in the horse-trading business distinguished it from more general acts of consumption, and that, combined with the contestational nature of the bargaining, gave horse trading an air of raffish masculinity. Thus, horse trading was typical of retailing in general but was distinguished by its somewhat playful environment. The differences between horse trading and the broader retailing world would increase dramatically after 1850 as female-centered single-price selling replaced price haggling in almost all retail commerce other than the sale of personal transportation.

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