The Gestring Ghost: Gestring White Wagon
Rare Gestring white wagon points to early promotional efforts
This "white" Gestring wagon likely dates to a period between 1885 and 1890. Numerous features point to its use as a one-of-a-kind promotional vehicle.
Image courtesy David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives
For some, the sight of an old wooden farm wagon is nothing special. Like many things misunderstood, these antique workhorses are often viewed with disinterest and filed away as insignificant relics from an antiquated past. But for those who study these vintage works of art, there’s an appreciation for a sophisticated industry that was not only privy to some of the most historic events and happenings in our country but was also absolutely essential to the growth, development and birth of America as a world power.
Like any business segment, early wagon brands differed in many respects from design and uses to history and age. The industry was massive with tens of thousands of makers and just as many different ways of doing things. When it comes to timeframes of manufacture, most collectors, historians and western vehicle enthusiasts will concur that it’s become increasingly difficult to locate true, nineteenth century factory-built wagons outside of a museum.
It’s an amazing truth especially in light of the fact that hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of wagons were built during the nineteenth century in America. So, when a previously unknown set of wheels from the 1800s comes to light, it not only presents an opportunity to immerse oneself in the can-do spirit of our nation’s roots but also glean scarce information about the early transportation industry in the U.S.
The look of leadership
When I first saw the “White Wagon,” as it’s often called, a number of things intrigued me. First and most obvious, the original coloring and paint patterns on the vehicle are quite different from traditional color schemes. Second, it’s dominated by nineteenth century construction features. Third, the solid, usable condition of the wagon is amazing, considering that it’s almost certainly well in excess of a century in age. Rarely, do we have the opportunity to discover truly unique pieces, but this is clearly an exception to the rule.
The wagon brand is a Gestring (pronounced guess-string). With the factory located on the block between Mound, Broadway and Brooklyn streets in St. Louis, the company’s beginnings date to the mid to late 1850s. Outlasting virtually all of its largest competitors, Gestring’s operations ceased during the mid-1930s. The company is particularly significant since it competed head-to-head with legendary St. Louis wagon makers Joseph Murphy, Louis Espenschied, Henry Luedinghaus, and Weber & Damme, while simultaneously outfitting businesses, ranches, military expeditions and emigrants moving west.
For those familiar with traditional farm wagon designs, the color of this particular Gestring is radically different. Typical wagon boxes from the late 1800s and early 1900s were green with red, orange or yellow gears (undercarriages). The rich paint hues were reinforced with a durable lead base to help withstand the rigors of use and nature’s elements. Close examination of this “white wagon” reveals that it was originally a bone or light cream color. Over time, the lighter pigments have faded and chalked from the pressures of the elements. It’s just one of the reasons wagons were not generally painted in such a way.
So, with lighter pigments often translating to less protection and durability, why would a well-known manufacturer of the day paint a vehicle in such a way? It’s a question that leaves few options as answers and, when combined with other features, it’s obvious the piece was built for a special purpose. The most plausible explanation lies with promotion of the brand itself.
Show wagons, whether built for fairs, expositions, commercial displays or some other promotional event, were generally one-of-a-kind pieces designed to grab the consumer’s eye and interest. Most were sold after the event and very few are known to have survived. While photographs and written descriptions from the late 1800s and early 1900s have preserved a record of some of these special vehicles, getting an up-close glimpse of one is a rare occurrence today.
Fortunately, the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind., has two original Studebaker exhibition wagons. One was shown at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia and the other at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Both were used to reinforce the exceptional craftsmanship and leadership touted by the company.
While it’s not known exactly where the white Gestring was first unveiled to the public, the design includes multiple characteristics that would have helped showcase the Gestring brand. Beyond the eye-catching bone-color background, hand-painted florals and agrarian patterns share the box sides with striking chartreuse greens and vivid blue tones. Bright yellow flower centers further tie into the complementary striping to help set this piece well apart from any other heavy farm style wagon. The blue color shades are even carried over into the brake blocks on the gear, yet another variation from traditional techniques.
Elsewhere, the wagon is equipped with St. Louis seat risers. The set of risers are matched in both paint and construction but clearly display an option with reference to how the rear sections could be finished. While one riser shows a sharply angled design outlined by black pinstriping, the other riser is more fluidly curved with the same striping.
Rings on the bolster stakes are also slightly different from front to back. The rearmost rings are forged while the forward stakes are shown with a heavier, cast design. Again, these distinctions are original to the piece and help convey construction options available from the factory. Similar tactics were employed on promotional vehicles by other wagon makers in numerous national expositions, state fairs, and other local events.
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