The forgotten arm-strap
U 6.10-12: He passed an arm through the armstrap and looked seriously from the open carriage window at the lowered blinds of the avenue.
When Bloom enters the mourning carriage on the way to Paddy Dignam’s funeral he takes his seat and then passes his arm through an arm-strap. The arm-strap was a familiar item in horse-drawn carriages, early motor cars, and even railway coaches – but these days we have all but forgotten what they are. Joyce’s annotators pass over the term, perhaps not even noticing it, and the major dictionaries of English elect not to include it.
But the arm-strap has a long history and an important purpose, similar though not identical to today’s seat-belts. Arm-straps didn’t protect the passenger being thrown forward in the event of an accident, but they helped to prevent the passenger swaying about and knocking into fellow passengers when the carriage or car rocked about on bumpy roads.
They play a small part in literature, where they are only infrequently mentioned. We normally hear about them when a carriage overturns and the occupants use them to pull themselves up towards the safety of a window or door. Samuel Smiles describes just such an occasion:
Dickens’s All the Year Round happens to mention them in passing in the context of trains speeding too fast for the comfort of the passengers:
Historical comment on the continuity of the arm-strap or arm-loop between modes of transport comes from a surprising source: Alfred Wallace’s amalgamated edition of Natural selection and tropical nature (1891):
The arm-strap remained in some railway carriages for several years, despite Wallace. In 1906 the Sydney Morning Herald recounts how:
soon as his terrifying experience was at an end, Mr. Gerson “cut off the strap
as a memento of his wonderful escape”. The arm-strap still featured as a piece
of interior equipment in motor cars as late as 1933, as this extract
How can we tell what these arm-straps looked like? In reconditioned horse-drawn carriages the interior furnishings have often been replaced and the arm-straps are no longer in evidence. But this is not always the case.
these two carriages we can see arm-straps similar to those Bloom passed his arm
through. The looped design of the first illustration makes it easier to make
out the straps inside each door. In the second illustration the strap is more
difficult to make out, as it lies flush with the wall of the carriage and the
decorative material forming the strap harmonises with the ribbon of material
along the upper edge and the rear corner of the carriage:
For another image of a pair of polished leather arm-straps see the interior of a carriage illustrated here.
A similar design was found in railway coaches. See the side view of a carriage seat and window in The car-builder's dictionary: an illustrated vocabulary of terms which designate American railroad cars, their parts, attachments, and details of construction (1895) figure 501 “An English first-class carriage”:
The text describes the arm-sling or arm-strap:
The arm-strap is not shown to its best advantage in this two-dimensional illustration. The number marking its location (200) can be found at the bottom right of the window; the arm-strap itself is the decorative strip passing down the right-hand side of the window glass.
When we turn to cars the arm-strap is more easily identified. The Locomobile Company of America published their marketing booklet The Car of 1912 in 1911. The workmanlike but elegant “38” Limousine had arm-straps by the side of the rear bench-seat:
whereas the grander “48” Limousine had an altogether more relaxing environment, with soft arm-straps hanging from the plush ceiling of the carriage alongside the car’s fashionable window blinds.
We may have forgotten this piece of standard equipment provided for the comfort of passengers, but Bloom was quite familiar with arm-straps as he took his seat in the carriage for Dignam’s funeral.
Joyce's Words >