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:

The coach soon toppled over, and fell crash upon its side, amidst the shrieks of his fellow passengers and the smashing of glass. He immediately pulled himself up by the arm-strap above him, let down the coach window, and climbed out into the road.

Samuel Smiles The Life of George Stephenson, railway engineer (1857, ed. 3), ch. 26 p. 348

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:

I could name many "bits of road", as the drivers have it, where the engines invariably go mad. On the Great Northern, between Doncaster and Peterborough: two hours of breathless holding on by arm-strap and cushion. Between Watford and King-s Cross – ditto.

All the Year Round (1868), 4 January 82 "Railway Thoughts"

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):

When railways superseded coaches, it was thought necessary to build the first-class carriages to imitate a number of coach-bodies joined together; and the arm-loop for each passenger to hold on by, which were useful when bad roads made every journey a succession of jolts and lurches, were continued on our smooth macadamised mail-routes, and, still more absurdly, remain to this day1 in our railway carriages, the relic of a kind of locomotion we can now hardly realise.

1 Since this was written they have generally been disused.

Alfred Russel Wallace Natural Selection (1891: new ed.), ch. 6 p. 120

The arm-strap remained in some railway carriages for several years, despite Wallace. In 1906 the Sydney Morning Herald recounts how:

Mr. Gerson, of London, had just finished dinner and returned to his compartment. During the swinging of the train he caught hold of the ornamental arm strap and was by this means kept in a safe position. (9 August, p. 3)

As 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 demonstrates:

When passersby found his bullet-torn body, one hand still clutched an arm-strap ripped from the tonneau of an automobile.

Lockport (New York) Union-Sun and Journal (1933) 26 May

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.

In 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 above.

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:

In a carriage, a padded ornamental leather strap, looped and secured to the doorway pillar. Also called arm-holder or arm-strap. (p. 3)

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.

John Simpson

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