Did you think all those roof racks and cargo boxes that are mounted on all those car roofs every year for summer vacation road trips are an invention of the twentieth century? Then you will be quite surprised to learn that our Regency ancestors had their own version of the roof rack. Though it is now nearly lost to history, the imperial was a spacious, and usually expensive, form of luggage carrier from the latter eighteenth century right into the reign of Queen Victoria.
How the best luggage traveled during the Regency …
There are multiple meanings of the word "imperial," one, of course, the term for that which pertains to an emperor. Two other meanings of the word, "of special excellence, magnificent, exceedingly fine, grand, or of unusual size" and "having a commanding quality, demeanour, or aspect, majestic, lofty, exalted" are the meanings which gave this large luggage carrier its name. Imperials were mounted on the top of coaches or carriages, and most covered the entire top of the vehicle, so they were indeed commanding, exalted, lofty and certainly of unusual size when compared with other luggage.
By the latter half of the eighteenth century, the acquisition of a travelling coach or carriage was becoming an important status symbol. In addition, the gradual improvement of both the roads of England and coach and carriage design as the century progressed meant that travelling was much less onerous and more comfortable than it had been in any of the decades which came before. When travel became more pleasant and convenient, more people travelled, more often. The aristocracy had always come to London each year for the season, regardless of the vicissitudes of road travel. But as the Industrial Revolution enriched more people, a new, affluent upper class emerged, and these people also made it a point to do the London season. English Spas, like Bath, Tunbridge Wells, Cheltenham, and Matlock were also becoming popular and attracted many visitors from all over the country. Sea-side resorts like Brighton, Ramsgate, Lyme Regis and Eastbourne had also become fashionable among the affluent classes. Most of those spa and beach-goers traveled to their favorite resorts in private coaches and carriages.
And all of those destinations were places that the affluent went to see and be seen. Which means they traveled with a large wardrobe to ensure they always looked their best. These clothes were expensive, and, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, a single outfit, especially for a woman, required so much fabric it could almost as easily be measured in acres as in yards or ells. How to transport all those clothes so that they were protected from both possible thieves and the elements? Families who traveled together typically had a separate coach to carry their baggage, but such coaches were also intended to transport personal servants as well. The advent of the imperial allowed even a large family to travel with all the clothes they needed and enough space in their coaches for everyone to be seated fairly comfortably.
Though there is no definitive documentary evidence, it seems likely that the imperial was the invention of some clever coach-maker. Most early imperials were made to fit a specific coach or carriage roof. They covered the entire roof surface of the vehicle and could be as much as twelve to eighteen inches high. Some may have been even taller. The frame was usually of strong wood and the external surface was covered with sturdy leather which was carefully stitched together and treated to ensure it was water-proof. Often heavy canvas was used to line the inside compartment of an imperial. Other lining materials included either wallpaper remnants or multiple layers of newspapers or pages torn from old books, each layer of paper affixed with a coat of hide glue. Imperials were fully self-contained in order to ensure that their contents had the most protection from the elements. Some were even equipped with locks, similar to those in trunks, for added security.
Imperials were usually secured with multiple straps to metal or wooden rails which ran along the exterior edge of the coach or carriage roof in order to keep them in place. A fully-loaded imperial could be quite heavy, so it was very important that they only be strapped to the roof of a coach which was strong enough to support the extra weight. Often, an imperial was ordered to be made at the same time that a new coach was ordered. Knowing the coach would be carrying an imperial , the coach-maker would make sure that the imperial was made to the correct dimensions, and that the coach frame and the roof were both constructed to be strong enough to support the additional weight of a fully packed imperial, even when the coach was traveling over rough roads.
An imperial which was custom made for a specific coach was usually covered with leather of the same color as the upper part of the coach to which it would be attached to ensure a consistent appearance. Such custom-made imperials were probably only ever used on the coach for which they were made. However, there is some suggestion that by the turn of the nineteenth century imperials were made for individuals who did not necessarily possess their own coach. Rather, such travellers may have attached their imperials to a selection of various vehicles over the course of a long journey. In one of his dispatches, Lord Nelson reported that an imperial was found aboard one of the ships his squadron captured, and that it was filled with the clothes of a general officer. In such cases, imperials functioned rather like the steamer trunks of a later age. Imperials intended for such use were seldom made to match a specific coach or carriage, since it was likely they would be used on a plethora of them if their owner was a regular traveller. And not all of these imperials appear to have been covered with leather. Some may have been covered with oil cloth, which was relatively water-resistant, but was less expensive. An oil-cloth-covered imperial would have the advantage of lighter weight, but the disadvantage that it would not be as sturdy as one covered with leather and probably would not last as long.
The few documentary sources which have survived show that in most cases, if a journey must be broken for one or more overnight stops, the heavy imperial would be taken down from the roof of the coach, while it was full. Such a task required the assistance of several strong men. The imperial might be stored in the traveler’s room overnight, though it appears that some larger inns had areas where imperials could be stored overnight, if their contents would not be needed during that stop. There are also some instances where the imperial was left atop the coach overnight, but usually with someone from the travelling party standing guard, if it contained anything of value and even if it was locked. Imperials were removed from the coach when the travellers reached their destination, as it was considered very bad form to travel through London, or any other city, with an imperial mounted on one’s carriage, unless one was actually just departing for or arriving from a journey.
The type of imperial described above was nearly always made for a private coach or carriage. Those made for travelers without their own coaches could be mounted on the roof of a post chaise, assuming it had roof rails by which to secure it and the carriage frame was sturdy enough to support it. Though such imperials were never made for public mail or stage coaches, by the Regency, the term imperial was used in relation to these vehicles. When used in reference to an English mail or stage coach, a diligence in France or a parilla in Spain, the "imperial" was the roof-top of the vehicle. Either passengers, luggage, or both might be piled onto one of these "imperials" for the journey. This term survived into the age of rail, when the railroad companies fitted up racks above the passenger seats where luggage could be stored for the journey. These luggage racks in railroad cars were known as imperials through the end of the nineteenth century.
In the Victorian era, park drags, lighter-weight, enclosed private coaches, were often driven by their owners to the park, out into the country or to the races. It was common to mount a large box on the top of a park drag which was fitted up to carry a lavish picnic lunch for such outings. Some people referred to these large lunch boxes as imperials, though properly, only roof-top luggage carriers on heavier travelling coaches were called imperials, even at this time. But as with the imperial, it was considered bad form to drive about town in a park drag with a large lunch box on the roof, unless one was actually driving out for a picnic somewhere.
Dear Regency Authors, now that you know of the existence of the imperial, how might you use one in your next story? If you need to hide someone during a journey, some of the larger imperials were big enough to hold a person, even, in some cases, a full-grown man. If the villain was kidnapping the heroine, he could tie or drug her and hide her in his locked imperial. However, imperials were perfectly obvious there on the top of the coach, so they would be useless when trying to smuggle someone through a border checkpoint or in any situation where authorities might search the coach. There are several stories from the early nineteenth century in which someone travelling on the Continent had their imperial searched at border crossings. In one instance, the traveller refused to give up the key to his imperial and the authorities forced it open, scattering his clothing all over the road as they searched it.
Then again, should you have a couple traveling and you would prefer to do without the baggage coach, you could have your couple travel in a coach with an imperial, giving them plenty of space to transport their wardrobe, even with one coach. Or, in the case of a large party, you might have imperials on both the family’s coach and the baggage coach for added luggage capacity. But there is something to keep in mind, should you mount an imperial on any of your characters’ coaches. Fully-packed imperials were quite heavy, which means that even if the coach to which they were mounted was strong enough to carry it, the coach would be much heavier for the horses to pull. This could slow down the pace of the journey, even with the best horses. What if your character demands their imperial be strapped to a rented post chaise, the frame of which is not strong enough to support the extra weight? What kind of accident might occur when the frame of the post chaise crumples under the weight? Or, what if the imperial has not been properly secured to the roof of a coach before a journey begins? It could shift forward, perhaps pushing the coachman off his seat, it could slip over to one side of the coach, or fall off completely. What might happen then? The imperial may be on the verge of slipping from the pages of history, but there is no reason it cannot survive in the pages of fiction.