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History of the Moving Industry

Posted in: I'm a Mover, Moving Industry News

To HireAHelper Move Helpers: Paying Tribute to Our Founding Fathers

Crazy Tuesday (the Tuesday after Memorial Day) ushers in the moving industry’s officially crazy season. With that you’ll likely be way too busy taking care of today and tomorrow to think about yesterday and yesteryear and everything that happened to bring us all to this point in moving history.

That’s okay. We’ve got some historical highlights to make us all appreciate how good we have it now. Seriously. Really. We don’t have to scour the land for fuel. We don’t need a protective convoy. In the grand scheme of things, despite all the paperwork and all the headaches and all the sneaky folks running around, we are living in the Golden Age of Moving.

Now that, my friends, is crazy.

It all started long long ago…

Quebec 1885

For thousands of years man survived without the services of HireAHelper. It’s true. Ever since man first decided to up and leave Africa he had to rely on his own devices to move himself, his family and everything he owned across the vast land masses to all corners of the Earth.

The fact that man, for most of history, owned nothing more than a few animal skins and a handful of hunting implements made the task bearable. In fact, right on through the entire hunter-gatherer era man was constantly on the move, so he had to live simple and travel light. Otherwise he’d have to hire movers pretty much every day, even on Sunday. And who would be able to afford that? Funny how the time when man moved the most was also the time when a moving company just wasn’t going to make any money.

With the dawn of agriculture man began putting down roots, so to speak. And with this switch to settling in one place for a while came the trend of making bigger homes and finding more stuff to put in them. Unfortunately the time was still not right for the moving industry since no one had invented the wheel yet.

Ancient Moving Equipment: the Travois


People did move, though. And when they did they used a wheel-less, ox-powered contraption called a travois, two long wooden poles that would drag along the ground behind the family ox – or cow or donkey. Tied to the supports between these poles would be the family’s belongings. It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done. It also left two nasty ruts in the person’s front yard, on both ends of the move. But since there was no claims process in place the whole issue could be ignored.

The word travois, by the way, is French for travail. Yeah, a name that means ‘painfully difficult or burdensome work’ sounds about right for an invention that would spur on the moving industry.

Even after the wheel was invented – and in turn the axle, then the cotter pin – the travois was sometimes preferable to a wheeled cart considering there was no such thing as a paved road yet.

As mankind moved forward he created the hell of hierarchical society. It was here that the elites, who owned the great majority of the wealth, would have assistants, helpers and slaves move all their gold goblets, silk robes, marble sinks and exotic animal pelts for them. This generally worked out in the elites’ favor since there were no scales around and thus no way for the movers to prove that their shipment weighed anything.

Hundreds of generations of unregistered, unofficial, non-unionized movers carried on, in hopes that one day their descendants might have a better life.

Covered Wagons & The West

Covered Wagon

The beginning of the 19th Century saw the introduction of the covered wagon to the American landscape. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Conestoga, which is ironic since the Conestoga played no part in the great westward expansion.

This beefy vehicle was, however, a big part of the budding transportation industry. And by big we mean big. These hand-crafted wooden suckers could carry as much as six tons of freight – and without the help of air suspension or even air in the tires since neither suspension nor tires existed yet.

The floor of the Conestoga wagon curved upwards at each end to prevent the wagon’s contents from shifting or falling out. (This, we can only assume, made it tough to get that load tight.) Meanwhile there were gates on both ends of the wagon, held in place by a chain and able to be raised and lowered, much like the tailgate of the pickup truck your friend insists is good enough for him and his cross-town move.

The Conestoga was great for carrying corn, barley, wheat and other such crops from the farms to the cities and, on the way back, hauling certain commodities only available in the cities, like fashionable clothes and decent beer. But these wagons were too heavy and clunky to be of much use for long distances over rough terrain. West-bound travelers instead used covered wagons that had flatter bodies and lower sides than the Conestoga SUVs. The wagons’ trademark white canvas covers apparently looked like the sails of ships from a distance, and were sometimes called Prairie Schooners. This seems akin to calling today’s tractor trailers Highway Barges.

If that name ever catches on we’ll trademark it and split the profits with you guys.

The Covered Wagon vs. The Modern Truck

Early Moving truck

Surprisingly, covered wagons had a lot of the things today’s tractors and moving trucks have. While there is no record of spare wheels on board the wagons, they did sometimes carry a spare axle in case one broke along the rough, jarring ride. If in turn that spare axle broke the people moving would have to find a tree – preferably oak or maple – and cut themselves a new one.

If we happen to blow out our spare tire all we have to do is get AAA to come help – which, come to think of it, may end up taking longer than finding a rubber tree and making a new tire ourselves.

Covered wagons also had wooden brakes which, interestingly, never caught fire. Today our trucks have brakes made of high-tech materials which, interestingly, do catch fire.

Oregon Trail

Your typical covered wagon would have a water barrel, roughly large enough for a two-day supply. Your modern sleeper cab with toilet and shower also has a water tank – which amounts to roughly a two-day drinking supply for the dog that the driver leaves in the cab all day in the broiling summer sun.

Out on the prairie, wood for cooking (and making spare axles) was scarce. So the people driving these wagons had to keep a supply on hand – in a sheet of canvas tied to the underside of the wagon. Also stored in this precursor to today’s belly box were food supplies, animal feed, extra clothes, camping gear and bedrolls, and extra campfire fuel in the form of wild buffalo chips – which may sound disgusting until you have to dig into the dusty, dirty, smelly, oily depths of a modern driver’s belly box for the pack of emergency flares he swears are in there somewhere.

Even with that canvas belly, people driving their covered wagons west hundreds and hundreds of miles needed the help of extra supplies, guides and protection. From this need came the Wagon Trains, giving our pioneers strength in numbers and giving us the expression ‘circle the wagons’ since that is exactly what they did when threatened by wild animals, criminals or (in rare cases) Indians.

Today’s equivalent of the wagon train is difficult to nail down. Convoys are just a form of testosterone-spilling fun for truckers who have been on the road too long. Truck stops serve the supplies purpose but obviously the ‘train’ part is missing. Maybe the CB is the closest thing we have to the wagon train, as truckers use it to communicate with other truckers in need of something as well as warn each other of the dangers of cops, road hazards and open weigh stations. And, in certain cities, criminals. But never Indians.

It is said that a family traveling by covered wagon from Independence, Missouri to Oregon along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s was on the road between four and six weeks. Which is about how long some people now have to wait for their van line to find a driver for their shipment, or find a truck for their shipment. Or, in the height of crazy season, just find their shipment.

The Birth of Our Industry

With the railroad construction boom that ran from 1830 to 1860, railroads became America’s preferred mode of long-distance transportation for passengers, freight, and household goods.

Railroad Wagon

During this time, local delivery companies hired for long-hauls would first transport the customer’s goods by horse-drawn wagon to a warehouse, where the goods would be packed and crated for shipping. The crates would then be taken to a rail depot and loaded onto a train car. Logistics quickly dictated that moving companies should set up shop along the tracks so they could load directly from the warehouse onto the trains. At destination the crates would be unloaded – again into a warehouse sitting right along the tracks – to eventually be delivered to the customer’s new home by another local delivery company.

Most of these early delivery companies, known as wagon firms, offered their household moving services as a sideline to their primary business of local transport and keeping stables for horses and carriages for hire. For a short time the covered wagon era and the train era overlapped. During these awkward years the wagon firms tried another side business: selling horse chips to the wagon trains. They had little success.

This process of bringing a person’s goods into a warehouse before or after train transport turned out to be the beginning of the moving industry term SIT, or Storage In Transit. SIT usually involves a lot of stuff sitting out on the warehouse floor for a short but annoying period of time, and somewhere along the way the warehouse crews, sick and tired of all the extra work, began pronouncing this term in an angry, slurred fashion which gave rise to the four-letter word people often use today for stuff in their lives they can’t stand.

The Age of the Gas-Powered Motor

During World War I, in the effort to support our fighting nation, the number of paved roads and the amount of motorized trucks using them increased rapidly in the United States. This in turn made road transportation cheaper and easier, and in 1919 Ward B. Hiner, founder of the American Red Ball Transit Company, became the country’s first interstate mover. Hiner saw that moving goods from city to city in motorized vans instead of by rail would eliminate the cost and trouble of crating furniture and reduce the number of times that furniture had to be handled. It would also cut down on the growing use of that four-letter version of SIT.

By the mid-1920s, motorized vehicles had become an integral part of the moving industry. The government also continued subsidizing new highway construction projects – partly due to the government’s desire to limit America’s dependence on the powerful railroad industry, and partly to get their money’s worth from the suddenly filthy rich Halliburton Highway Company.

At this time, however, the moving industry consisted only of a number of individual companies operating independently. These companies had no problem finding customers for local moves, or even for long-haul contracts. But finding customers for out-of-state return shipments was nearly impossible as HireAHelper had not yet entered the scene. The only way an out-of-town driver could find a return shipment was to ask a local moving and storage company in the area if they had a shipment going his way. Some companies established move boards in their offices where they posted available shipments for out-of-town drivers. Good intentions, to be sure, but an out-of-town driver actually finding a shipment going to his next destination was about as likely as winning the lottery. Or at least the 50-50 raffle.

The inefficient move board system left drivers idling for long periods of time waiting for a return shipment that might never come – in which case they would return home with an empty truck, cutting into their profits and making a lot of their wives mighty angry. It is believed this is how going home with no shipment on board came to be known as “deadheading”.

But then in 1928 a group of independent moving companies formed an alliance wherein they could work together sharing information on jobs, keeping all of them busier and more profitable. This alliance came to be known as Allied Van Lines, the first moving company network of its kind in the United States.

Governmental Regulation & Deregulation

Regulations Ahead Sign

Starting in 1933 President Roosevelt began introducing a series of domestic programs known as the New Deal. These post-Great Depression laws and executive orders were meant to restore the economy by regulating competitive practices and promoting fair competition. One of these was the Motor Carrier Act of 1935.

This act stabilized pricing for moving services, protecting the industry from getting run over by the still-powerful railways. It also prevented larger companies from offering volume discounts so that smaller companies could survive the competition. Unfortunately this act could do nothing about the angry wives of non-Allied drivers.

In 1948 Congress passed the Reed-Bullwinkle Act. This allowed companies that were operating in line with the Interstate Commerce Commission to establish collective rates and have full immunity from antitrust laws. This allowed the industry to grow in strength and prosperity for the next thirty years. It also made one of the law’s co-authors the second-most-famous Bullwinkle in US history.

But in 1980 Congress voted to deregulate the trucking industry. It wasn’t long before the number of moving carriers in the country increased from a few hundred to over twenty thousand. Price and service level options grew widely, as did the number of unfamiliar companies to hire. This led to the trend of consumers referring to the trucking industry by a slightly different and rather obscene name.

And not without merit, as many new companies were in fact illegitimate. And many of them, both legit and otherwise, provided poor service through bad business practices. Complaints poured in to the Better Business Bureau. By 2001 the moving industry was ranked sixth on the list of most frequently researched businesses with 274,388 inquiries. By 2006, that number had reached 1,109,342, with “those trucking movers” becoming the fourth most checked out group of professionals.

Thumbs Down

Amazingly the U.S. General Accounting Office decided that “the primary responsibility for consumer protection lies with consumers to select a reputable household goods carrier, ensure that they understand the terms and conditions of the contract, and understand and pursue the remedies that are available to them when problems arise.” In other words, in their report titled Federal Actions are Needed to Improve Oversight of the Household Goods Moving Industry the GAO said that the consumer was responsible for putting the bad guys out of business.

Perhaps the government was too busy keeping the rich guys in business – with the rich guys in turn helping to keep these government officials in office.

Modern Industry Developments

Labor Only Moving

In the 1990s, the established moving industry saw the birth of a new competitor, commonly referred to as containerized moving and storage. New companies and existing freight companies were now offering to transport containers that were loaded and unloaded by the customers themselves as an economical alternative to full-service moving. Some of those companies soon enhanced their containerized moving by providing professional loading and unloading services. As a sort of counter-offensive some traditional movers and van lines have developed an “in-house” containerized moving program or have chosen to partner with existing containerized moving or freight companies.

The All-American DIY attitude that led so many people to want to load and unload their own furniture and boxes also led many people to the realization that moving yourself is pretty trucking hard. But the monetary savings over using a full-service moving company was too great to simply abandon.

Enter the Hybrid Move (wait, what’s a hybrid move?) – and the Golden Age of Moving.

And say Hello to HireAHelper

From the beginning, when there were no options… through the last two centuries, when there were only a few…to the present and the plethora of choices that people have… it is clear that much has changed. Yet the song remains the same.

People are always looking for something better. Customers only want the best. That is what has driven the moving industry.

And that is what drives us.

Considering that most of our 40,000 Customer Reviews are 5 Stars, we’re confident that we are moving in the right direction.


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