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A porter, also called a bearer, is a person who carries objects for others. The range of services conducted by porters is extensive, from shuttling luggage aboard a train to bearing heavy burdens at altitude in inclement weather on multi-month mountaineering expeditions.
The use of humans to transport cargo dates to the ancient world, prior to domesticating animals and development of the wheel. It remained prevalent in areas where slavery was permitted and modern forms of mechanical conveyance were rare or impractical.
Over time slavery diminished and technology advanced, but the role of porter for specialized transporting services remains strong in the 21st century. Examples include bellhops at hotels, redcaps at railway stations, skycaps at airports, and native bearers on adventure trips engaged by Western travelers.
The word porter derives from the Latin portare (to carry).
Human adaptability and flexibility led to the early use of humans for transporting gear. Porters were commonly used as beasts of burden in the ancient world, when labor was generally cheap and slavery widespread. The ancient Sumerians, for example, enslaved women to shift wool and flax.
In the early Americas, where there were few native beasts of burden, all goods were carried by porters called Tlamemes in the Nahuatl language of Mesoamerica. In colonial times, some areas of the Andes employed porters called silleros to carry persons, particularly Europeans, as well as their luggage across the difficult mountain passes. Throughout the globe porters served, and in some areas continue to, as such littermen, particularly in crowded urban areas.
The Sherpa people of Nepal are renown as mountaineering porters, to the point their name is synonymous. Their skill, knowledge of the mountains and local culture, and inborn ability to perform at altitude make them indispensable for the highest Himalayan expeditions.
In North America
The practice of railroad station porters wearing red-colored caps to distinguish them from blue-capped train personnel with other duties was begun on Labor Day of 1890 by African-American porter John Williams in order to stand out from the crowds at Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The tactic immediately caught on, over time adapted by other forms of porters for their specialties.
- Herinneringen aan Japan, 1850 - 1870: Foto's en Fotoalbums in Nederlands Bezit ('s-Gravenhage : Staatsuitgeverij, 1987), pp. 106–107, repr.
- New York Public Library, s.v. "Beato, Felice", cited 21 June 2006.