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A porter, also called a bearer, is a person who shifts objects for others.
Human adaptability and flexibility early led to the use of humans for shifting gear. Uneven terrain, such as in mountains, alleyways and markets, and a lack of formed roads, such as in jungle, makes the use of porters economical where one can hire people to shift inexpensively.
Porters were used commonly as human beasts of burden in the ancient world, when labor was generally cheap, especially in societies that depended on slavery. The ancient Sumerians, for example, enslaved women to shift wool and flax.
In the Americas where there were few native animals 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.
The use of bearers for litters to shift persons of rank or religious idols, especially in formal processions, seems to have extended their practical function into that of ceremonial status symbol in the often conservative protocol of court and cult, a role continued into the 20th century with the papal sedia gestatoria and possibly echoed in the modern funeral pallbearer.
Porters in this sense continued to work in warehouses well into the twentieth century.
Porters are still employed to shift burdens in many third-world countries, especially where animals like camels, oxen, horses and dogs, or vehicles like carts, trucks, ships, trains and aircraft, have not taken over human bearers' traditional functions or where such alternatives are not practicable. Child soldiers are also typically compelled to serve as porters.
In many public places such as airports, border crossings, sea ports and railway stations, porters are often a nuisance to tourists, shifting their luggage without permission and demanding excessive fees.
North American terminology
The industry-specific terms bellhop (hotel porter), redcap (railroad station porter) and skycap (airport porter) are used in North America. Railroad station porters (not train porters) traditionally wear distinctive red-colored caps for easy identification, contrasting with the caps in blue or other colors, normally worn by other train personnel. This practice originated with an African-American porter named John Williams who devised the practice in order to stand out from the crowds at Grand Central Terminal on Labor Day of 1890; the success of his strategy led to its adoption by others in the profession. Employees of car rental and new and used auto dealerships tasked with shifting and preparing cars for use or sale are called porters.
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- 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.
- A. Ford (Railway Department, Board of Trade) (1908) "North-Eastern Railway: Date&ndash20th November, 1907. Place–Market Weighton. Name of Person Injured–George H. Hoggard. Age–39. Capacity in which employed–Goods porter" General Report to the Board of Trade upon the Accidents that have Occurred on the Railways of the United Kingdom During the Year 1907 (Series: Papers by Command, Volume 94) His Majesty's Stationery Office, London, page 203
- Drake, St. Clair; Cayton, Horace R. (1970). Black Metropolis. University of Chicago Press. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-226-16234-8.
- Railway Progress. 1950. Retrieved 24 March 2013.