Porter (carrier)

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An Indian Railway porter
Porters at a ford on the Sakawa River, near Odawara, Japan, by Felice Beato, between 1863 and 1885. Hand-coloured albumen print.

A porter, also called a bearer, is a person who shifts objects for others. The word derives from the Latin portare (to carry).[1]

Historical meaning[edit]

Human adaptability and flexibility led to the early 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 20th century.[2]

Current meaning[edit]

Nepali porters on Annapurna Circuit
Sherpa porter shifting wood in the Himalaya, near Mount Everest

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.

The Sherpa people of Nepal have established a reputation as mountaineering porters, and are considered indispensable for the highest Himalayan expeditions.

Porters who work at railway stations in India are called coolies, a term for unskilled Asian labourers. The term "coolie" was also used in China for porters in general.

The term "porter" is also used in general for hotel, railway, hospital and airport employees who shift luggage.

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.[citation needed]

North American terminology[edit]

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 it in order to stand out from the crowds at Grand Central Terminal on Labor Day of 1890;[3] the success of his strategy led to its adoption by others in the profession.[4]

Employees of car dealerships may have been referred to as porters but in current usage they are called Lot Attendants.

The Dufresne Group Inc. (Ashley Furniture Homestore and Dufresne Furniture) uses the title 'Porter' for its employees that work in the Warehouse (Shipper/Receiver).

Ghanaian terminology[edit]

Kayayei or Kaya Yei is a Ghanaian term that refers to a female porter or bearer who possibly has migrated from a rural community to any of Ghana's urban cities in search of work.[5][6]


  1. ^ The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, p. 363
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Drake, St. Clair; Cayton, Horace R. (1970). Black Metropolis. University of Chicago Press. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-226-16234-8. 
  4. ^ Railway Progress. 1950. Retrieved 24 March 2013. 
  5. ^ Sabutey, Victus K. "A LOOK AT THE PLIGHTS OF GHANAIAN FEMALE PORTERS (KAYAYEI)". Viasat 1. Retrieved 26 August 2014. 
  6. ^ Gyasiwaa, Adwoa. "Parliament summons Gender Minister over 'Kayayei'". myjoyonline. Retrieved 26 August 2014.