Porter (carrier)

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Sherpa porter carrying wood in the Himalaya, near Mount Everest
A porter's gear is simple but effective: The load goes into an oversized basket, or doko, which rests against the back. A strap runs underneath the doko and over the crown of the head, which bears most of the weight. Each porter also carries a T-shaped walking stick called a tokma.

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. Historically it remained prevalent in areas where slavery was permitted, and exists today where modern forms of mechanical conveyance are 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 foreign travelers.

The word porter derives from the Latin portare (to carry).[1]

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


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.


Nepali porters on Annapurna Circuit

Porters are still paid to shift burdens in many third-world countries where motorized transport is impractical, often alongside pack animals.

The Sherpa people of Nepal are renowned 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.

Porters at Indian railway stations are called coolies, a term for unskilled Asian labourer derived from the Chinese word for porter.

In North America[edit]

Certain trade-specific terms are used for forms of porters in North America, including bellhop (hotel porter), redcap (railway station porter), and skycap (airport porter).

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.[2] The tactic immediately caught on, over time adapted by other forms of porters for their specialties.[3]