Exploring Antique Technologies
by Kary Pardy
Most of us in snowy climates have fond memories of racing downhill on sleds, and these memories are not unique to our generation. Americans have been searching for worthy hills since before the American Revolution. Apart from a few notable fashion differences, children racing down the hills of Boston Common back in the 18th century would look very similar to children in the same location today. Sleds can provide joy to adults as well. Apart from an occasional ride, sleds also make notable collectibles, admired for their strong powers of nostalgia, their exterior art (if available), the rarity of certain models, and their decorative function.
The Differences for Speed and Comfort
Wooden sleds as we know them have not undergone many serious structural changes, but their development was marked by a string of eye-catching names like the “Flying Cloud,” “Thunder” or “Reliance.” Sledding as an activity was colloquially called “coasting” in the early days, and depending on your preference, you had the option for a clipper or a cutter. Clippers were designed for speed and for diving down hills head-first. They were long and had low decks mounted directly onto pointed-tipped wood or metal runners for maximum aerodynamics.
In contrast, a cutter had a shorter deck that rested on a high, open frame (ideal for sitting down) and traditionally wood runners that rounded or curled elegantly at the front. These were designed for girls or younger children and whereas the clippers were likely to have racing stripes, cutters would be painted with flourishes and floral motifs.
These early sleds, for all of their purposeful design, had no steering mechanism. You could drag your feet and damage shoes or grass, or you could yank hard on the sled and risk flipping over. That all changed through Samuel Allen’s invention in the late 1880s. Allen was a farm implement manufacturer and wanted to design a sled based on his own experiences. He had his children test out each prototype, including the Aeriel, the Fleetwing, and the Phantom, but these sleds never made it into production. They held up to eight adults but were impractical and too pricey.
Allen’s most successful sled drew from those designs but added “T” shaped wood at the top, extended steel runners and a slatted seat. By pulling a line attached to the T in one direction, a rider could bend the slender steel runners in the desired direction of travel. The “Flexible Flyer” was patented on February 14th, 1889.
Growing the Brand
Despite being an innovative design, Flyers did not sell as well as their contemporaries, the Storm King, Swift Glider, Lightning Glider, etc. because they were all competing for buyers in the same now-unexpected location, farm implement retail stores. Allen cleverly marketed his Flexible Flyers to Wanamaker’s and Macy’s toy departments and by 1915 he sold upwards of 2,000 sleds a day and 120,000 sleds in one winter season.
The “Racer” model was the star of the Flexible Flyer line but didn’t have the same decoration. Allen marked his Racers with a red arrow to symbolize their speed, aided by their reduced weight. Racers were one third lighter than standard Flyers. The Tuxedo Racer took the model even further and added metal runners forward of the supports, a trait that became stander with all Allen sleds after 1915. Allen also offered an economy sled, called the “FireFly,” that traded in metal for all-wood side rails and flat runners.
The Competition Steps Up
All around the country, other companies incorporated Allen’s T-shape for steering. On the west coast, Eusebius B. Garton was also making major contributions to American sledding. His creations featured a special weather-resistant plywood that he imported from Finland, and were decorated with colorful printed designs and a trademark bright red paint, now called “Garton Red.” Though the Garton Toy Company sold its own sleds (Silver Streak, Eskimo, Royal Racer), several other companies purchased Garton frames for their sleds, including the Ace Hardware Sled and the Coast to Coast Apollo Sled.
Standard Novelty Works is another sled maker to watch out for. One of the best known American manufacturers, Standard sold the rare “King of the Hill” and “Master Bomber” sleds in the 1930s, of which under 3,000 were available. Standard’s other models had names like “Lightning Speedster,” “Coaster King,” “Snow Ball,” and “American Racer.”
Standard Novelty Works had competitors in Duncannon. Their Lightning Guider sold around 1,700 sleds daily in its heyday and was praised for its steel runners and tough yet flexible frame.
By the 1970s, Standard Novelty Works and Duncannon were still producing sleds, and the Flexible Flyer company had changed hands multiple times and was selling under the moniker “Blazon Flexible Flyer.” All major wooden sled manufacturers succumb to changing times by the 1990s, as their creations gave way to plastic saucers, snow tubes, and toboggans. To current generations, vintage sleds look painful, but many remember the glory days of these brightly named and brightly painted toys.
Want to get into sled collecting or just add a beautiful example to your holiday decor?
Check-in on auctions, garage sales, flea markets, or Craigslist. If you want a newer yet vintage-looking model, try a sports equipment consignment shop or thrift store. The typical vintage sled in average to poor condition can be under $100, but the pristine hand-painted examples can go for hundreds to thousands of dollars. Do a little research into the manufacturer of your sled. Flexible Flyers, for instance, were mass-produced and are not that rare, but King of the Hill sleds are quite hard to pin down. As for decorators, once you know why you need the sled, there is likely going to be one that fits. Dainty, painted cutter-style sleds look great in displays, sporty racers go well in cabin settings, and the models from the 1970s-80s serve double duty: attractive and nostalgically fun. If I haven’t convinced you yet, I leave you with one word from Charles Foster Kane – “Rosebud.”
Coasting into Childhood on Vintage Wooden Sleds
Photos courtesy of: Paul Cote and Paris Hill Historical Society; 1stdibs.com; ebth.com; Chairish.com; loveantiques.com