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Those Loveable Flexible Flyers
by Bob Brooke


In the opening scene of the 1941 classic film "Citizen Kane," Charles Foster Kane, newspaper tycoon, utters his dying word: "Rosebud." But itís not until the movie ends that the audience finds out that Rosebud is actually a painted wooden sled that his mother gave to him as a child, the only possession that he ever treasured.

"What puts color in the cheeks and sparkle in the eyes and sets the whole body tingling with health and happiness? It's coasting!" So read an advertisement for the Flexible Flyer, Americaís Number One sled. Nothing brings on a bout of nostalgia for 50-something men more than seeing an old sled. And even the poorest kids knew the joys of sledding down a snowy hill on a cold winterís afternoon.

Sleds were the great equalizers. Both rich and poor could enjoy them. They are the quintessential All-American toy. Words like lightest, fastest, neatest, cheapest, strongest, most comfortable, and most easily steered all described the Flexible Flyer and other sleds. To a boy, a sled was his ticket to cheap and exciting wintertime fun. During the mid-20th Century, coasting, as boys dubbed the sport, became the winter pastime of hundreds of thousands of kids living in the snow belt.

According to legend, sledding began back in Roman times when soldiers accompanying Julius Caesar in the Alps rode their shields down the snowy mountainsides, using their spears to steer.

Coasting, as boyís called sledding, has existed in America since colonial times. Boston Common was already a favorite sledding hill by the time of the American Revolution.

Despite its early beginnings, sledding didnít get a real boost until the late 19th century when downhill sledding became an organized sport and sled design a sophisticated art. Racing was what it was all about. Early sleds bore names like the Comet, Reliance, Thunder, or Flying Cloud.

In 1861, Henry F. Morton began building sleds as a hobby to make extra money in his kitchen. He had plans to attend college but suffered eyestrain from studying, so he took up sled building. His wife, Lucilla, painted them. The following year, Morton formed the West Sumner Manufacturing Company. Word of his magnificent hand painted sleds got out, so he moved his company to Paris Hill, Maine, where he set up production as the Paris Hill Manufacturing Company.

With the invention of the Flexible Flyer, the first steerable sled, by Samuel L. Allen in the late 1880s, sledding drastically changed. Allenís prominent Philadelphia Quaker parents sent him to the Westtown Boarding School in Chester County, Pennsylvania, as age 11. After graduation, he moved to the family farm in 1861 near Westfield, New Jersey, half-way between Moorestown and Riverton, where he married became a farmer. Soon he established a company to manufacture farm implements. But since this was seasonal, Allen needed a product he could make in the summer and sell in the winter. He decided to make sleds.

Allenís first sled, known as the "Fairy Coaster," was a double runner bob sled that held three or four adults. Light and folding easily for transport, the sledís runners and supports were made of steel with plush seats. But at $50.00, it cost too much to sell in quantity. He began testing his sleds at Westtown School (also known for its part in the development of the game Monopoly), his alma mater.

It wasnít until he came up with the ideas for a T-shaped runner and slatted seat, both new concepts at this time, that he made any progress. After it was proven, Allen called his sled the Flexible Flyer, an appropriate name because the sled was fast considering its weight and size and the only steerable sled at the time.

Early sleds, like Rosebud, had no way of steering except for riders to drag their toes or heelsĖa bit hard on shoesĖor by jerking the sled sideways. That all changed with the Flexible Flyer. By pulling the steering arm, a rider could bend the slender steel runners in the desired direction of travel. And with the ability to steer came increased speed, achieved by long, straight runners, narrow, with oval face. Allen obtained flexibility by making the runners of spring steel, a section of which looks like an inverted tee with a narrow head. By turning the steering bar, the runners could be curved to the right or left, thus guiding the sled perfectly, without drag or friction. He claimed his Flexible Flyer to be the smoothest, strongest, safest sled made.

Allen eventually convinced two great department stores, John Wanamaker in Philadelphia and R.H. Macy in New York, to sell his Flexible Flyers. By 1915, he was selling 2,000 sleds a day. But what put Allenís sled over the top was the interest of the exclusive Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park, New York. Tobogganing was already in vogue at Tuxedo Park when the New York State Tuxedo Club purchased Allenís Flexible Flyer sleds. Coasting at Tuxedo became a major competitive sport, so Allen produced a sled worthy of its name, "The Tuxedo Racer."

The Racer became the top of the Flexible Flyer line. Allen introduced the Racer, with its patented grooved runner and "goose neck" bend at the runnerís front tip, in 1908. Racing sleds didnít have fancy decoration like the regular Flexible Flyers. Allen placed a red arrow on his racing sleds as a symbol of their speed and reduced their weight by a third. However, a racing sled had longer runners forward of the supports to give it superior steering capabilities. The Tuxedo Racer was the first Flexible Flyer to use this high-performance, metal front end, which Allen added to his entire line in 1915. He also manufactured an economy sled called the Fire Fly, which had all-wood side rails, an old-style steering mechanism, and flat runners.

By 1917, sled manufacturers like Casper H. Oermann of The American Toy and Novelty Works in York, Pennsylvania, built their sleds with hardwoods and nickel plated steel bumpers and grooved runners. Oermannís models included the Royal Plane, Royal Racer with spring bumpers, Monoplane, Speedplane, Snow King, and Eskimo.

Eusebius B. Garton, who began making his sleds in 1879, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, made his sled decks from a special weather resistant five-layered plywood imported from Finland. He then silk screened colorful designs, using a brilliant red paint known in the trade as "Garton Red," on each deck.

The Garton Toy Company marketed its sleds with the Garton Trademark, but many retailers contracted with Garton to put their own designs and brand names over the Garton frame. For instance, the Coast to Coast Apollo Sled, the Gambles Sled, and Ace Hardware Sled were none other than The Garton Eskimo, Royal Racer, and the classiest of all, the Silver Streak. Garton produced 8,500 sleds a week annually from June to Thanksgiving which was approximately 15 percent of its overall business.

By the 1920s the ability to steer was dominating the market and other companies began advertising the virtues of their steerable sleds. The 1927 Sears catalog offered the "Flying Arrow." The advertisement read, "Watch it Fly Around the Corner, these Sleds Really Steer. Runners are highly tempered spring steel. They curve up abruptly in front, which leaves more of the long flat runner on the ground, making it easier to steer and giving a better coasting surface." The price: $2.69, one-third of that of the Flexible Flyer. During the 1930s, Sears offered "The Snow Bird," almost exactly the same as the Flying Arrow, now newly improved to steer the entire length of its runners.

Paris replaced its wooden runners with metal ones in 1912 and introduced a steering sled called the "Speedway." But it wasnít until 1920 when the company switched from a wooden to all-steel frame.

Sleds came in two basic typesóclipper and cutters. Designed for boys and perfect for belly flops, the long and low slung clipper sled had its deck mounted directly onto low, "squatty" wooden or metal runners which ended in a point. The rider threw himself on the deck and sped down the hill head first. Speed was most important.

More refined and sedate, a cutterís deck set high on an open framework above wooden runners. Designed for girls or younger children to ride sitting up, they were often painted with flowers or dainty motifs with rounded or bow runners curled elegantly upward in front. Beauty, not speed, was most important for girls.

In1927, The American Toy and Novelty Works merged with the Acme Wagon Company and became the American Acme Company, Emigsville, Pennsylvania, producing sleds like the Flexoplane #445, Polar Plane, Speed Plane, Rocket Plane, Ice Plane, Royal Plane, and Sky Plane.

The Standard Novelty Company of Duncannon, Pa, produced The Racer and Sno-ball, both non-steerable sleds, and the Lightning Guider. By the 1920s, it had produced more children's sleds than any other American company. Today, the factory operates as the Old Sled Works, a museum, antique, and craft center.

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