News & Events
Discover Mid-America January 2010
Sleighs of beauty and function
“Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh …” is more than just the beginning of a popular Christmas song. Before 1900, it was a way of life and a standard mode of winter transportation for people living in temperate parts of the world. Before the advent of automobiles, sleighs of every shape and size imaginable were manufactured to make transportation of people and goods easier when the ground was covered with snow and ice.
Bill and Linda Engel, who own the Denver Sleigh Works, in Denver, MO, have perhaps the largest collection of sleighs in the United States, with over 120, and no two are alike. Bill got started collecting sleighs in 1999 after he retired from teaching college and the real estate rental business. He wanted to start a collection of some type as a hobby. He initially got involved in collecting sleighs because he saw that people were taking off the tops of sleighs and making tables out of the runners. Bill wanted to preserve the sleighs rather than destroy them. He enjoys collecting sleighs because he finds them both beautiful and functional, as well as being an important part of our heritage.
A Common Mode of Transportation
Before automobiles, sleighs were commonly used all over the world. Styles varied from country to country, and also depending on their use. Those who lived in rural areas needed sleighs for different purposes than those in cities. Like cars, one could buy an economy model or opt for all the bells and whistles of the luxury models. With many manufacturers, the choices were endless. “There were over 5,000 sleigh manufacturers in the U.S. at the turn of the century (1900),” says Bill.
Each had their own styles of sleighs. Some sleigh manufacturers became well known, such as John Deere and Studebaker. McLaughlin first made sleighs (becoming known for making a rumble seat that folded up) then later became the largest manufacturer of General Motors cars in Canada. Other manufacturers were smaller, one- or two-man shops, and their reputations were only known locally.
Types of Sleighs
There are four general types of sleighs, with many variations of each.
Cutters. When people think of sleighs, they often think of the type of sleigh in a Currier & Ives illustration. These are called “cutters.” They are sleek, light, picturesque sleighs drawn usually by only one horse. These sleighs are built for speed, and are sometimes called speeding sleighs. They were used mostly in towns.
Two popular types were the Portland and Albany cutters. Albany cutters can weigh as little as 50 pounds, which is about the weight of two modern bicycles. The seat on a cutter was usually about 30-32 inches wide, able to hold one or two people. People were much trimmer in stature a century ago, and two people could easily share a seat this size.
Russian. This is the type of sleigh seen in the movie Dr. Zhivago. Also known as a Canadian sleigh, it is a much heavier sleigh and built to withstand the heavy snows of more northerly regions. The runners were made from one piece of wood and the sleigh usually had a heavy-duty snow guard and rear jump seat.
Business Sleigh. These sleighs had two seats and were what might be called the equivalent of the van or station wagon. They could haul more people, so might be used to transport people to offices and hotels, to church, or various places. The back seat could be removed so that boxes and sacks could be stored. The front seat could be shifted forward to provide even more room in back for hauling.
Bob-Runner or Bob Sleigh. This was the “workhorse” of the sleighs, and was used for many chores on the farm, from hauling hay, buckets, milk cans and bushels to crates of goods. It is easily recognizable because rather than one continuous runner, it had two sets of runners, making it easier to turn. The running gear is similar to that of a wagon. It, too, had two seats a removable back seat to make room for hauling extra items. Built sturdily, it could carry heavy loads.
Though not really a specific type of sleigh, the “hybrid” is interesting to note for when automobiles first came out, the front wheels could be taken off for winter and runners attached. The back wheels were left on and chains were added. Also, sometimes horse-drawn buggies would also have their wheels taken off and runners added for use during winter.
A couple of notable variations include enclosed sleighs and vis-à-vis sleighs. Enclosed sleighs were used in extremely cold, northern regions. The sleigh was built with a wooden box completely enclosing the driver, with a hole only for the reins to pass through. Postmen commonly drove enclosed sleighs as did others who had to be outside all day in the frigid weather. Vis-à-vis sleighs were elegant sleighs mostly used in cities. They were recognizable by an elevated coachman’s seat and two passenger seats that faced each other. These sleighs might be used for traveling to the opera or a ball, and fancy ones even had little doors on the sides.
Along with the sleighs, the Engels have collected a wide assortment of sleigh bells. “Riding in a sleigh is very quiet,” says Bill. “The snow dampens the noises, and mostly you just hear the sound of the runners going over the snow. The bells were like a horn—they let people know you were coming. In many places, a county law required you to have so many bells on your sleigh.”
Bells also helped to scare away the wildlife.
What to Look For When Collecting
Condition. When collecting sleighs, Bill notes that most are in poor condition. Not surprising since they’re usually over 100 years old, mostly made of wood and have been kept outside for years. Wood veneer was used to help keep the sleigh’s weight down. Later sleighs, starting about 1910, were made using plywood. Older sleighs never used glue on the exterior so seeing glue or plywood is a sign of a newer sleigh or a repair.
Age. In general, Bill says, the narrower the seat, the older the sleigh. Sleighs were used up until World War II in Canada, but use in the U.S. declined soon after the introduction of the automobile. Also, in the U.S., manufacture of sleighs declined first along the East Coast, with sleigh manufacturing still continuing in the Midwest for a while.
Styling. Many features were added to sleighs such as whip holders, stirrups (fancy metal steps to get into the sleigh), rein guides, hand-painted designs, finials on the end of the runners, lights or extra dashboards and wings to deflect the snow. Doctor’s sleighs often had a full top, or a folding top, which some call a “buggy” top. Some bodies were made in a “swell” shape, which was an expanded, rounded shape, like an egg, rather than with straight sides.
However, some of these features were never on certain sleighs. Bob-runners would never have been made in a “swell” shape, and would most likely not have a top.
Upholstery was also a source of pride to sleigh manufacturers. Plush seats were usually made with a square or diamond upholstery pattern, and were usually stuffed with hay, excelsior or horsehair. Later sleighs were made with springs unlike older sleighs.
History. Bill recommends turning the sleigh over, and writing pertinent information on the bottom of the floorboard, such as date acquired, any restoration work, etc. That way the history will remain with the sleigh. Others may prefer to type up the documentation and keep it in a waterproof pouch with the sleigh. Sleighs with a provable provenance are worth more than just an unidentified sleigh.
Rarity. Only a few were made of certain sleighs, and some manufacturers only stayed in business a few years.
Maker’s Name. Like any collectible, some manufacturers’ names are more desirable, including Bruster & Company (New York), Kimball Brothers (Maine) and Studebaker.
Style. Some styles, especially the fancy ones, are more collectible. But in the Midwest, many sleighs were more durable than fancy. Sleighs that represent a certain style or representative of a certain profession (mailman, milkman, etc.), can all be worth collecting.
Bill has obtained sleighs in a variety of ways. He acquired a number in auctions, but has also had them willed to him, shipped to him as parts, but the most important way is by word of mouth. He now has six buildings full of sleighs, some already restored, but dozens still need some TLC. He used to restore sleighs but when people find that he has a five-year backlog, few are willing to wait that long. Long ago he got tired of spending countless hours doing painstaking restoration work only to find that people left the sleigh outside and used it as a flower box or yard ornament rather than taking care of it. Now he mainly sells to museums.
Another company, however, Colonial Carriage Works, in Columbus, WI, does custom sleigh repairs. They also sell sleighs.
“We stock 30-40 sleighs at any given time,” says owner Todd Frey. “Prices vary from $400 on up to $25,000. Most are restored, but several are brand new.” His business also restores and sells carriages.
Like Snow, the Collecting Can Accumulate
Once they started collecting sleighs, the Engels also started collecting sleigh blankets, foot warmers and lights that go along with sleighing. When heading to auctions, antique shops or private homes to look at sleighs, they came across old-fashioned ice skates and children’s wooden sleds, and now have a collection of over 200 pairs of skates, as well as dozens of sleds. They even have a “runner-barrow” — like a wheelbarrow but with a runner attached.
Bill says that sleigh blankets are almost as fascinating as the sleighs. Warm blankets might be made out of bear, wolf or other pelts. Some even tanned the hide of their favorite horse after it died, to use as a blanket. Blankets sometimes still had the mane and tail attached. Most blankets had a sturdy quilt backing, which was often made of cloth woven from horsehair. Wool blankets were also used, and were made with many different designs. Blankets were about 50-60 inches long, and covered the body up to the waist.
On extremely cold days, blankets weren’t enough to keep people warm. Foot warmers were tucked under the blankets to help people stay warm. In fancier sleighs, a foot panel would lift up to stow a heater underneath to help keep the chill away. Foot warmers were usually made of tin or soapstone. Hot charcoal was put inside to provide the heat.
Lights were used on many sleighs. They weren’t really for lighting your way, but for letting others see your sleigh so they didn’t accidentally run into you.
Lights ranged from simple to ornately styled, and were powered by candles, kerosene or carbide. All lights had reflectors to help increase their illumination power. Lights that used candles usually had a long tapered point extending down from the bottom of the light. The candle was inserted into this long point, and a spring underneath automatically raised the candle as it burned. By the late 1910s, the battery had been developed and later model sleigh lights sometimes were powered by batteries.
Although sleighs used to be so common that every family had one, not many people today have ever ridden in a sleigh, much less owned one. It’s a tradition of the past that many of us wish we might have experienced. However, some places, such as in Manistee, MI, Waseca, MN and Ashland, WI, have annual sleigh parades, where people can see a variety of sleighs in action.
When asked to explain his reason for collecting sleighs, Bill Engel says, “It’s sort of like art. The value is in the eye of the beholder. If it’s pleasing to the eye, and you feel a connection to it, then it’s worth collecting. With sleighs, each sleigh’s individual history is important, too.”
Denver Sleigh Works
Colonial Carriage Works
Sylvia Forbes is a freelance writer based in Fayette, MO. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.