The Days Of Sleighs
by Mel Robertson
In a previous chapter of this history of 1920s childhood I described the importance coaster wagons played in summer recreation. Therefore, since winter always follows summer, it seems appropriate that mention should be made of the part sleighs played "amid the snows of winter" at a time when there were no organized recreation programs, no TV, no Nintendo, no computers and no aggressive "how-to-do-it" schemes to convert kids into adults before they were ready for it.
It was a time when children learned to entertain themselves in one way or other. Some were fortunate enough to get enjoyment from reading while others had imaginative mothers and "aunts" who were ready to devote any spare time they had to amusing children. However, generally speaking, most 1920s children were told to "get out of the way" and "get outside and play". In other words, children were left to develop their own intelligence without the aid of "enclosed batteries" or other electronic devices.
I do not suggest that such times and methods were better or worse than the 1990s. They were just different and people who feel that the world began and is developing, only now and around themselves, can stop reading this article right here.
Lacking arenas, gyms and other areas for comfortable winter recreation, children of the 1920s had to make the most of winter weather and their own initiative. Skating was an "iffy" thing, depending on enough cold weather to make ice and not enough snow to cover the little backyard rinks. The same thing applied to making "snowmen" (a gender-forbidden word) and constructing snow forts (how militaristic!). Of equal unpredictability were snow slides that adults usually ruined with ashes from the stove. All this uncertainty in the lives of 1920s kids placed considerable appeal on common sleighs that could be shared among several children.
The basic sleigh of the 1920s was called a "hand sleigh". I don't know why the word "hand" was applied to these simple playthings but they were the lowest item in the order of sleighs. They were made of wood with metal-shod runners about eight inches high. Length was a couple of feet and there were slots, or wooden grips, along the sides of the runners to use as hand holds. It is possible that the word "hand" came from this feature.
The "hand sleigh" was designed for one thing and that was downhill sliding. It was too low for kids to sit on and imagine things and too small to be converted into any of the imaginative things kids might dream up. No. you took it to a hill, clasped it to your bosom by putting your hands through the slots, yelled some kind of warning and then with a burst of energy, you threw yourself on the sleigh and careened down the hill.
The only catch was that if you had not measured yourself to the sleigh you might find that it was too short and that most of you was hanging over the end gathering snow, ice, dog poop and anything else that might have collected on the hill.
Girls of the 1920s never experienced this form of degradation for it was not considered "ladylike" for a girl to use a "hand" sleigh in this manner. Girls of the 1920s were expected to use sleighs that were designed as "girls" sleighs and were advertised in department stores as such.
"Girls sleighs" were higher off the snow than "hand" sleighs. Pictures show that their frame and runners were of metal and they were much higher at the front where the runners were curved into little swan or goose, necks. Seats were painted in "designer" colours and there were extra hand grips. At the front were rings for tow-ropes. These sleighs were not designed for down hill sliding.
Prices for "girls" sleighs in the 1920s ranged from 89 cents for one that lacked goose neck runners to the finest "goose necked", "kneed" sleighs at $2.25. The word "knee" meant the metal rods that supported the seat.
There were no steering devices and it is obvious that, in the sexually segregated 1920s, little girls were expected to sit on their sleighs in a "ladylike" manner while their mothers, or little boys, towed them around. This service was expected by the same little girls who demanded that boys tow them around in coaster wagons. However, as in summer, this task was usually terminated by hauling the little girl to her front door and there, by a quick turn, dumping her into a snow bank.
I have an old photo of two little "girl" sleighs. This picture was taken on a bitterly cold January day in the 1920s in front of one of the cannon^ that stood at the Armoury in Burford. The two little bundled girls are my sister^ Emilie and her friend Helen Everett. I can still recall, with a shiver, the wind that was blowing and cannot understand why my mother chose to unwrap her Brownie 2a camera to take such a frost-bitten snapshot. However, I am glad she did as the picture may have something to say about the times.
The most coveted of boy s' sleighs was the steering type that was described as a "racing sleigh". It was named the "Flexible Flyer" or the "Flying Army" The word "flexible" came from the fact that there was a wooden bar at the front, which, when pushed one way or the other, "flexed" the frame enough to make shallow turns. These sleighs had all-metal runners and frame and ranged in size from a 32-inch single sled at $1.65 to a multi-place wonder that was 56 inches long and cost $3.45.
One of these big models was on display at a hardware store that operated in the Greenwood Meat Building. I received this sled as a Christmas present and dragged it with joy to Bishopsgate. However, on the first trip down the hill, when I tried to steer, the side bar broke. On examination it was found that the builder had cleverly concealed a knot in the side bar right under the steering bar where it could not be seen. My
father took the sleigh back to the hardware man but he refused to do anything about it. He apparently thought it was clever and funny that the rotten S.O.B. who had built the sled was able to spoil a kid's fun in this way. My father repaired the bar with a metal strap but the sleigh would never steer properly afterwards. I don't remember the name of the hardware man but I still regard him as an unprincipled cheapskate.
A more exotic type of "steering" sleigh was the "bob" sleigh (why "bob" I don't know). This consisted of two small "hand" sleighs joined by a long plank on which several kids could sit. The front sleigh was steerable. These monsters cost from $2.25 to $4.45 and thus were beyond the price range of most people. However, it was possible to construct one by using two "hand" sleighs and an old shutter. Several of these enjoyed a brief existence in 1920s Burford until the owners of the "hand" sleighs wanted their own back. The "bob" sleigh was the object of great imaginative slides for. in the news reels we saw at the Temple Theatre in Brantford. there were shots showing bob-sleigh racing at the St. Moritz Winter Olympics where teams dashed "like sixty" down the steeply banked Olympic run. We kids imagined that we were such a team until our steerer made too sharp a turn and deposited us all in a snow bank.
Of equal scarcity was the toboggan which looked fast but usually clogged with snow on the local hills. Kids tended to shy away from toboggans for. if the snow was not deep enough on the hills, sticks would come through the slots between the slats and administer an inappropriate "goose".
Last, but not least among sleighs were the baby carriage sleighs. One of these was described in department store catalogues as "The Baby Cutter". This unfortunate name did not mean that it was a device to harm babies but rather that it was a tiny replica of the horse drawn "cutters" that thronged the winter streets. These were hand pushed with a high dash board at the front to deflect any snow that an over enthusiastic pusher might generate. Prices for these sleighs started at $6.45 and ranged upward to $8.65 for one with retractable wheels that could be lowered at places where snow had been removed.
Of more familiar form was the little hand towed, yellow, sleigh with the fancy back in which many of Burford's older citizens received their first taste of winter. These lattersleighs have survived the years and are still available.
The 1920s sleigh, in its several forms, was not really comparable to the coaster wagon as an object for amusing children. The main reason was. of course, the fact that in winter it was too cold for children to sit around on sleighs and plan things in the way they did with coaster wagons. Another important factor was that 1920s winter clothing for kids were zippers or Velcro for easy ins and outs and there was no material that would shed water easily. Moreover, when clothing got wet most houses did not have quick drying facilities.
However, sometimes, if boys had been reading such popular books as "Connie Morgan in Alaska" or "Bobby Blake in the Frozen North", games were devised in which we imagined ourselves to be Arctic explorers or Alaska gold miners. In these the big, friendly dogs, who were always part of our playtime, could be induced to pretend that they were sled dogs. I remember, with gratitude, Fido Bowermaa the Royal Bank Scotch collie who, while he could never pull more than one of us at a time, always entered the act with great rejoicing.
Some of my childhood fantasies about dog teams became reality in the late 1940s when I was stationed with the RCAF in Labrador. The American base on the opposite side of our airfield had a sled dog training facility. In addition, our friends from the Grenfell Mission at North West River frequently brought their magnificent dog team to our place and took us on long trips.
I was also privileged to be present when the Americans conducted their first experiments in dropping dog teams, sleds and handlers by parachute. These experiments took place on the ice of Hamilton Inlet and were designed to see if dog teams could be dropped in the wilderness to aid victims of air crashes, etc. The teams were not dropped fastened together, but each dog. etc. had a separate parachute. The dogs were trained to run and sit on their parachute as soon as they landed. I asked the handler if the dogs disliked the drops but he said they seemed to enjoy them. I don't know what was the outcome of these experiments but I presume that the development of helicopters has reduced the need for such rescue activities.
Sleighs are still available in several forms that would not have been acceptable in the 1920s. Kids now slide down hills on inflatable rings, sheets of plastic and aerodynamically designed contraptions which look like moon vehicles.
I can't say. from personal experience, if these things are more efficient than the sleighs of my childhood. However, during my frequent trips to Brantford. I pass a golf course where children slide down hills From casual observation it appears to my wife and me that the main object of 1990s down hill sleigh riding is not how far you can slide but how many times you can fall off. or how many times you can upset someone else. This is all fun. of course, and should not be criticized.
My only observation is that, in this age when the environment is under such scrutiny, the only thing kids are learning about it is that snow down the neck is cold. In other words, kids are taken to the hill in heated cars, given a few adult assisted slides down the hill and then are taken home.
Do they get as much appreciation for the environment as the kids who were told to "get outside and play" in the 1920s?