Sleigh Bells Ring - Are You Listening?

In the fall 1857 a new song by James Pierpont celebrated the popular winter pastime of sleighing and sleigh racing. While sleighing is now a rarity, the song it inspired has become a Christmas time standard. It is difficult to believe now that at one time “Jingle Bells” was considered more of a Thanksgiving song. “Jingle Bells” was written in the waning of what is known as the Little Ice Age. In the 1870s sleighing season had started at Thanksgiving and lasted until April. By the 1890s New York newspapers reported only six weeks of good sleighing. With warmer temperatures and cars came the demise of the sleigh market.

In 1889 about 120,000 sleighs were produced; by 1900 most Eastern sleigh manufacturers were out of business. Today we are left with a much sung song with a few confusing terms, so to help with enjoyment of this winter tradition, here are a few definitions. “Bobtail” refers to a horse with its tail cut short so it wouldn’t get caught in the wheels or interfere with the reins. In the third verse “two forty for its speed” means the horse could trot a mile in two minutes and forty seconds.

Sleigh traffic at busy intersections and the use of only one track by sleighs going in both directions were early safety concerns. Also, sleighs are almost soundless in the snow. Sleigh bells were introduced as a safety measure because the sound of bells travels long distances in the cold, still air. The song title “Jingle bells” refers to the bells attached to the horse so other horses and drivers could hear the virtually silent sleigh.

The Rise and Fall of Sleighing

Sleighing using horse-drawn vehicles was a popular activity during the period known as the “Little Ice Age.”  From the 1700s to the 1880s snows came earlier and stayed longer, providing perfect conditions for the use of winter transportation. Originally Americans copied designs from European sleighs, but soon redesigned these sleighs to make them sleeker, faster, and more elegant.  The more affluent sought the latest sleighs, designed for not only speed, but with luxurious interiors and attractive body work.  Likewise, the occupants of sleighs began wearing ever more fashionable clothes and using stylish robes and blankets for protection against the elements. Ironically, the height of the sleighing craze coincided with a warming period that reduced the sleighing season from sixteen weeks, Thanksgiving to April, to just six short weeks.  Rather than grooming roads for sleigh riding, commuters demanded that urban streets be plowed to allow better access with wheeled vehicles.  Unfortunately, the sleigh runners did not fare well in the ruts produced by carriage and automobile tires.  Especially dangerous to horses and sleigh riders were street car tracks which caused sleighs to tip over and the horses to break free. A victim of a warming climate and the commuting needs of the masses, sleighing became less popular.  With the advent of inexpensive motor cars, the “Sunday drive” overtook the thrill of “dashing through the snow.”

Frontier Homestead has three sleigh types in our collection:

sleighs and irons 016Albany Cutter -Throughout the early nineteenth century, sleighs became increasingly lighter and more stylish.  The new stylish look included curved backs, flared sides and sweeping dashes.  In 1814, James Goold of Albany, New York, popularized this swell-body style and these sleighs became known as Albany sleighs.  The sleek design of the Albany cutter made the sleigh very popular in urban areas.

Portland Cutter - In Portland, Maine, Peter Kimball built a sleigh constructed of straight pine horizontal planks with vertical battens that resembled boat construction. sleighs and irons 013This style became known as the Portland Cutter which kept the box shaped floor and flat-paneled design of its predecessor, the Delaware Valley sleigh. Portland Cutters were favored in rural areas because of a higher seat position and superior wind protection over Albany Cutters.


sleighs and irons 011

Bob Sleigh - A bob sleigh is a vehicle in which the body of a wheeled carriage has been placed on bob-runners.  Bob runners are short runners with one set in the front and one set in the rear.  With this arrangement, the front bob runners pivot with the axle. For those who did not want to spend the money for a new sleigh, this provided a way to convert an existing carriage for winter use.


A Look Into Our Collection: The Eliason Snowmobile

In 1924, Carl Eliason of Sayner, Wisconsin injured his foot. The active Eliason developed his first “snow buggy” to aid him in negotiating the tough Wisconsin winter weather.  Starting in a garage behind his home, Eliason eventually built something like the machine on display at Frontier Homestead, using various parts of a boat motor, bicycles, and some skis. Patented in 1927 as the “Motor Toboggan,” there was enough demand for the machine by 1939 that Mr. Eliason partnered with the Four Wheel Drive Company of Clintonville, Wisconsin to produce the first “snowmobile.”  There was a flurry of interest at the start of World War II from Finland, Russia and the U.S. Army.


Our snow machine is most likely a Model B which features lever steering, half-round gas tank with attached tool box, and foot throttle.  It weighed close to 500 lbs and was powered by a 25 HP twin cylinder Indian motorcycle engine (missing from our machine.) Cleats attached to chain belt moved the machine through the snow.

This unit was purchased by Gronway Parry from the Idaho Power and Light Company who used it to patrol the power lines during the winter. Parry later used this snow machine to transport movie crews on the snow covered Cedar Mountains. It became part of the museum’s collection in 1973.

A  public service message featuring the Eliason Snow Machine. Life Magazine, 1944.