The Value of Play

The birth of America’s favorite sled can be traced to a hillside in Westtown.

Two students from the Westtown School take to the hills on their Flexible Flyer, circa 1910.Never underestimate a goof-off. The love of play made Samuel Leeds Allen a rich man. He perfected this interest locally at the Westtown School, giving generations of American kids a toy for the ages.

In 1889, Allen patented the Flexible Flyer, the first steerable snow sled. The Flyer eclipsed memories of Allen’s nearly 300 other inventions, including a fertilizer that resembled the planet Saturn. But Allen, who maintained a lifelong passion for play, was not the sort to complain.

“The development in coasters is somewhat typical of that in many other directions,” Allen wrote in a short 1896 history of sledding, written to impress his business peers by placing the Flyer squarely in the vanguard of U.S. technology. “In nearly all the industries, we find an increasing demand for better speed, reduced friction, smoother ways, neater guiding and more accurate advancement.”

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And, oh yes, more fun.

Born in Philadelphia, Allen was the son of a pharmacist. His father, John, a Quaker, had been a partner in a cracker-baking company, but sold out at the outset of the Civil War rather than make hardtack biscuits for the military. Allen was named for his maternal grandfather, Samuel Leeds of Leeds Point, N.J.

From his earliest days, Allen preferred mischief, exploration and tinkering over any assigned task. As a boy, he spent summers on an uncle’s farm, where he teased the maid by removing the pin from the pump handle. At Westtown—where his father sent him in 1850 to “get him out of the city”—Allen invented a small spring gun that he attached to the underside of his seat. The device was such a hair trigger that anyone walking past would set it off. It earned Allen several swats.

According to his cousin, George B. Allen, also a Westtown student, Allen’s nickname was “Skiance”—in part because he was tall and always seemed to be looking at the sky. It was the perfect metaphor for a youngster who often seemed to have his head in the clouds.

Allen was fascinated by anything technically difficult. For fun, he’d use a penny to draw a perfect circle, then write the entire Lord’s Prayer within it. He could kick a ball farther than any other boy, said George, because he’d studied the physics of the problem and “kicked it scientifically.”

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Naturally, he made teachers impatient. “I believe I can’t study lessons like other boys, and the teacher says I’m lazy,” Allen told his cousin.

“No, thee isn’t lazy,” George replied. “If thee would just stop inventing all those queer things that run across the desk, thee could study as well as anyone else. It is not that thee can’t, but thee don’t.”

Shenanigans aside, Allen was not a bad kid. Among his earliest papers was a list of habits that the young man aimed to acquire or improve: “doing things systematically … finishing everything undertaken … learning something from everyone … politeness, cheerfulness … daily prayer … self-control.” To avoid: temptation, light reading (“which enfeebles the mind and corrupts the heart”), levity in regards to sacred subjects, and cursing.

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Eventually, the value of Allen’s observation and technology skills emerged. When he was 14, he spent a summer at George’s farm in Marple, where his job was helping an employee load hay wagons. Proper loading was essential, lest the hay slip off on its way to the barn. Allen watched a man load one wagon.

“After that, Samuel loaded every load of hay and wheat that we hauled that summer,” wrote George. “Not one slipped.”

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After Westtown, Allen attended Friends Select School. He graduated in 1860, then took over a farm his father owned near Westfield, N.J. Allen was so determined to succeed that he sold his beloved ice skates because he thought he wouldn’t have time to use them. “Later, he found that farmers did have a little spare time, so he designed a pair that the village blacksmith made,” wrote George.

But Allen continued to tinker. In his obituary, the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph described how Allen invented a planter-fertilizer by attaching two tin washbasins together with a metal band. He drilled the band with holes, then mounted the device between two handles. The contraption could be filled with seed or fertilizer and walked over a field like a wheelbarrow.

“Neighboring farmers recognized its value and wished him to make similar implements for them,” reported the paper. Because the washbasin fertilizer resembled the planet Saturn with its rings, Allen dubbed it the “Planet Junior” and founded his own firm, the S.L. Allen Co., to produce it and other garden equipment. Allen’s products—which included drills, cultivators, etc.—were eventually marketed internationally in a line collectively referred to as “planets.”

Allen was a big success. He became a trustee of Haverford College, Friends Hospital and Westtown. He was generous both philanthropically and with his employees. According to the Telegraph, he was among the first employers to offer workers life insurance at affordable rates.

Yet Allen maintained his enthusiasm for play. When he took up bicycling, he lobbied his neighbors to build miles of bike paths around their part of New Jersey. When he took up fly-fishing, Allen made his own rods and tied his own flies. After taking up golf at age 60, he won a string of trophies. “Whatever he went into,” said the Telegraph, “he did it with such intensity and keenness that he became an authority on everything connected with it.”

Snow “coasting” appeared early at the Westtown School (founded in 1799), but the students used bobsleds—great heavy contraptions, solidly built, with steel or wooden runners and high in the front. Ten or more children could be crowded on sleds that bore names such as “Black Hawk,” “Mountain Maid” and “Pride of the Hill.” Boys and girls did not ride together, but two boys were chosen to serve as steersman and surger on the challenging runs.

“The steersman has a difficult task,” wrote Westtown historian Helen Hole in 1942. “There is no steering gear, so with his own feet he must, by judicious kicks at the front runners at just the right moment, direct the thundering mass of nearly a ton into the right path in order to avoid destruction, and yet not reduce speed and so spoil the record of the sled.” The job of the surger, who sat at the rear, was to help the bobsled over bumps in the trail by standing at the right moment and then dropping back into his seat, thereby lifting the nose. “The old letters speak repeatedly of the skill and effectiveness of the surgers,” wrote Hole.

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Tracks were made by packing down and watering snowy trails through the woods, then waiting overnight as they froze.

Sledding’s popularity fell after 1865, when a skating pond was built at Westtown. Then the sport almost disappeared when the stored bobsleds were destroyed in an 1868 fire. But new sleds were built that were fast and steerable. By the 1880s, sledding was bigger than ever.

Safe? Not entirely. In 1892, one boy received a serious head injury when the bobsled on which he was riding struck a wagon parked along the trail. No drastic action was taken. Quakers don’t ban things. But, wrote Hole, “It became evident that it would be advisable to substitute less dangerous forms of coasting.”

Happily, the Flyer already existed. The story most often told is that, in the 1880s, Allen—whose agricultural products were made in the spring and summer—was seeking an off-season product to avoid laying off employees. According to one account, he browsed a dictionary until he came across the word “sled.”

Allen experimented with several versions. The “Fairy Coaster” had steel runners and plush seats and folded for transport, but cost $50. Too expensive. The “Fleetwing,” given to the Westtown girls in 1884 to try, carried six, was light and had a gong. The “Ariel” was a hinged bobsled whose front and rear sections steered independently. Hard to control, it crashed so frequently that Westtown boys spoke of Ariel’s preference for “climbing trees.”

The Flexible Flyer’s patent application cited its slated seat and T-shaped runners. Both were new features. But what most distinguished the Flyer was that, by pushing the crossbar to the right or left, the rider could bend the runners and, thereby, steer the sled. No competitor offered this.

Flyer advertising didn’t say so, but the sled was also slower—and, therefore, safer—than the thundering, 2,000-pound loaded bobsleds. Plus, if a crash was imminent, riders could simply roll off. Escape was much harder on a bobsled carrying as many as a dozen tightly packed riders.

Still, success wasn’t immediate. Westtown students liked the Flyer but, for years, all revenue was consumed by advertising. Finally, around the turn of the 20th century, Allen gambled that the surging popularity of other outdoor sports—tennis, skating, tobogganing—might carry the Flyer. He convinced Macy’s and Wanamaker’s department stores to carry the sleds and invested in advertising.

By 1915, Allen could write, “We are sending whole carloads of about 1,200 each to New York, New Haven and Pittsburgh by express; perhaps five full cars in all. There seems little doubt but that we will sell out clean, in all about 120,000.”

At Westtown, bobsleds were mostly extinct by 1907. Later students remembered only their Flyers. “Many a Flyer deposited its occupants in a snowdrift,” wrote Hole. “The speed still seemed terrific, and there was no dearth of excitement and thrills.”

Which, of course, was the point.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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