Monday, March 6, 2017

And Away We Go

QUESTION: I’ve always loved to go sledding. And as an adult, I still love it. My trusty companion is an old Flexible Flyer sled. It has seen many a snow-covered hill. But I really don’t know very much about it. What can you tell me?

ANSWER:  The Flexible Flyer, invented by Samuel L. Allen in the late 1880s, was the first steerable sled.  With his invention, sledding would never be the same.

Allen’s 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.

Allen’s 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 sled’s 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—near West Chester, Pennsylvania and his alma mater.

It wasn’t 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.

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 Allen’s 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 Allen’s Flexible Flyer sleds.

If a collector has two sleds with the same name, he or she might think they were made by the same company, but this isn’t necessarily so. Names were interchanged from one company to another. Collectors should look for variety of sleds. There are lots of sleds, unnamed and dilapidated that sell for cheap.

Collectors should first look for the company’s name, mark, or model number which is usually found on the back side of the center deck board unless it’s worn off. If there are no markings, then collectors must rely on visual differences like the design and style of the frame, steering bar, and deck.

As with other collectibles, condition, availability, desirability, rarity, and potential for resale. A slight change in style, design, or color can put a sled in a different decade, increasing or decreasing its value.

Every company that manufactured sleds "copied" the revolutionary design of the Flexible Flyer, in some cases right down to the advertising. There are reproductions.

Well-preserved early 20th-century sleds make infrequent, yet steady appearances on the market and collectors hotly pursue them. Generally, they sell in the low to mid $100s. And, yes, prices are rising in that a fine sled rarely slips through without attracting the attention of someone who appreciates its value. The older 19th-century sleds appear rarely and some sell for up to $1,000.

The 1914 Flexible Flyer, with an all-steel frame, original trademark eagle, shield and ribbon-scroll work on deck, and pinstriped steering bar sells for $100-150. It originally sold for $3.50.

Old sleds are readily available. Those in the best condition command the highest prices. A Flexible Flyer in excellent condition can sell for over $500.

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