History of Antique Flexible Flyer Sleds

By David B. Ryan

The Flexible Flyer Sled, the iconic toy of films such as “A Christmas Story,” was the brainchild of a Pennsylvania Quaker farm implements manufacturer named Samuel Leeds Allen. Allen worked with his father, John C. Allen, from a crafts barn on “Ivystone,” his working farm. The inspiration for the sled came from his love of sledding and his experiences at Westtown Boarding School and Friends’ Select School in the late 1850s. Sledding, or “coasting,” was a popular winter pastime during the 1800s. S.L. Allen’s children served as testers for each new sled design.

Allen’s Motivation

S.L. Allen had a practical reason to design sleds, in that he wanted to provide work for his employees at the manufacturing facility. Farm equipment was a seasonal business: it sold well when farmers were not actively involved in working their farms, during the winter months. The summer and fall months left Allen workers waiting for new projects. He did not want his employees to leave for occupations with a full-year employment.

Early Sled Prototypes

Allen gave each sled design a unique name, including the sleds that failed to go into widespread production. During the mid-1880s, Allen designed three early sleds, the “Phantom,” “Fleetwing” and the “Aeriel.” The models, which held six to eight adults, never went into commercial production, but they established the design principles that would guide the creation of the Flexible Flyer.

Fairy Coaster Sleds

The “Fairy Coaster” was manufactured in 1888, but not in significant numbers. This sled was offered in two different models, the deluxe and the basic, the difference between the two being the deluxe’s fabric padded seat and the selling price of each. The deluxe model “Fairy Coaster” sold for a pricey $50 in 1888.

Flexible Flyer Sleds

The “Flexible Flyer” was patented February 14, 1889. Its features included a pair of steel runners with a bendable spot halfway down the slide. The first sleds did not sell well against the competition from the “Swift Glider,” “Storm King,” “Safety” and the “Lightning Glider” sleds. Allen manufactured no sleds for the next few years. When the “Flyer” was manufactured again, sales figures increased greatly.

Sales Challenges

Allen felt that sled production during the summer months would provide a “bridge” product to keep his workers busy. His sales force disagreed and, during the first few years of production, they were difficult to sell because salesmen were marketing the sleds in the same manner, and to the same retail farm implement locations, as the company farm machinery. Allen changed that by marketing the sleds to the toy departments of Wanamaker’s and R.H. Macy Company department stores. By 1915, nearly 2,000 sleds were sold in one day, with an expected total that year of 120,000.

Company Changes

Sledding experienced a decline in popularity, and in 1968, the Allen Company was sold to Leisure Group of Los Angeles, California, which continued to manufacture the sleds from Medina, Ohio. A group of investors, including some employees, purchased the sled manufacturing operations in 1973 and continued to make the sleds under the “Blazon Flexible Flyer” name. These sleds are still sold today.

Resources

About the Author

David B. Ryan has been a professional writer since 1989. His work includes various books, articles for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland and essays for Oxford University Press. Ryan holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University and certifications in emergency management and health disaster response.