Take Out the Tobaggans! The History of Sledding

Flyer2On a recent trip down to my basement, I spotted my old flexible flyer sled. Thinking about winter recreation, I sat down to do some historical research on sledding.

The word sled comes from the Middle English word sledde. That word goes back to the Old Dutch word slee which translates to slider or sliding. The word has a common ancestry with sleigh and sledge. Our neolithic ancestors may have used a variation made of whalebone. Ancient Egyptians are thought to have used a type of sledge to haul the huge stones over the land for their public works. Both sleds and sledges have been found in Viking ship excavations. The sledge appeared to be valuable for an economic reason as well; because it had no wheels it was exempt from toll collection. The British used sledges hauled by men in their early Arctic and Antarctic explorations. Dog sleds were used by other early explorers like Roald Amundsen.

A sled, sledge or sleigh is a land vehicle that has an underside that is smooth or maybe even a separate body that has two narrow long runners supporting it. It moves by sliding across a surface that does not offer much friction like snow or ice. Some of them were used on mud, grass or even smooth stones. Such vehicles might transport passengers, cargo or a combination of the two. A preference for one of the three names depended on the region and climate. Here in America, sled is the general term but this usually refers to a small device used for recreation. Sledge or stone boat is more often used for a heavy sled intended to move heavy objects. The word sleigh usually implies a moderate sized open vehicle having passenger seats used during the cold season as an alternative to a wagon or carriage most often drawn by horses. In the Santa Claus legend, the Scandinavian reference to reindeer supplanted the horses.

 As the advances of the Industrial Revolution progressed, men and women found themselves with more leisure time and sleds quickly transformed themselves into a form of recreation. There are several variations geared for downhill sledding. A toboggan is a log sled without runners that is most often made of wood or plastic. That name comes from either the Algonquin word odabaggin or the Anishinabe word nobugidaban. Inuit tribesmen made them out of whalebone. Other tribes used either birch or tamarack wood. These sleds had curved fronts but no runners. The Russians built a toboggan wooden structure to slide down toward the end of the nineteenth century in St. Petersburg. The sport of tobogganing started around the same time in Canada and rapidly gained popularity. Tobogganing also became a fashion event; women wore their best clothes and men their top hats while sliding down the chute. An unknown inventor added a handlebar and a pair or runners to a timber sled, and the kicksled powered by human leg power emerged. They were used on hard, slippery surfaces like lakes and rivers and could reach speeds of eighteen miles per hour. Clippers and cutters were first mass produced in the United States in Maine. The flexible flyer received its patent in 1889. Samuel Leeds Allen developed sleds to keep his workers busy at his factory during the winter. This type of sled had a slatted wooden seat and steel runners with something resembling a hinge near the back that allowed some steering. By the twentieth century, new shapes and materials were introduced for sledding. There are round plastic saucers, inflatable plastic sleds and foam sliders made of durable foam with handles.Flyer1

A few types of sleds are used competitively in sports: the bobsled, luge and skeleton. An unknown inventor created the bobsled when he added a mechanism for steering to the toboggan. Its name came from the fact that early users thought it helped to “bob” their heads to gain speed. The two variations on the bobsled are the skeleton which is a one person sled ridden lying down head first, and the luge in which one or two people sled feet first steering by pulling straps attached to its runners. Beginning in 1924 as an Olympic sport, today bobsledding is a part of the Winter Olympics for men and women. Whether you enjoy hitting the slopes for fun or watching the Olympics, winter sledding remains a popular winter activity.

Barbara Ann Mojica

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