Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Sleighs, Cutters & Carioles

Up until the last half of twentieth century using a sleigh was a necessity in areas that received more than a couple inches of snow. Although they were only required for a few months of the year, sleighs were manufactured to fulfill a variety of needs, sizes, and pockets in much the same manner as buggies, coaches and carriages. Usually a manufacturer would build both. In fact, some sleighs were simple buggy or coach bodies added to fancy runners instead of wheels. 

In the early 1800's, the most common North American winter vehicle was the piano box sleigh. Sensible, practical, it was made for hauling a family with kids, farm or business goods and usually pulled by a single horse or a team of horses.

Moose hitched to sleigh, Athabasca Landing, Alberta.  1909. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, Alberta

First designed in the early 1820's by James Goold of The Albany Coach Works, the Albany sleigh presented an ornate, rounded body in direct contrast to the piano box sleigh. With higher runners it could glide smoothly across deeper snow. Built with a single seat for two people, it became a romantic cutter, able to race against the fastest sleighs of the time. 

1868 Albany cutter manufactured by The Albany Coach Works. Courtesy of coachbuilt.com

The single seat Albany cutters and two-seater sleighs were the most expensive sleighs of their time due to their custom finish to whatever paint and fabric you ordered. Because of this customization however, Albany sleighs never reached mass market. Instead, Portand sleighs became the most popular sleigh of the snowy season.

According to The Farm Implement News Volume 15, Peter Kimball of Bryant's Pond, ME buiilt the first Portland sleigh one year after Mr. Goold built his Albany sleigh in 1817. But Kimball stuck to straight lines instead of Goold's curved ones and the simplicity appealed to the Puritan nature of the New England population.  

This newspaper ad from The New York Herald of December 12, 1869 shows what was trending during that winter:

The New York herald. (New York [N.Y.]) 1840-1920, December 12, 1869. Image provided by Library of Congress, Washington, DC

So fifty years after their introduction, the sleek Albany cutter was old-fashioned and the Portland and Boston made Sleighs were light, elegant and modern. They may have the rolled dash, but their bottoms were still flat which makes me call them boxy. Further research led me to the 1889 Hitchcock Manufacturing Co Catalogue which showed two versions of a Swell-Body Cutter - one with a foldaway top.

A similar ad for a Swell Body Cutter in an 1894 edition of The Farm Implement News confirmed the Swell Body cutter was on the market and not just the offering of one manufacturer.

It's interesting to note that the 1911 Sears, Roebuck and Co. Fall Catalogue carries the Portland cutter with a slightly rounded bottom and high runners, as well as a double-seater platform Business or Pleasure Sleigh that looks like the old Piano box style.

This two-seater held a minimum of 4 people and used independent runners for easier maneuverability as well as safer travel. Called a bobsleigh, it didn't tip as easy with the dual runners as it did with those using long, single runners on each side. 

Although the Albany and Portland styles were manufactured in Canada during the same time as their American counterparts, a different type of sleigh, called a cariole, was often seen north of the friendly border. Gliding low to the ground instead of with 12-18" high runners, the cariole looked similar to the old world ones in countries like Russia where snowfall equaled that of Canada. You can see the style difference between the cariole and other sleighs of the time on this poster from the January 1899 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.

Poster for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Jan 1899

Larger carioles provided a seat for the driver, but the design still retained the low solid appearance which appears frequently in Canadian paintings.

Winter Beauties of Humber Valley Hold Lure, The Globe, Toronto, 7 January 1925, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

The Canada Science and Technology Museum has several sleighs on display including a Victoria sleigh built for 3-5 passengers. According to the write-up, this is one of the sleighs developed from an existing carriage design - the cabriolet - and adapted to bent wood runners. 

Victoria Sleigh with Cabriolet body. Courtesy of Canada Science and Technology Museum

This video shows different types of sleighs in action and explains many more available at Skyline Farms, Maine. Sleighs and Sleighbells by Rural Heritage

Sleighs can be found at many large museums in snowfall areas, but check out the small museums too. They may only have one type, but it will give you an idea of what was available and in use in that area. 

So, did you see a sleigh you liked? Have you ever been on a sleigh ride? Where? When? Why? What was the weather like? What time of the day?


Anita Mae Draper's historical romances are written under the western skies of the Saskatchewan prairie where her love of research and genealogy yield fascinating truths that layer her stories with rich historical details.  Anita's short story, Here We Come A-Wassailing, was a finalist for the Word Guild's 2015 Word Awards. Her novellas are included in Austen in Austin Volume 1, The American Heiress Brides Collection, and The Secret Admirer Romance Collection. Readers can check out Anita's Pinterest boards for a visual idea of her stories to enrich their reading experience.  Discover more at:


  1. I have never seen fresh snow only old snow which was really ice. (It was end of summer at Whistler) I was looking forward to seeing snow for the first time ever and all I saw was cold ice which was what I could have gotten from defrosting my freezer and putting it out on the lawn. So I have never had a sleigh ride either. I would love to one day (although I don't like the idea of Christmas in the cold. Thanks for sharing.

    1. So very glad you shared about your experience, Ausjenny. It's so disheartening to expect something when you travel that distance and then have to settle for something you can get at home. Our pastor's family received several exchange students from Australia over the years and the general consensus was that they were glad they could experience our snowy prairie winter, but they won't likely do it again. You are not alone on that thought. *cheeky grin

      It's always a pleasure to visit with you, Jenny. Thank you for dropping by.

  2. Very interesting! Living in Maine, I am especially interested in the Portland sleigh...I haven't ridden in a sleigh, but we have a nearby farm that does sleigh rides in the winter and I'd like to do that this winter. Sometimes I think it would be a good idea to have a sleigh than a car in the winter, not a fan of driving in the snow!!!

    1. Well said, Connie, and I can agree that I do NOT like driving in snow, either. However, I don't think I could give up my motorized vehicle completely as I like my car's heater too much. I always shudder when I think of the pioneers who settled our countries in life-threatening cold conditions without even a roof over their winter conveyance. Sure makes me appreciate our forefathers.

      Thanks for sharing, Connie. Your sharing has reminded me how thankful I am to have a roof over my head and a furnace in my basement. Bless you.

  3. Great post about sleighs and cutters for winter travel. I enjoy a sleigh ride in the winter with the snow and have enjoyed only one fun ride. Illinois usually have plenty of snow for those with sleighs to put them to use. Maybe one of my Amish friends will offer a ride when visiting them.

    Thanks for the history lesson, Anita. A blessed and Merry Christmas to you.

    1. Marilyn, I'm glad you've had the chance to experience a sleigh ride. I love the feel of gliding across the snow listening to the sound of bells above the whoosh of runners on fresh powder.

      Have a blessed and Merry Christmas to you and yours as well, Marilyn. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Who knew a moose could pull a sleigh? I sure didn't. I've never had the opportunity to ride in a horse-drawn sleigh, but I hope I do one day. It must be so peaceful.

    1. Haha, I didn't either until I saw this photo years ago. I believe there's also a YouTube video about a guy - possibly in Minnesota - who trained a moose to drive a sleigh.

      Yes, riding is peaceful if you can get away from urban areas and traffic. Oh, and the wind has a lot to do with it as well because wind will bring its own level of noise and then magnify with the terrain. But on a calm day with a thick blanket, once the horse gets going, it's like gliding on a cloud.

  5. Thanks for the interesting article. I'm interested in learning more about the social history of sleighing. Were the sleighs a status symbol? Used for courting? Were there customs and 'rules' concerning their use for non-practical purposes? I remember seeing a fairly good collection of old sleighs in the basement of the Jello Museum in LeRoy NY's 'Jello Museum' which alluded to some of that stuff but I haven't been able to find anything else on this subject. Have you?

    1. The main reason for sleighing was winter transportation on snow. Owning or renting a sleigh and the type of sleigh used would be decided by one's finances, in which case it could be used as a status symbol in the same way automobile brands and models are used today. I know for sure that they were used for courting because I've read many newspapers of the early 20th century that mentioned wedding bells would soon fill the air because so-and-so were seen on a sleigh ride.

      I don't know of any particular customs or rules, which is not to say there weren't any - just that I'm not aware of any, except that sleigh hangers and sleigh riders were frowned upon. These were people - mainly kids - who jumped onto the back runner of the sleigh, hung on for a ride, and then jumped off again. Sudden jerks of the horse or the sleigh caused these riders/hangers to fall off and many did so under the hooves or runners of oncoming sleighs. I wrote about this dangerous practice in my Christmas short story, Riding on a Christmas Wish, to show this aspect of early 20th century social life. For the record, the riding in my Christmas story is not for sleigh riding but bike riding.

      Thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment.

  6. Hello!! Thank you for this extremely informative article. My husband and I LOVE history and antiques. We have not been on a sleigh ride but we live in PA and will definitely do one this year!! We also just bought an antique sleigh and are going to have it restored because we believe she should be brought back to her original glory. I'd love to send pics to see if you could tell me anything about our sleigh... someone told us it's an Albany Cutter... I'd be interested in knowing where it was made and approximately what year. Thank you!!

    1. Well, hello there. Although I've never been to PA, I assume you shouldn't have too much problem lining up a sleigh ride this year provided the weather cooperates. If you do, come back and let us know what you thought, or leave it on my Dec 2019 post, https://www.hhhistory.com/2019/12/sleigh-bells-and-giveaway.html
      The giveaway is gone, but the sleigh bell info is still there. :)

      That's very exciting that you bought an antique sleigh and are trying to restore it. I am not an expert on sleighs or their manufacturers, however I'll go through my research and try to help identify yours, or send you in the right direction for help if you send the pics.

      Thanks for stopping by for a visit. Wishing you all the best, Anita.

    2. To send me the pics, leave a message through my website contact page at http://www.anitamaedraper.com/contact.html

      I'll respond as soon as I get your message. :)

  7. The moose tho....

    When I was small, in the early 60s, we had a pony, and snow here in PA. My dad built a cart and a sleigh of plywood and iron runners in the piano box style.

    Years later, the cart and sleigh have gone to a local museum. I always admired the swell body swan shaped cutters... but I ended up with two dogsleds, one vintage and decorative, and one functional. They have many of the same flowing lines as the cutters... and are a lot easier to transport to a trail.

    There is a mini pony living here now... hmmmm, wonder if we can hitch her to the dogsled...

    1. Not sure about the pony to the dogsled, but I know they use a dog harness on goats to hook them up to small carts and sleighs. As a former goat owner however, I can't see more than one goat harnessed to others. The only time they team up together is when they're sleeping with their family or walking through mud or snow. (ie single file) And now I've gotten way off topic...

      Dogsleds are certainly efficient. They remind me of a canoe...sleek, fast, and easy to carry through the rough spots.

      Actually, a mini-pony might work because they're closer to the ground...but you still might need more clearance between the pony and the sled. Let me know if you try it. :)

  8. I believe the hinged shaft is because the runners will freeze to the ground so you can't move the vehicle up to the horse to hitch. It's risky to back a horse into the shaft space as they can easily break one. The solution is to have a hinged shaft so you can lift it and bring the horse in fromm the side like you would to a pair pole. Then drop shaft & hitch. Love sleighs. Really fun to drive!