The hand-painted or stenciled wooden sleds that delighted children at Christmas a century ago now are appreciated and collected as an art form that can cost thousands of dollars.
The commercial production of children's sleds began in the mid-1800s, with most of them made by companies involved in the production of iron-metal goods or in the growing market for toys.
The Paris Manufacturing Co., in South Paris, Me., was by far the most prolific sled maker. Established in 1861, Paris grew to such an extent that before the turn of the century branch stores had been opened in several large cities around the country and a successful advertising campaign was launched.
Like other companies, Paris produced a low-slung wooden coaster--also called a clipper--for boys, and a daintier frame sled--or a cutter or sleigh--for girls.
Local artists decorated the sleds. Coasters flaunted hand-painted birds and animals, while the deck of a girl's sleigh was often adorned with flowers, birds, cherubs and nature scenes.
The wooden sleds were then given appealing names to evoke images of racy speed or graceful beauty.
Paris offered such top-of-the-line models as the elegant "Snow Fairy," which had small bells attached to decorate runners and sold for $4, and "Black Beauty," priced at $2.
Other models bore names such as "White Star" and "Columbian Clipper" that were often painted right on the deck and incorporated into the decorations.
Before the close of the 19th Century, these popular toys began featuring metal supports and strips as part of their wooden runners.
A handsome clipper in 1903 was decorated with a painting of pugilist John L. Sullivan.
Additional advancements in design included a steerable sled introduced in the late 1800s by inventor Samuel Leeds Allen. This innovation made the old coasters and sleighs obsolete by the 1920s, aas steerable sleds such as S.L. Allen & Co.'s "Flexible Flyer" and Paris' "Speedway" swept the market.
The charming, simple beauty of hand-decorated sleds has led to the significant addition of these early toys to the ever-growing category of American folk art.
These sleds now are being seen as both artifacts of early manufacturing and artistic creations of talented Victorian artists who found an outlet for their creativity on the deck of a wooden toy.
Collectors pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for early wooden sleds, depending on the sled's make and model, the condition and rarity of the decoration, and whether there are any manufacturer or artist markings. Paris sleds are especially popular because they were marked.
As fine examples of early sleds became increasingly difficult to find, Ellen M. Plante wrote in Country Living, collectors should seek out those antiques dealers who specialize in Americana or in 19th-Century toys and visit the popular antiques shows.