Christmases Past: Sleigh Patents of the 1880s & 1890s

Fig. 1 of U.S. Patent No. 581,595, simply titled "Sleigh".

Fig. 1 of U.S. Patent No. 581,595, simply titled “Sleigh”.

It is that time of the year where when we prepare to spend time with family and friends celebrating the holiday season. No other holiday is quite like Christmas in terms of the anticipation, not to mention the colossal magnitude of the commercialization of the holiday.  In any event, last night children all over the world were “nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” As the kids were in bed many adults might have tried to catch a glimpse of “a miniature sleigh and eight tinny reindeer;” or perhaps nine if Rudolph was along for the trip!

As I contemplated Twas the Night Before Christmas it started getting me to think about sleighs and then I wondered what kind of patents I might find on various state-of-the-art sleigh technologies from Christmases past.  So without further ado, and to celebrate the season, I present a look at a variety of sleigh related patents from the 1880s and 1890s.

My review of the state-of-the-art sleigh technologies shows that during the early 1880s more comfortable sleigh rides were on the minds of many an inventor, and by the mid to late 1890s improvements evolved to include additional features, such as removable seats, steps to assist one to enter and disembark from the sleigh and various steering mechanisms. Like virtually all reviews of patented technology, even such low tech inventions as sleighs, the ongoing evolution of improvement is apparent, which is the hallmark of innovation.  Make things safer, faster, cheaper or stronger.  Innovate to make operational improvements the users will greatly appreciate, such a smoother riding sleigh.  Such a review of sleigh technology also gives us a glimpse into life of the day by showing us the problems that creative members of society were working to solve.

I hope you enjoy!  Merry Christmas!



U.S. Patent No. 245,597

Issued August 9, 1881

This patent was issued during 1881, making it one of the few that were issued during the ill fated Presidency of James Garfield.  Garfield took off on March 4, 1881 and died on September 19, 1881, after having been shot in the back on July 2, 1881.  Indeed, Garfield’s term as President was so short that he did not celebrate a single Christmas as Commander in Chief.  The only other time a President did not spend a Christmas in Office was during the term of President William Henry Harrison, who took office on March 4, 1841 and died one month later on April 4, 1841, but I digress.

This sleigh patent explains the object of the invention thusly: “The object of my invention is to furnish an easy-riding and easy-running sleigh, with the runners so arranged that they will conform to the unevenness of the roads without strain upon the runners or box, and will run without jolting or bumping over the roughest roads.” Later in this extremely short patent it is explained: “In my sleigh the runners, upon meeting with an obstruction or depression in the road, rise or descend, as the case may be, without communicating the jerking or pitching to the body of the sleigh, which by means of the tongue or thills is kept in nearly level position, while the springs convert the up-and-down movements into an easy undulation, making it much more comfortable and easy riding for the occupants and also easier work for the horses.”



U.S. Patent No. 407,120

Issued July 16, 1889

As explained in the patent, “This invention relates to certain improvements in sleighs, the object being to construct a cheap and durable sleigh which may be readily changed from a single to a double seated sleigh, or vice versa.”

Is the invention of a interchangeable sleigh built for one, or two, in 1889 coincidence?  Well, there appears to be no folklore history that includes Mrs. Claus until 1849 when James Reese penned a short story titled A Christmas Legend.  But it wasn’t until 1889 that Mrs. Claus became popularized, thanks to the Katherine Lee Bates poem titled Good Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.  The “goody” in the title refers to Mrs. Claus; “goody” being defined as “a polite term of address for a woman of humble social standing.”



U.S. Patent No. 510,123

Issued December 5, 1893

First it is probably worth noting that even though this patent was issued just 12 years and 4 months after the aforementioned ‘597 patent, the patent number shows that more than twice the number of patents were issued between August 1881 to December 1893 than during the 45 year period between 1836 (the year of Patent No. 1) and August 1881.  Remarkable growth for  young patent system, akin to what we have been witnessing with modern day China.

In any event, Harry B. Ellsworth of Excelsior, Wisconsin was the inventor of this new and improved sleigh, which was granted nearly 50 years after the first publication of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, which was first published on December 19, 1843, but I digress.

This patent explains the improvement embodied in this late edition sleigh thusly: “My invention has reference to improvement in sleighs, and more especially pertains to certain devices for the permitting of both a longitudinal and lateral oscillation to the sleigh body, to obviate the unpleasant effects of the jar of opposing inequalities or obstacles, on the ground.”

If you think thick legalese is a modern invention when it comes to patents take a look at this one!



U.S. Patent No. 495,845

Issued April 18, 1893

Another patent from 1893 caught my attention as well.  Like all the others on this list it is simply titled “Sleigh.”  Not that creative, but descriptive no doubt.  It wasn’t the title that caught my attention and captured my desire to include this in my review.

The inventor explained the invention thusly: “My invention relates to improvements in sleighs… and the object of my invention is to improve the running gear of the side-bar spring sleighs, to the end that said running gear may be cheaply made, may by exceedingly strong, and will carry the body of the sleigh in a safe and correct manner.”  Indeed, the mantra “cheaper, stronger, safer” is a tried and true inventor’s story.  The inventor is continually looking to make things better, easier, more durable, safer, faster and when this can be done more economically all the better.  This, like the other patents on the list show the common motivation of the creative mind, which is the same today in 2011 as it was in 1893.  The patent system foster improvement, sometimes in leaps and bounds but ordinarily at a reasonable evolutionary pace.

So what makes this invention unique? The patent explains: “The running gear described above is exceedingly strong, and as it is composed of comparatively few parts, it is cheap and can be easily made.”  Fewer parts?  Many times inventors forget that the elegant solution (i.e., fewer parts) can be quite advantageous.  With fewer parts there is less material needed so cost goes down, and generally speaking with fewer parts there is less that can break, making the item more durable and requiring less maintenance.


Fig. 1 of U.S. Patent No. 581,595, simply titled "Sleigh".Sleigh

U.S. Patent No. 581,595

Issued April 27, 1897

This patent was issued in a particularly famous year for those who are sentimental about Christmas.  It was September 1897 that the most famous editorial of all time appeared in the New York Sun.  An 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon was skeptical, but hopeful, that Santa Claus really existed.  She wrote to the Sun: “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.” Virginia went on: “Papa says ‘if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Francis Pharcellus Church wrote the editorial response, which appeared on September  21, 1887, directly telling Virginia that here friends were wrong, explaining that her friends were “afflicted by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” Church went on to say:  “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”  For more of the history see Is There A Santa Claus?

In any event, this particular sleigh invention is an improvement in “the construction of that class of sleighs which are adapted to be propelled by the occupant and to provide one which may be effectually guided by the feet of the operator.”  The patent goes on to explain: “It will be seen that the sleigh may be readily guided by the feet of the operator, and his hands are left free to be employed for propelling the sleigh.”


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    December 25, 2011 06:01 pm