Historical Markers
Lightning Guider Sleds Historical Marker
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Lightning Guider Sleds

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
722 N. Market St., Duncannon

Dedication Date:
July 8, 1992

Behind the Marker

One young boy sleds down a snow covered hill, as another stands at the top awaiting his turn.
Advertisement for the Flexible Flyer, “The Sled that Steers,” circa 1910....
"A charter has been granted the Standard Novelty Works, of Duncannon, with a capital of $5,060. The incorporators are C.A. Walter, of Mifflinburg; P.F. of Duncannon, Wm. Wills, of Duncannon. A contract has already been awarded the Newport Planing Mill for $8,000 worth of seat boards for steel sleds which will be the specialty of these works."

              -TOWN AND COUNTRY, Bloomfield, PA, August 3, 1904.

Official patent drawing and information.
The Flexible Flyer, Patent 408681, issued August 13, 1889.
When Standard Novelty Works in Duncannon was receiving its first load of boards to begin making wooden snow sleds, the social pages of Pennsylvania's newspapers listed such recreational offerings as ice-cream socials and lectures by visiting phrenologists. (The ice cream was free; the lecture cost a dime.) So an investment of $8,000 in lumber was no small change; especially since another Pennsylvania company had been marketing sleds for fifteen years and they were just starting to catch on. Philadelphia Quaker Samuel Leeds Allen had begun marketing his signature "Flexible Flyer" line of steerable sleds in 1889, but it took some major social changes before they became popular and affordable.

The late 1800s was a time of great change for middle-class Americans, who began to enjoy a wider variety of recreational activities. A nascent fitness craze developed among members of the middle and upper classes. This was fueled in part by a trend towards Muscular Christianity, a cultural movement in which Protestant males adopted rigorous athletic activity as an antidote to the perceived weakening of their bodies due to desk jobs and more sedentary lives. Basketball, bicycling, and volleyball provided healthful activity. Golf and tennis emerged as popular sports for wealthy members of the new "country clubs." People began to clamor for something to do in the winter months, too; so gradually, manufactured toboggans, sleds, and other coasters became popular.

Black and white, head and shoulders photograph of a balding man, wearing a suit, shirt, and bowtie.
Samuel Leeds Allen, inventor of the Flexible Flyer sled.
Samuel Leeds Allen had been an aficionado of snow "coasting" since his own childhood, much of which had been spent at the Westtown Boarding School and Friends' Select School, two Quaker academies. He went on to found a successful farm implement company located at the advantageous "North Penn Junction." From there the S. L. Allen Company shipped their innovative fertilizer and seed drills (the ubiquitous "Planter Drill" and "Planet Junior") to customers in the United States and Europe. The company provided its employees an unusually high level of benefits, including a hot-meal program, clinic and auditorium, as well as death, disability, and pension plans for all.

Allen and his children enjoyed rigorous play; together they tested prototypes for his famous sled at the Westtown School and on a quarter-mile run built on his "Ivystone" farm in Downingtown, a slope that he groomed and iced every night. In the 1880s, Allen produced his first production sled, named the "Fairy Coaster." Built with double steel runners and an upholstered seat, it could hold four adults, and be folded up for easy transport on public streetcars. The Fairy Coaster, however, was a commercial failure, for at a time when a good horse cost $125, the sled sold for a forbidding $50, the price of 165 acres in Perry County.

Students at Westtown School, on a snow covered hill, riding a Flexible Flyer
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Girls sledding on a Flexible Flyer, Westtown Boarding School, Westtown, PA,...
In 1889 Allen introduced his "Flexible Flyer." Its runners were purposely made a little weaker in the middle, so they could be more easily bent, making it easier to steer. A slatted wooden surface made it lighter and easier to carry. Allen intended his factory workers to make sleds in the slow months of the year, when they weren't producing farm equipment. But his salesmen balked at having to work at all during their normal "vacation" season.
General view of the sled makers' production line.  The sled racks are overhead. The sleds are assembled in this room and passed along the line for their varnish bath.
Sled makers production line, Lightning Guider Sled Company, 722 N. Market Street,...

In 1899 Allen undertook a concentrated advertising campaign. Wanamaker's in Philadelphia and Macy's in New York took on the Flexible Flyer line in time for Christmas that year, selling "Boys' Flexible Flyers" for $1.99. Within ten years the company was frantically shipping sleds by the boxcar full to meet a seasonal demand of more than 120,000.

As Flexible Flyer prospered, so did other sled companies in Pennsylvania, including Duncannon's Standard Novelty Works. The 30,000-foot factory came on line in 1904, producing "Lightning Guiders" and "Challengers," and operated for eighty-six years.  In the 1920s and 1930s, when American children made Balto the Sled Dog a veritable hero, the company produced up to 1,800 sleds per day, more than any other American manufacturer. Today, its brick factory houses a museum and antique market.

In the 1960s there were eight sled manufacturers in the United States. A decade later, only three were left: Standard Novelty, Flexible Flyer, and The Gladding Corporation of Maine. By the late 1970s, both Standard Novelty and Flexible Flyer were still having banner years, selling 100,000 and 500,000 sleds, respectively, for that season. In the late 1900s, however, market changes drove the business of child's play either out of state or out of country. Flexible Flyer's interests were sold to a company in Ohio, then Mississippi, then Illinois, and finally China, where it went out of business in 1999. Standard Novelty Works ended production in 1990.
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