All posts by Kathleen

The Most Popular Sleighs In America

We often receive requests to identify sleighs. Unfortunately unless there is a maker’s tag on the sleigh it is hard to identify exactly where the sleigh came from. In general, American sleighs fit into two broad categories – Albany and Portland.

The Albany Cutter

Leigh Semilof driving a restored Albany Cutter from the 1890s.

As the 19th century began there was a focus on more practical winter vehicles. The gold gilded sleighs featuring wild animals and mythical creatures were not practical on the streets of small town USA. Art was still an influence but it no longer drove design. The desire for a beautiful but practical sleigh was particularly strong with James Gould of Albany, New York. He began to develop a swell-sided cutter, the primary design coming into being about 1836. The Albany body and runners were carefully steamed and bent into their unique shape, requiring a master craftsman. Known by a variety of names the design was quickly copied by other sleigh makers. The Albany Cutter (or Albany Sleigh) is recognized as the second most popular sleigh type in America.

The curved body was a painters paradise an rich colors were used to decorate the sleighs. The Hub reports that dark or light carmine, yellow, blue, even Scotch plaid and purple were used on the body. Trimming was often dark green or crimson. Somewhat sadly, the October 1878 edition of The Hub mentions that “it was formally the custom of sleigh-builders to employ a variety of fancy colors, stripes, ornaments, etc. but of late years plainness and simplicity have been preferred by city customers.”

Albany Cutters vary in size from single horse and pony sleighs to six passengers sleighs pulled by four horses. Larger sleighs with swell bodies are sometimes referred to as Hudson Valley Sleighs.

The Portland Cutter or Kimball Sleigh

William A. Paterson Company Sleigh, 1885 On display at the Sloan Museum in Flint, Michigan.

The most popular sleigh in America was designed by Peter Kimball of Main. It was his sons, James M. (of Portland, Maine) and Chalres P. (of Chicago) who championed the sleigh. The straight back offered more wind protection than the Albany and was less expensive for carriage makers to create.

In 1876 Charles P (C.P. Kimball) moved to New York to begin a partnership with Brewster & Company. The aptly named Kimball-Brewster Sleigh, which was shown at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the first official World’s Fair in the United States. Charles chose to move to Chicago the following year with his son, Charles Frederick, where they started the famed carriage company, C.P. Kimball & Company.

Sleigh races were very popular in the United States and Portland Cutters were an early favorite. They gave way at the turn of the 20th century to specially made racing sleighs. By 1910, a standard Portland Cutter could be purchased for $20. One ornate Portland Cutter built by Kimball & Clement was trimmed in “silk plush, had silver mountings and cost $150.”

Portland Cutters typically seat two people but were also made to seat four. As time progressed they were available with doors, hoods and other features that just were not possible with the Albany.

Portland Cutter with side door and springs made by the Owosso Carriage Company in the early 1900s. Note the boot scraper. Part of the DeVries Carriage Collection in Owosso, Michigan.

Written by Kathleen Haak for the Carriage Association of America. Based on “Highlights of Sleighing History” by Kathleen Haak which appeared in the January 2019 edition of The Carriage Journal.

Lancewood Shafts

Ralli Car with lancewood shafts as presented at the 2019 CAA Carriage Conference.

A few years ago I bought a Ralli Car in Scotland and I was told at the time that it had “lancewood shafts,” a superior kind. What is lancewood and can it be obtained here?

The following is taken from a paper read before the Institute of British Carriage Makers on March 15, 1884 by Matthew Mullins, a coachbuilder of Cork, Ireland. His paper was called “Timbers Used in Carriage Building,” and, writing about shaft timbers, he has this to say:

Lancewood is a hard, heavy and elastic wood: yellowish in color, very difficult to work, but when properly finished, shows a good surface for varnish. Good quality lancewood is a most reliable timber when treated properly, but in many cases it turns out the opposite, though bad treatment. For instance, plating a shaft at the bar to protect the shaft in mounting to, or dismounting from, the trap. If such a shaft meets with a sudden shock, it is liable to break where the shaft plate ends, as this is the weakest part of the shaft; for when the shaft meets with a shock, the part not plated springs and, meeting the resistance of the plated part, it is likely to snap off. Lancewood is subject to decay if constantly in contact with iron without proper protection, so any parts where it is necessary to have iron, such as steps, fulcrums, etc., should be protected with white lead or red lead, both shafts and irons. It is also subject to decay where covered with leather through absorbing moisture. It is a sign of bad quality lancewood when it breaks straight across the grain without such causes of weakness as center leather, iron plates or bolt holes. A good sign of lancewood is when it breaks in long splinters. The best quality is known by its pure yellow color, whilst the inferior had dark streaks through it.

The following is a more technical description appearing in a booklet about imported timber published by the British Department of Industrial and Scientific Research in 1945.

Lancewood (Oxandra Lanceolata)

Usually a short tree of the undergrowth generally under fifteen inches in diameter, rarely attaining twenty four inches diameter. Occurs in Jamaica and forest areas of South America.

Lancewood is a fine textured, straight grained wood of a pale yellowish color noted for its strength and resilience. The weight of seasoned wood is about 62 pounds per square foot.

Hard, tough and elastic, the poles usually show very little taper.

Degamee or Degame Lancewood (Calycophyllum Candidissimum)

This is similar and sometimes used as a substitute. Hard to work with, but has only a small dulling effect on cutting edges. Must be firmly held and use sharp tools. Marketed as slender poles with bark on, twelve or thirteen feet long and rarely exceeding five inches in diameter at the small end.

The name lancewood probably derives from either the small lances evident in the wood when it is split, or from early Māori use of the juvenile tree stems to spear wood pigeons/kererū according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. The wood was not used for full contact jousting lances although there may have been occasions where it was used in creating a pole weapon, called a lance. Those lances would have looked more like a spear or javelin.

Lancewood shaft 1
A closer look at the lancewood shaft. When working with lancewood a restorer needs to take care of the shaft will split lengthwise with the grain.

Published in part in the Winter 1978 edition of The Carriage Journal. Updated photos and information by Kathleen Haak.

Cleaning and caring for wicker

Our wheeled artisan heritage is valuable and deserves to be preserved. Here, I’ll share some tips for cleaning and caring for your wicker carriage parts.

The term “wicker” refers to articles that have been woven. Rattan and willow were the most commonly used raw materials in making woven articles for the carriage-building and restoration trades. But a wide variety of alternate products, including synthetic materials and, after 1917, paper fiber, was used as well.

Before washing any woven carriage parts, carefully inspect and evaluate them, particularly those made after 1917. If you can, you’ll want to find out the raw material that was used, and the finish that was applied, as this will help determine any specific maintenance requirements. Don’t forget to also regularly clean and maintain any other woven articles in your collection, such as imperials, coach-horn cases, umbrella / cane baskets, and wheel guards.

In most cases, these general cleaning and maintenance tips will be useful.

To clean natural-material woven carriage parts: If the woven parts are in good condition, use a vacuum or power blower to remove any dirt and dust. Then, clean the wicker with Murphy’s Oil Soap and water.

To remove mold or mildew: Mix a light solution of bleach and water, and apply the solution using a spray bottle. Let the wicker air dry, out of direct sunlight. You may need to repeat this process.

To clean paper-fiber surfaces: Moisten the surface very slightly with distilled or de-ionized water, which will hold onto the dust particles so you can more easily pick them up.

To store your wicker vehicle: Be sure that temperature and humidity levels in your carriage house are kept level, as high humidity will subject rattan to mold. Use a light weight, breathable dust cover to protect your vehicle from sunlight and to help keep dust off the wicker.

Written by Beth Brady for the August 2012 edition of The Carriage Journal.