Friday, February 14, 2014


We’ve just had another storm up here in New England – a Thursday night/Friday morning whopper that blasted up from the south and dropped nine or so inches on coastal Maine.  The plows were out in force; salt and sand trucks lumbered along my street all night long, clearing snow as fast as it came down.

Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, they didn’t plow at all. Instead, they rolled the streets in town – used gigantic wooden rollers pulled by double teams of horses – to pack the snow down on the streets so sleighs could glide more easily on the surface.
Some people had a wheeled vehicle for the spring, summer and fall months, and a sleigh for the winter. Others, especially farmers in rural New England, lifted the wagon bodies from the wheels and axles and deposited them on bobs and runners, eliminating the need for two complete vehicles.
          There’s ingenuity, eh?

But there was a problem: sleighs were silent, swift; horses hooves were muffled in the snow; pedestrians and other drivers were oftentimes unaware of oncoming traffic, especially from the side streets or, interestingly, at night, in an era when there were no streetlights.
          They needed some kind of warning system – and that’s why they had sleigh bells! Some cities and towns actually passed safety ordinances requiring bells; the noise at “rush hour” must have been something!

The bells at the top are all that’s left of a set that belonged to my great-grandfather – one of a pair of simple shaft bells that attached to the shafts of the sleigh. Others were loose bells, body strap bells, riveted to harness leather; there were different tones and weights. Catalogues listed nickel plated steel gong shaft chimes; harmonized Swiss pole chimes; six-bell graduated chimes, etc. Some strap bells wrapped around the horse, some were mounted around the neck or over the shoulders, others attached to the shafts or collars.
Swiss shafts, Swiss poles, Swedish straps, Mikado chimes, King Henry bells, Russian saddle chimes... to our ears.


  1. Oh this is just too cool. You and my distant cousin are the lucky owners of sleigh bells. She has the ones that one of my ancestors owned when she and hubby left Virginia for Indiana back in 1836.

  2. Wonderful! Those are much older than mine (mine are only late 1800s); those bells are amazing. You could even "custom design" your bells by ordering individual ones to be riveted onto your harness...sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century!

  3. What a fun story, thanks for sharing this. I would welcome that sound of bells around town, it just had to have been magical! Your story has inspired me to search out a few photos of such goings on. Google here I come!

    1. I keep thinking of what Boston might have been like -- a winter night, all those sleigh bells jingling on Commonwealth Avenue...I'd love to be able to time-travel, wouldn't you, Karen?

  4. Deb,

    It's amazing that you still have these sleigh bells. So cool!

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in my Fab Finds post today at

    Have a great weekend!

  5. A story about our shared great grandparents involving that winter sleigh they used around town I heard from my mother. John and Frances went to the neighboring town of Needham in their horse drawn sleigh to play cards at the home of some friends. After the evening was over, they bundled up, climbed aboard their sleigh and started the horse for home. Somewhere along the way, the horse bolted for some reason, the sleigh tipped wildly and dumped both of them into the snow. The horse and driverless sleigh ran away down the road, leaving John and Frances to make their way home on foot, there to find the horse and sleigh waiting to get into the barn. What, no cell phone?