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
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...
...music to our ears.