American childhood owes a lot to a man named Samuel Leeds Allen, who invented the beloved Flexible Flyer in the late 19th century. When he introduced "the sled that steers," he ushered in the modern sledding age, as children took to the slopes in greater numbers than ever before, finally able to control their downhill destiny.

The way Allen put it in his catalog copy, his sleds were the "invention of a grown-up boy." When I look at my own drawing of boys sledding (or "coasting," as they called it decades ago) I feel much the same way. My depiction is pure invention -- and nostalgia for my own childhood. Nowadays, sleds are more likely to be plastic than painted wood, but I can't help but substitute a retro sled in my pictures for old times' sake.Actually, the sled I drew could never be mistaken for a Flexible Flyer. It's more of a Paris Cutter or Snow Fairy, two of the fanciful names used by the Paris Manufacturing Co. of South Paris, Maine. Run by a husband-and-wife team, the company introduced nonsteerable sleds in 1861, hand-painted with birds, sailboats, reindeer and roses, against rich red, blue or black backgrounds.

By the 20th century, many other makers began to compete, such as the American Toy and Novelty Works (later American Acme) of Pennsylvania. Active from 1917 through the early '50s, its models included the Monoplane and the Rocket Plane. Look also for the Buffalo Sled Co. (later Auto Wheel Coaster), known for its "Gliderole, The Roller Sled" and Fleetwing designs.

Standard Novelty Works began in 1904 in Duncannon, Pa., and continued production all the way to the '80s. Many of us still remember the dynamic lightning bolt designs of its Lightning Guiders from our own childhoods. Today you can revisit models at the Old Sled Works in Duncannon, an antiques center with a small museum.

If you'd like to collect or still have an old sled or two in the basement, keep in mind that original lettering, decals and paint enhance value, which can be in the thousands (though many vintage designs are still quite affordable). Collectors seek out beautiful details like pinstriped steering bars, intricate trademarks and scrollwork, even the charm of a child's carved initials on the underside.

Where to put them inside? Displayed against a wall or suspended from the rafters, perhaps filled with stuffed animals taking a ride, old sleds immediately add a nostalgic note to family rooms or dens. Serious collectors show theirs off alongside vintage advertising postcards and brochures, or even cardboard models of sleds, often with department store advertising. If yours is a childhood sled, you could surround it with memorabilia from your own past, ice skates or wintertime photos of you in your snowsuit.

If value isn't an issue for you, sleds offer a canvas for lots of creative ideas: Use one to welcome guests to your home, or position weather-resistant fabric "kids" on them in your yard for a wintry decoration. The next time there's a good snowfall, you might even be inspired to try it out again (but don't chip the paint)!

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