Thursday, September 22, 2022

A One-Horse Open Sleigh - The Difference between Cutters and Sleighs by Jo-Ann Roberts

Growing up in New England, I've spent my share of winter days skating, sledding, making snow angels, building snow forts, and taking ONE forgettable trip down the slopes at Jiminy Peak. 

But I never rode in a sleigh or cutter.

So, what made me incorporate a sleigh into my current WIP? Romance, of course! On my first day of research, I discovered a sleigh and cutter were two different modes of winter transportation in the 18th and 19th century in America.
In the time before automobiles became popular, many people traveled by horse and buggy in the summer and by sleigh in the winter. Instead of having just one type of transportation in the winter months, people often had a couple of types for different purposes. 

Because cutters offered a cozier ride with the couple sitting close together, they were often used for courting. Just the right ingredient for snuggling up to a loved one on a snowy Christmas Eve! The cutter is built lower to the ground and requires more flexibility to ensure the jarring of the road does not break the structure.

The sleigh, though, is large enough to accommodate an entire family or a large group of friends. Sleighs were most often used to transport the family to church or another family member's home. Some companies still use sleighs during the winter months to offer rides to visitors. The construction of the sleigh is sturdier and more rigid. Because the sleigh sits much higher than a cutter, the runners absorb more of the shock and protect the sleigh's structure.

The Portland Cutter

The most popular sleigh in America was designed by Peter Kimball of Maine. With his sons, James and Charles, they championed the sleigh. The straight back offered more wind protection than the Albany sleigh, flat body panels and a goose-neck dash that protected passengers from snow kicked up by the horse. and was less expensive for carriage makers to create, and the simplicity appealed to the Puritan nature of the New England population.

The Portland was a lightweight sleigh made with speed in mind, and in fact these sleighs were often raced. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even recorded going to watch sleigh races in Boston.

In 1876, Charles moved to New York to begin a partnership with Brewster & Company. The new Kimball-Brewster Sleigh was shown at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the first official World's Fair in the United States. 

Sleigh races were very popular in the U.S., 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 and Clement was trimmed in "silk plush had silver mountings and cost $150."

The Albany Cutter (or Albany Sleigh)

In 1836, James Goold of Albany, New York developed a swell-sided cutter. The Albany body and runners were carefully steamed and bent into their unique shape. 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 painter's paradise. Rich colors were used to decorate the sleighs. Dark or light carmine (red), yellow, blue, even Scotch plaid and purple were used on the body. Trimming was often dark green or crimson. Yet, in 1878, it was reported that "it was formally the custom of sleigh-builders to employ a variety of fancy colors, stripes, and ornaments...but of late, plainness and simplicity have been preferred by city customers".


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

Now that I live in North Carolina, and the probability of a snowfall heavy enough for a sleigh ride is nil, I'll settle in and wait for the Hallmark movies to begin.

"It's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you."



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Books by Jo-Ann Roberts


1 comment:

  1. I loved the info you shared, Jo-Ann, and the photos are so fun! Thank you!