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Beyond ‘Jingle Bells’

sleigh bells from Harrington DE

Delawareans had been using sleigh bells for well over a century already by the time the Victorians gave us ‘Jingle Bells’ (1857) and Currier & Ives prints of rosy cheeked young couples zipping along in stylish cutters.

And while those images of a carefree ride across the snow-draped countryside to grandmother’s house aren’t incorrect, they don’t tell the whole story.

“From early morning until late at night the town has resounded with the music of sleigh bells, and the gaudy, dashing turnouts have been continually dashing through the streets at the most breakneck speed,” reported the Smyrna Times in February 1858. “Notwithstanding the furious, and, in many cases, reckless driving, there have been but few upsets and no serious accidents.”

On heavy snow days in 19th century towns wheeled vehicles were useless, and so the sleigh became a must to get around. And that meant crowded streets. Crowded streets and sleigh drivers moving at high speeds from multiple directions called for a way to signal other drivers of one’s approach in order to avoid collisions. Add to that the fact that drivers were bundled up layers deep with earmuffs and scarves, and the signaling device had better be loud. Sleigh bells, then, were the 19th century equivalent of a car horn.

“The first farm bells, from about 1700, were forged cowbell types,” says Eric Sloane in ‘The Seasons of America Past.’ “Sleigh bells started as folded metal in about 1750,” he explains, “but the popular American sleigh bell evolved in about 1800. Sleigh bells were made by the barrel and sold by the pound in East Hampton, CT (‘Jingletown,’ the sleighbell capital of America). Here America’s first globe-type sleigh bells were made, and were distributed throughout the world.”

Couple rides a one horse open sleigh down Walnut St. in Milford. No date. Delaware Public Archives.
Couple rides a one horse open sleigh down Walnut St. in Milford. No date. Delaware Public Archives.

Indeed, by the last several decades of the 19th century, Delaware’s winter newspapers were filled with merchant ads for sleigh bells from Swiss Pole Chimes, King Henry Bells, and Mikado Chimes. Wilmington’s Wm. H. Billany & Co, “importers and dealers in fancy and building hardware,” offered up the popular Dexter Body Strap of 24 bells. James & Bro. on Market St in that same city regularly pronounced themselves ‘Headquarters for skates, tool chests and sleigh bells.’ G.E Hukells in Middletown insisted their sleigh bell selection, sized from ⅞” to 3-¼”, featured ‘superior quality, lowest prices!!’. 

Nor were sleigh bells only purchased commercially. They might sometimes be bartered as well, as part of a full rig. “BB Allen has bought George Thompson’s half interest in his peach crop at Sunnyside in Kent County,” reported the Morning News [Wilmington] in January 1881, “for a horse and sleigh with bells and harness.”

Sleighs, like automobiles today, were used by all classes. “The sleighing in the vicinity of Delaware City was never finer than during the past two weeks,” said the Delaware Tribune on February 13, 1868. “As this neighborhood is celebrated for its fine and fast horses, as well as its men of wealth and leisure, the jingle of sleigh bells is constantly heard, while the enjoyment of the belles within the sleighs is almost unbounded.”

The use of sleighs with bells continued well into the 20th century. There are Delawareans alive today who fondly remember grandparents using them. But when Alfred I. Dupont purchased the first automobile in Delaware, in 1907, the die was cast. Winter transport was pointed in a completely different direction.

Horsehair lap blanket for sleigh drivers. Ca. 1890, manufactured by Chase.
Horsehair lap blanket for sleigh drivers. Ca. 1890, manufactured by Chase.

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