Every child and adult who goes to the snow for the first time either buys or rents themselves a plastic toboggan and goes out for either a gentle slide down a gentle slope or a screamingly dangerous hurtle down a blatantly inappropriate hill. If you’re lucky, your plastic toboggan doesn’t break and neither do you.
The toboggans I’ve been hunting down over the years are a little different though.
Wooden, strong and made to last as opposed to plastic and prone to splitting or cracking. A vintage toboggan is a thing of beauty. Even once it’s no longer viable to continue using a wooden sled, they can take on new purpose as décor items inside and outside our homes.
So, which one is it: is it a toboggan or a sled? Which is the correct word to use? Well, that depends.
Snowskiing.com writes “Toboggans are probably the simplest form of sled. A toboggan takes the form of a simple sled which is curved in front and is placed directly onto the snow without the use of runners or skis to gain speed and direction on the underside. The sled can carry a single rider, or a group of riders and toboggans are traditionally made of bound, parallel wood slats which are bent at the front to form a ‘J’ shape. Traditionally, toboggans are controlled by means of a crude steering system whereby a piece of rope is fixed to the top of the loop and controlled by the feet of the person at the front of the sled.
The November-project.com states “In 1884, Edward Zamboni, a great Canadian military leader, invented the toboggan as a vehicle for the Canadian military. It proved triumphant in many battles until his opponents moved higher up the hill than his troops were located”.
But sleds have been around for way longer than 1884. From the ancient Egyptians to the Native American Innu and Cree tribes of Canada, sleds have been used to transport goods and people for millennia. In fact, sleds spent most of their history as a tool for labour, only emerging as a toy in the past few hundred years.
Per the Wall Street Journal, the earliest known sleds date back nearly 4,000 years to the ancient Egyptian civilization. Egyptians found that sleds were able to work just as well on sand as we find they do on snow, especially when that sand is watered down first. Wall paintings from 1900 BCE depict large teams of Egyptian laborers using sleds to transport massive rocks and other construction materials, including when they built the pyramids. One of the earliest instances of "sleds" being used for human transport was in 103 BCE. That year, the ancient Cimbri tribe led a successful sneak attack on the Romans by using their own shields as sleds. This tactic allowed the Cimbri to cross the Alps into Northern Italy.
European fur traders operating in Canada in the 1800s took note of the wooden toboggans used by the indigenous tribes and adopted them for their own purposes. Similarly, European explorers used sleds and sleighs to travel across the Arctic and Antarctic. Today, dog sleds remain a fairly popular method of transportation in icy countries.
According to the Wall Street Journal, one of the earliest instances of sleds being used for pure fun was in 1650s Russia, when young Russian aristocrats participated in a dangerous game; they built wooden tracks, then slid down them in sleds carved from ice.
Since then, sledding has evolved into a formalized sport. There is a variety of forms of sled racing, including tobogganing, bobsledding, luging, skeleton sledding, and dogsled racing. Each of these sports has a unique history. Bobsledding, for example, is widely held to have originated in the late 1800s in the Swiss Alps, with the first organized bobsled competition taking place in 1898 at St. Moritz. However, there is a counter claim that believes bobsledding was invented in the town of Albany, New York.
Local newspaper reports confirmed that Albany held bobsled races at its winter carnival as early as 1885, two winters ahead of the Swiss. In fact, Stephen Whitney of Albany introduced the bobsled to Davos and made the first trial runs there on his one-man sled just before Christmas in 1888. Whitney won the International Shield Race in Davos early in 1889, according to research unearthed in 1997.
Today, more people participate in tobogganing or sledding as a leisurely activity than as a competitive sport. Whatever we call them, todays toboggans are made of wood, aluminium or plastic and are a far cry from the traditional toboggans which were used for transport by ancient Egyptians, Indigenous North Americans or Europeans.
My vintage toboggan collection is predominantly made up of European and North American sleds. I’m always hoping to unearth a previously unknown (to me) brand in my searches and adore the thrill of the hunt. I love finding a logo I’ve not seen before and going down the research rabbit hole to find out a piece’s history.
But for now, my little sled collection brings a smile to my face. When I say little, I mean in numbers. These things are chunky, but they look amazing piled with gifts at Christmas!
So next time you’re wondering how to add that alpine feel to your home, which reveals your passion for snow, visit www.idreamofsnow.com
I Dream of Snow.