When the snow stopped falling two weekends ago kids all over the East Coast took to their local hills with sleds. Most are either inflatable or made of hard plastic today, but if you ask people over 30 to describe one what comes to their mind is an image that is more akin to old Christmas advertisements, Norman Rockwell paintings and Rosebud in Citizen Kane–a sled of wood and steel, a Flexible Flyer, a name once legendary with children throughout the country. For almost a century Flexible Flyers were made in Philadelphia at 5th Street and Glenwood Avenue by the S.L. Allen Company, which began not as a producer of toys or sporting goods, but as a manufacturer of farming equipment. Most of the S.L. Allen factory remains.
Samuel Leeds Allen was born on May 5, 1841 at 189 S. 2nd Street to a prominent South Jersey Quaker family. As a boy he split his time between the Westtown School in Chester County and assisting his uncle on a farm his father owned in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. The young Samuel Allen quickly developed a keen interest in agriculture and went into business for himself in 1861. Almost immediately he went to work improving equipment and developing new implements of his own. In September 1866 Allen created his first original invention, the Planet Drill, a fertilizer drill with a wheel that reminded him of the rings of Saturn. Not long after he developed the “Planet Junior,” a seed drill that farmers used to sew their fields that would propel Allen from farmer to enterprising inventor and businessman.
S.L. Allen & Co. began modestly in 1868, operating out a small workshop on the farm whose staff consisted of little more than Allen and his father. The Planet Junior line flourished in the following eight years and S.L. Allen, now well-established, had grown enough to have its own display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. In January 1881 the company moved into a small building on Carter’s Alley, near 2nd and Chestnut. (Carter’s Alley was later removed for the construction of the U.S. Customs House.) A few weeks later the factory burned.
Discouraged, but undeterred, within days Allen recovered the salvageable machinery and quickly moved the business into a recently vacated soap factory near 2nd and Catherine Streets. In 1888, Allen moved the business to a purpose-built factory at 5th Street and Glenwood Avenue that gave him improved rail access. The site was more expensive than other prospects Allen had considered in Philadelphia and Camden, but the location, adjacent to Penn Junction, offered him easy access to both the Philadelphia Railroad and Reading Railroad, critical for shipping and receiving. The factory featured its own power plant and forging shop, which eliminated the need to have larger parts made on contract. The following year Allen’s new factory went into operation, and his Planet Junior line would be featured at the International Exhibition in Paris. However, Allen’s new patent for a steerable sled would change his life and propel his company into the national spotlight.
For years Allen nursed a personal obsession with “coasting” as sledding was then called. He designed several of his own sleds throughout the 1880s and even built a quarter mile long sled run on his property. Coasting was done largely with either gooseneck sleds and toboggans that could not be steered or articulated sleds with two sets of runners, which proved expensive and unstable. On August 17, 1889 Allen received patent number 408,681 for his design of a sled that had laterally bending runners, which allowed it it to be steered, and the Flexible Flyer was born.
Agricultural implements were a seasonal product and every winter the factory would churn out Planet Junior products only to lay off staff during the slow summer months. Allen began manufacturing sleds at his factory as a way to keep business and production steady year round. His ultimate vision was to make farm supplies in the winter and shift to sleds in the summer, keeping his trained employees working full time. But the Flexible Flyer was not an instant success. The product was rejected by retailers for years and his sales staff advised him to give up the toy line.
But Allen remained undeterred. “It takes seven to nine years to introduce a new article,” he wrote to his son. Outdoor sports went through a rebirth in popularity at the turn of the century and major retailers like Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and Macy’s in New York began selling the Flexible Flyer in their stores. Allen expanded his plant with a modern concrete addition in 1909, and again with a ornate brick-faced structure in 1911. Flexible Flyer was now a household name. By 1915 the company was selling 2,000 sleds a week with an estimated 120,000 each winter season. In a letter to his wife, Allen gleefully reported that “orphans even know what they want!” after he began receiving requests from orphanages for the popular sled.
Coasting Into Popular Culture
Samuel Allen passed way on March 28, 1918, but his company continued to grow. The popularity of the Flexible Flyer brand grew steadily in the 1920s and the product’s design was improved with changes like steerable bumpers in 1928 and rounded rears for the runners in 1935 to help prevent sledders from accidentally impaling themselves on sleds ahead of them. The toy was offered in all sizes, from 38” long for children to 101” models capable of carrying six grown adults. In the 1930s, the company diversified its product line even further when it introduced skis and the Flexy Racer, a sled with wheels for use on city streets (unlikely to pass safety standards today).
By the 1950s the Flexible Flyer was as popular as ever as suburban expansion boomed and American postwar optimism fueled the consumer market. However, S.L. Allen’s agricultural business was ailing. The company had begun manufacturing walk-behind tractors, but its market was shrinking. Small-scale agriculture that once thrived around U.S. cities evaporated as suburbs replaced farmland. As more rural farms grew in size the need for walk-behind implements diminished, and the firm switched to large tractors and equipment manufacturing.
The S.L. Allen factory closed its doors for good in 1968, and the Flexible Flyer name was sold to a California conglomerate, Leisure Group, ending production of the sled in Philadelphia. Production shifted to Medina, Ohio and then to Mississippi in 1973. The Flexible Flyer line was sold once again in 1993 and production moved to Olney, Illinois, then to China in 1998. The Flexible Flyer name was bought by Paricon of Maine in 2005, formerly the Paris Manufacturing Co. which, ironically, had once manufactured the “Speedway” line of sleds, Flexible Flyers’ primary competitor.
Silence On the Production Floor
The Allen factory was purchased in 1971 by the Goettner family, who uses it for their restaurant and bakery equipment business, Sander Supply. I was granted permission from the family to tour and photograph the inside of the once bustling facility. My guide and point of contact was Philip Rothenberg, a realtor from Jackson Cross LLC who for several years has been in charge of marketing the building. Getting inside meant battling a stubborn security gate at the front door for several minutes only to be greeted by a dusty lobby dressed in bad 1980s décor. Traces of the room’s past life revealed itself with an old Planet Junior, S.L. Allen Co. sign. Directly behind the lobby is the main stairwell of the two more modern buildings from 1909 and 1911, complete with a unique elevator cage running up its center, an interesting and uncommon feature. Although this particular one is on long in service, the building still features a functioning freight elevator. At the top level is damage left by a four alarm fire that ripped though the building in 2005, destroying much of the wood covered floor. In 1975, a fire destroyed much of the plant’s 1890-era spaces. The power house and forge and hammer shop remain in ruins.
The Goettners use only a small fraction of the factory and wish to find a buyer. They rent the eastern portion of the property to two separate auto salvage yards. “It is not the cost of the property, but the cost to renovate,” said Mr. Rothenburg as he explained the difficulty involved in repurposing an industrial structure on his own. For now, the S.L. Allen & Co. factory patiently awaits it’s next chapter, perhaps ideally to be reused as a community center or affordable housing similar to the New Kensington Community Development Corporation’s project at Orinoka Mills. In the meantime, the building stands as a reminder of the “Workshop of the World,” with the words “Flexible Flyer” and “S.L. Allen”–the names that made sledding a common winter activity for children across the country–in large letters still adorning the roof.
An exclusive look inside the S.L. Allen Company production plant. Photographs by Robert Masciantonio.