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.
I never owned one of these Flexible Flyers, but I do remember the main factory entrance and the factory itself. There were several factories in the neighborhoods I lived. I remember the disgusting smells emanating from a sheep rendering plant too! Ugh. Good article, thank you Robert.
My dad saved my Flexible Flyer sled. I will always cherish it and love the history. I am 68 years old and dad bought the sled for my sister and I when I was 5 years old. I put Xmas lights on it and it sits on my covered porch for Christmas. Best memory ever. Thanks so much for the history. M. Schaefer, Fairview Park, Ohio (Cleveland)
Great Article! I hope you continue to explore and write about Philadelphia’s hidden treasures.
Great job Rob! A great piece of history!
Interesting article. Ironically before reading this article on 2-11, I was at the Flyers vs Ducks Game on 2-9 in which they launched their 50th Anniversary Celebration. I thought outloud about the kid who gave the name “Flyers” to the Hockey Team and where he might have gotten the idea for such a name from. I mentioned the sled the “Flexible Flyer” to my friend at the game — they are from Jersey, and talked about the Building whose history you just described in such a wonderful way. Perhaps, those coincidences are why I personally found it so informative.
Excellent article and great photos! It’s cool to see where all of my collectible Flexible Flyer sleds were made. To think about the amount of joy that building brought to the world for nearly 100 years is just amazing. Thanks for doing a story on something that most people would see as lost and forgotten.
I owned a FF sled about 60 inches long which I purchased new about 1947 when things of this nature got into production after WW II. I was about 16 or 17 yrs old. It is still in pretty good condition and resting comfortably in my daughter’s garage. It still has a piece of rope tied on to the steering bar. I used a burning needle to put my name and approximate date of purchase on the underside. As a collector, could you give me some idea of its value?
I have two FF with wheels in fair/good condition. did you ever establish a value for them?
By. Do you still have those two wheels? I still have my flexy ,my dad bought for me in 1953. My kids ,road it in the 70s. I’ve been fixing it up for my grandson.But I need, two wheels for it. If you still have your two wheels,I would like to buy them. Thank you very much.
The author, after an internet search, tried unsuccessfully, to contact me regarding the use of some photographs I have showing the manufacture of sleds in this building. I’m sorry we weren’t able to connect, as some of the history recounted is, to my knowledge, incorrect, as my father, Herbert Bernstein (1916-1994), a Center City realtor and investor, was the one who bought the Allen buildings, in 1971, I think, from the sled company successors, with the hope of reviving them. I worked in the buildings in 1972, for several months, along with a crew of 4 0r five others, cleaning and restoring these just a bit, and salvaged a number of artifacts and ephemera then, some of which are on display at the Moorsetown, NJ (home of Samuel Leeds Allen) public library now. I think my father, unsuccessful at the buildings, sold them in the late 1970’s to another party and that the current owners bought the property then.
Do you know if any of the original tooling for these sleds still exits? Or specifically how the runners were made?
Hello, It has been a while since we chatted about your days and mine at the S.L. Allen property. FYI, the property has recently changed hands. The new owners have plans but did not disclose anything specific. Only that nothing was going to happen immediately. A speculative investment for the next 5 years. You are correct in the sale history as your father sold the building to my father in the late ’70’s.
I established and am the curator of the Flexible Flyer Sled Museum at the Moorestown Library. Could you please contact me about the building? Thanks
Contact – firstname.lastname@example.org
Google – Flexible Flyer Sled Museum at the Moorestown Library
How many Flexy Racers were manufactured? How many No.300 Flexy Racers were made? I am referring to the Flexible Flyers with wheels.
Grew up on glenwood ave. (444) 1941 – 1958, directly across from THE FACTORY. Ran for lunches in the summer. Remember the drop press going all night long.
Do you remember the Witsch family on Glenwood Ave? I am not sure of the house number. There was also a Mr. Ott living there until the late ’70’s. They were both living there when you were. Margaret(Peggy) Witsch lived there until sometime in the late ’90’s.
My grandfather, William T. Llewellyn, worked for this company for 52 years, finishing as president throughout the 1950’s until he retired in the early 1960’s. I remember him taking us on a tour of the factory and to his office and the board room probably about 1960. Pretty impressive. Sad to see the state of the old place. Thanks for the nice article. BTW I do have a nice Flexible Flyer sled in my office at home!
i have a old sled i might have known your grandfather
also have my old red wagon with 5 holes wheels
good do you remember the three party line. just live in the country not good the computer stuff thank you I knew him as Mr.
My father worked at S.L. Allen for 20 some years as did his brother in law John Hornketh, my older brother George, a cousin, and many good friends. My father’s name was Alex but everyone at the plant called him “Shorty.”
We kids always had a new sled as we got taller. We had a Planet Jr. tractor with a grass mowing attachment and a tiller attachment for turning over the garden in the spring. Dad would build us go-karts from parts and wood from the plant. An S. L. Allen, Briggs & Stratton engine never let us down either. We had a Flexi-Racer for downhill fun in the summertime too. The Ash used for the slats on the sleds made good kindling in the winter. Dad would bring home bundles of waste and defects from the plant.Dad would bring home the eagle decal and we would put them on our book covers and lunch boxes.
My brother and I grew up around S. L. Allen & Company. It certainly was a part of all our lives.
Nice article Ray. My father worked there too for 20 some years until the plant closed. He worked in the machine shop. His name is Sam Mitchell. Also, Bill Michael and Bill Schilling worked in the shop with him. I still have a couple of those eagle decals. My father also put them on lunch boxes.
I would kill to have one of those deals today, Sam.
Thanks for the information! I’ve been looking for FIREFLY aka FLEXIBLE FLYERS.I have a #112 + and an older child size,40″long.
It has been a while since I have actively been pursuing Flexible Flyer and Planet Jr. items, but, at the time, eBay was a good source for both. Over time, pretty much every model has shown up for sale. Firefly’s and the Mickey Mouse promotional sleds bring good money in online auctions. Good luck in your quest!
Great article. I truly hate to see buildings like this left to deteriorate only to be torn down and replaced with something that will last only a short time compared to this building. Do you know where I could get a Flexible Flyer (Airline) decal? I have a sled my mothers family owned and the finish is in bad shape. Would love to restore it.
I still have a racer. I had to purchase new wheels. but I swear it doesn’t roll as fast. But grandkids have not shown much interest. too bad
You have one of the wheeled ones for coasting down roads? Man, I would love to strap on a helmet and give that thing a try.
I have one with the wheels 1935 sl flexy
racer. Everything’s original working all has all original parts b pieces on trying to sell.
I have a 1935 sl flexy racer with wheel for sell everything original everything works
Richard your article on the S L Allen Co and the Flexible Flyer Sled. I recently acquired an Airline Eagle model that I believe is from the thirties. ITS a beauty and ITS in great condition. I pleaded with my wife that I wanted it for my granddaughter but it’s for me because we had them and Speedways in the sixties growing up so I was prompted to check on the history of the sleds. Actually I mostly has Speedways because they were less money. An interesting story is that on our hill up ten or fifteen sleds would go down at once in a sort of demo derby. He who made it down first won. That’s if you made down at all. The Speedways actually had an advantage because the Flyers had the rounded enclosed back that could easily be flipped over from behind. Oh ya my brothers and I should have died many times growing up. In ending I love the history of American Mtg. My favorites are Mercury Marine, Evinrude, Petersen Mtg, DeWitt Ne, My good buddy Eli Whitney from Westborough, Ma to Geogia to New Haven, CT and now S.L. Allen and Co. Thanks for listening Randall Giovannucci from Shrewsbury, Ma
Cool pictures, parents bought a used flexy racer in the 60s in ca. We attached a sail to it and rode it in the Santa Ana winds down the street, used it so much the axle snapped and dad thru it away. I bought one at a second hand store in the 70s and we would strap a aluminum military stretcher that had two wheels on the end and ride it down the main fairways of the local golf course late at night. At that time ice blocking was popular, a twenty lb block of ice was ridden down the fairways but you had no control of your direction, the flexy with stretcher was steerable and could avoid the trees and other obstacles. We could get five or more people on the racer and it was faster than the ice blocks. I have two racers hanging in the garage, one of which we mounted a lamp on the front to race down steep roads at night with, if we bring out the racers to a park they draw a crowd almost immediately , sure was good memories
My sister and I flew down the very steep street we lived on in the 50s,head first (using our heads back then?)on our wheeled Flexies. Amazingly we are still here on earth!
My great-grandmother worked for the family for 10 years as an indentured servant after coming over from Ireland as a teenager. She lived at their estate in Cinnaminson and wasn’t too fond of them ?
Grew up in that neighborhood. First on 3rd & sedgely. Then we moved to Marshall st. Played baseball down the street @ 5th & westmoreland. It was great beautiful Bldg.that employed so many people from the neighborhood. Thanks for the article. I still have my flexible flyer sled, still works better than any other I see on the snow hills.
Llast Flexy Racer I saw had a $300 price tag. I worked there in 1964 as a Jr engineer fresh out of Temple. The runners were made on a drop hammer. Then heated and the safety runner bent. Two completed sleds were wired together and dunked in a varnish tank
I found to flexible flyer sleds like new and a 1957 300 flexy racer brand new not togetter in my dads garagewith directions
Are you willing to sell the Racer 300 and, if so, what are you asking and where are you located?
Wow, love reading the comments. Someone left one near my parents stores in the 40’s. No one ever claimed it, and it became mine. It was incredible. Fast and exciting!! It was my favorite. Rode it home from grammar school, downhill all the way. Worked hard to get it up those hills to school, then tossed it in someone’s bushes until after school and then the wonderful ride home. So fast!!!!!
I worked at the bldg. around 1968/69. I think there was a school there which was run by Phila.schools.
Does anyone remember anything about that. I grew up at 5th & Cumberland and played ball at Hunting Park. It was a great neighborhood and my Aunt lived at 7th & Hunting Park.
I still have two Flyers from my kids from the 70s.I’m glad I checked out the story.
Hello Cousin–well, maybe!
My name is Joe Petree and I am wondering if you are a cousin. My neighbor gave me a “Fire Fly” series J sled today and my research led to your article–your very informative article.
My grandmother was Rose Mordine Petree and her sister Anna married a Masciantonio, I believe he was John. As a child my family and his son Phil’s family would get together on occasions. I think Phil had 3 sons, Phil, William and Robert. Are you that Robert Masciantonio or a relative? I grew up in Glen Riddle, Delaware County andI know one of my cousins, Billy, now lives in Cochranville.
I have a flexy racer no.300 U.S patent2103998 patented CANADA
design patent no. 103419
Made in. U.S.A
BY S.L.ALLEN& CO.INC.Phila,Pa.
I have a Flexible Flyer sled and Flexy racer (sled with wheels). They were gifts over sixty years ago!
I loved my Flexible Flyer sled from about 1952/3. Once I scraped the paint off its runner, it was the fasted sled ever. Never lost a race.
When is the company going to bring back the flex flyer with wheels? We had one on Hawaii where where is no snow,so my father but a flex flyer with wheels. Would love the have another one now.
I have a 48” model 4C from 1925 that belonged to my dad and then to me. A friend is helping me restore it. It is all in one piece but the paint and varnish were in bad shape. We are two thirds done and having a good old time. I have been rembering tiding down the long hill in front of our River Edge, NJ home.
Many, many family members grew up in the neighborhood of the Flexible Flyer! From 2nd St to 7th St, Westmoreland to Erie – the world was our oyster and the FF was our pearl!
love all the notes/replies.I recently bought a 300 model with wheels and all appears to be original. however, it is missing both springs. Any idea where I may find/purchase replacements ? Thanks, Scott