Just For Fun: Sleighing in New York City in 1892

“Welcome home! Just in time for the sleighing party! Mr. Pickering’s rented two sleighs!” … “Ready?” Felix yelled over his shoulder, and Jake exuberantly shouted back that he was. Their reins snapped simultaneously, both teams dug in, and the harness bells came to life. The runners sliding easily, the horses eased back; then at a second snap of the reins as we rounded the corner onto Twenty-first Street, they tossed their heads, snorting jets of warm breath, and began to trot, obviously enjoying themselves, and now the harness bells sang.

Currier and Ives Central Park in WinterAll I can really tell you about the rest of that day and the evening is that it was magical. A dream. The white streets of Manhattan were filled with sleighs; the air everywhere was alive with the music of their bells. … On the walks they were pulling kids on sleds, throwing snowballs, making snowmen; children, adults, old men and women, laughing, calling to each other. And in the streets we passed every kind of sleigh, and we called to them and they to us. We raced them sometimes; once, going up Fifth Avenue, we raced three teams abreast, drivers on their feet, whips cracking, girls shrieking, for nearly two blocks before – sleighs coming the other way – we had to fall into single file cheering and shouting. …

Jake turned impulsively into a cross street just as a sleigh coming south swung in, too. Bells jingling, we trotted along side by side, grinning at each other. It was a big, green-enameled swan’s-neck affair, a beautiful sleigh. They were five kids in their late teens and early twenties, and one of the girls began singing: Dashing through the snow! In a one-horse open sleigh! O’er the field we go! And then all ten of us… Laughing all the way! To the exact rhythm of our horses’ hoofs and the jounce of our bells, we lined it out: Bells on bobtail ring! Making spirits bright! What fun it is to ride and sing – and it was; oh, Lord, it was – a sleighing song tonight! Then we roared it: Jingle bells, jingle bells! Jingle all the way! Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh! For two blocks – people on the walks calling out to us, kids throwing snowballs at us – we sang. Beside me Julia’s voice was high, a soprano, very clear, very sweet and lovely. At the corner the kids swung south. Waving and yelling at each other, we headed north toward Central Park, both sleighs continuing to sing as long as each could hear the other.

sleighing-2We all flew along the curving roads with hundreds of other sleighs. Fast as we moved, sleighs raced past us, hoofs drumming, the runners on one side sometimes actually lifting from the snow on the curves. Some of the drivers carried brass horns they occasionally raised and blew into, producing a single mournful yet somehow exciting blast of brassy sound that hung in the air for a moment afterward.

On through the park then, and out, and far up past it out into actual open countryside – astoundingly, still on Manhattan Island – until finally we stopped at a big wooden inn brilliant with light, shining out on the snow in long quartered rectangles, and the place was filled; there were surely fifty sleighs in a great outside shed, the horses tethered and blanketed. Inside, every table was occupied, the place jammed, the roar of voices and laughter so loud it was almost impossible to talk. Felix had called to me, and I worked my way over to his group. We had sandwiches and hot wine, standing up – there wasn’t a table empty – talking a little over the roar, but mostly just grinning at each other out of sheer sparkling excitement and joy.

[TIME AND AGAIN, by Jack Finney © 1970 Scribner/Simon & Schuster]

 

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