Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

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6 Responses to “Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January”

  1. Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January | Real Estate Marketplace Says:

    […] Source: FS – NYC Real Estate Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January […]

  2. Zoé Says:

    This is an amazing post ephemeral! Especially the image of the very long sleigh for many people. I’ve never seen/heard of those.

    Westport CT has – for some years now – incorporated horse carriage rides into its downtown New Year festivities. (One hour northwest on the train from Grand Central – should anyone want to go). The horses are a beautiful working breed – white w/ furry hooves.

    Quite different than a fast sleigh ride over icy avenues & carriage roads in the City’s parks – which must have been such a blast! Though it sounds a bit scary as well! Perhaps one of the only times the women written of in your post could really feel *free*…

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Zoe! Yes, probably a rare feeling of freedom beneath societal constraints and all those petticoats and corsets!

  3. Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January | Holiday in New York City Says:

    […] Source: FS – Real Estate Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January […]

  4. j.henry Says:

    My grandmother, who lived in Brooklyn Hights, used to tell the story of a time in the 1890’s when the East river froze and her father fashioned a sleigh for their St.Bernard to pull her and her sister.

    • Zoé Says:

      This is a great memory j.henry! I wonder if all the rivers & ponds in the area are frozen now w/ this record breaking weather. (Unlike in childhood when our mothers had to call us in before we froze to death; I’ve been trying to stay inside through this extreme cold wave – so don’t know).

      In the 1960s we used to sometimes get ice a foot thick & ground ice (ice that freezes all the way to the bottom of a river or pond); but over the years the ice got thinner & thinner – then finally none at all. This was one hour north of the City on the Sound. I remember the Sound partially freezing once also.

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