For the collector of old iron relics, the name S.L. Allen may not ring a bell. Planet Jr., on the other hand, generally does. The famed line of farm and garden cultivators and walk-behind garden tractors was sold the world over.
Company founder S.L. Allen was a man of diverse talents. Credited with more than 300 patents, his interests ran the gamut from astronomy to farming to winter sports. He was born May 5, 1841, in Philadelphia. After completing boarding school in 1859, he moved to New Jersey where he worked on a farm owned by his father.
In 1868, perhaps buoyed by winning his first two patents (for the No. 1 and No. 2 Planet Jr. seed drills), Allen launched his own company, S.L. Allen & Co., Philadelphia. According to Elizabeth R. Allen in her 1920 biography of her father, the Planet Jr. line got its name from one of Allen’s earliest inventions. He is said to have built a fertilizer drill by riveting two washbasins together rim to rim and adding a wooden tire and handles. An amateur stargazer, he noticed the device’s resemblance to the planet Saturn and called his invention “the Planet Drill.” When he later created a smaller, seed-dropping version of the drill, he named it “Planet Jr.”
Allen was a clever inventor and astute businessman. In just 13 years his company became a leader in farm and garden implements here and abroad. The Planet Jr. line was displayed at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the 1889 International Exposition in Paris.
Also in 1889, Allen won a patent for what was his most famous invention: the Flexible Flyer sled. Motivated by a life-long passion for “coasting” and the desire to avoid seasonal factory layoffs, Allen found a ready market for the Flexible Flyer. The sled remained in production up to at least 1999.
A progressive entrepreneur, Allen was among the first American industrialists to offer disability and retirement plans to his workforce. A major expansion of the company’s Penn Junction plant in North Philadelphia in 1913 modernized mechanical and power systems. The updated plant also included facilities for worker use, such as a meeting hall, dining hall and a dispensary staffed by a full-time nurse.
Allen died while vacationing in Florida in 1918. His company, however, continued to thrive. A Planet Jr. “universal” style tractor was produced for one year (1920-21) and the Planet Jr. garden tractor was unveiled in 1930. A 1928 catalog notes that Planet Jr. implements were being exported to more than 70 foreign countries. In 1968, 100 years after the company’s founding, S.L. Allen & Co. was sold to Leisure Group, a California company. In 2009, Allen’s former factory buildings at Penn Junction in North Philadelphia were destroyed by fire. FC
For more on Planet Jr., read Planet Jr. Was Big Player on Small Farm from the May 2011 issue of Farm Collector.