The pastime of ice skating predates indoor rinks by several centuries. Aside from the skates it cost nothing to skate on a frozen pond or river and any number of people could join a skating party. It was an international phenomenon in that it was enjoyed anywhere temperatures dipped low enough to produce a safe layer of ice.

Skating as Outdoor and Indoor Pastimes


#WHAT may be the earliest account of ice skating was written by William Fitzstephen in the 12th century. --- When the great marsh that laps up against the northern walls of the city [London] is frozen, large numbers of the younger crowd go there to play about on the ice. Some, after building up speed with a run, facing sideways and their feet placed apart, slide along for a long distance. Others make seats for themselves out of ice-slabs almost as large as millstones, and are dragged along by several others who hold their hands and run in front. Moving so quickly, the feet of some slip out from under them and inevitably they fall down flat. Others are more skilled at frolicking on the ice: they equip each of their feet with an animal's shin-bone, attaching it to the underside of their footwear; using hand-held poles reinforced with metal tips, which they periodically thrust against the ice, they propel themselves along as swiftly as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a crossbow. But sometimes two, by accord, beginning far apart, charge each other from opposite directions and, raising their poles, strike each other with them. One or both are knocked down, not without injury, since after falling their impetus carries them off some distance and any part of their head that touches the ice is badly scratched and scraped. Often someone breaks a leg or an arm, if he falls onto it. But youth are driven to show off and demonstrate their superiority, so they are inclined to these mock battles, to steel themselves for real combat.---

The use of such slabs to glide along on the ice remained in use through the 19th century in Europe [and North America].

An Icelandic book of poems was quoted by The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839 with reference to a passage on the god Uller who was distinguished by his beauty, his arrows and his skates. The writer stated the passage was written some eight hundred years prior. An early description of refined skates was penned in 1838. It took place in Rome in 1815.

While visiting, and discovering a stream had frozen over, a group of men set out to locate skates. They finally found an elderly woman who produced a pair made by her deceased husband some twenty years prior (ca 1795). The would-be skaters took them to a blacksmith to fashion theiron, to a cooper to make the wooden parts, and to a saddler who fashioned the straps to make a pair for each man.

The wooden skates with steel blades were bound about the ankles to secure them. Olaus Magnus, a 16th century Swedish writer, described similar skates. John Hill wrote that the wooden sole of the skate should be the same length as the boot, somewhat hollowed to receive the ball of the foot, and lowered to receive the boot-heel, in which a hole was bored, the precise size to receive the peg of the skate. The steel was about a quarter of an inch thick, three quarters of an inch in height, and securely fastened to the wood. Boots that laced up were preferable to any other sort because they fit the ankle well and the straps could be tightly secured. Obviously Europeans were skating long before they arrived in America, and no doubt continued to enjoy the ice after their emigration. Nineteenth century articles and books indicate there are no clear cut dates for when the sport was instituted in any country, [and while the U.S. patent office holds records for numerous improvements to ice skates], their invention cannot be credited to any one individual.

An early description of clothing worn on the ice was penned in 1863, but most of the information in the account referred to an adventure some thirty years prior. “The coat ought to be of the shooting-jacket style, with as little skirt as possible, and fitting rather closely when buttoned. Nothing but a handkerchief should be carried in the pocket, as severe damage is often occasioned by a fall when any hard substance, such as a knife or a bunch of keys, is worn”.

Ladies were encouraged to forego the, “fashionable wire work”, of Victorian dress in favor of dresses more thoroughly becoming such as the riding-habit. Beadle’s Monthly (Feb. 1866) described girls wearing scarlet petticoats and Polish boots, skating caps, and ermine furs [in New York].

The same article described how illustrators made what he thought obvious mistakes in their drawings of various hobbies, skating included. The writer said he once took an artist aside and explained mistakes he was making in his drawings of skaters, even sketching the figures out himself for effect, yet, "the perversity of human nature prevailed, and he insisted on returning to his conventionalities. He put the skaters on the wrong edge of the skate; he made them look the wrong way; he drew the tracks of the steel exactly where the skater could not by any possibility have passed; he insisted on reproducing the objectionable figure which has already been described, and in fine, worried me to almost unbearable extent."He sent the drawings back several times, even sketching the figure on cardboard and "sticking pins on it to show the places and attitudes of the skaters", all to no avail as the illustrations werenever corrected to his satisfaction. Perhaps, as historians, we should never forget to let reason govern our perception of such illustrations. Boys’ books invariably include instructions for skating, and for a beginner, or one who seeks to add a degree of historical accuracy, the books may provide invaluable insight, however, skating wasn’t purely a male pursuit.

Skating is an art to which all ladies should attain. It is especially feminine in its character, graceful, elegant, requiring little apparent force, and yet affording good exercise. Ladies soon learn to skate. I have had the honor of initiating several ladies to the art, and have been surprised by the felicity with which they learn it. Whether from some innate quality of the feminine sex, I know not, but it is invariably the case, that if a boy and a girl, or a gentleman and lady, of equal ages, and having enjoyed equal advantages, are put upon skates for the first time in their lives, the lady always manages to skate independently sooner than the gentleman. - The Eclectic Magazine.

While falls were inevitable, and sometimes resulted in serious injury, by far the worst danger to the skater was falling through thin ice. “For even a good swimmer may find himself suddenly sucked under the ice, and from the mud raised by his fall, may find the water so tinted that he cannot see the hole to which he must return to save his life”.

…long ropes, fir planks, and several hand-drags, should be kept ready in a house or tent near the place, so that they may be speedily got at when wanted. When ice gives way under a person, even though he do not sink beneath it, it is scarcely possible he can get out without assistance, unless the water be very shallow.

Samuel Johnson wrote a poem which warned of this danger.
O’er ice the rapid skater flies,
With sport above, and death below;
Where mischief lurks in gay disguise,
Thus lightly touch and quickly go.

It was the fear of falling through the ice that prompted the creation of indoor rinks which were established prior to 1846, the first said to have been built in England in the Rotunda of London.

Before thrill rides and virtual reality, skating was often called, “the nearest approach to flying of which the human being is as yet capable”. Figure skating was described in dozens of books and articles by the early 19th century along with instructions for beginners and intermediate level skaters.

Hockey and cricket were being played on the ice by the mid-Victorian era, although most skaters thought such games, “unworthy of a true skater’s attention”. Many skaters resented their skating parties, also known as skating frolics, interrupted by ruffians participating in such activities.

It might truly be said that ice skating brought families, communities, and individuals of all ages together as they sped over the ice.

The Evolution of Skates

The first skates were made from the leg bones of large animals. Leather straps were slipped through holes that had been bored at each end of the bone. To this very day the word "skate" in Dutch is "schenkel" which means "leg bone". The oldest pair of skates known date back to 3000 B.C. They were found at the bottom of a lake in Switzerland.

By the 14th Century A.D. the Dutch were using wooden platform skates with flat iron bottoms or runners. The platform skates were attached to the shoe using leather straps. The skater had to use a spiked pole or staff for propulsion. The image at the top of the page is from a 16th Century engraving of a Dutch skater using wooden platform skates.


#A Belgian inventor named Joseph Merlin introduced the first recorded roller skate in 1760. And, what an introduction he made! He wore his new skates to a party in London, where he crashed into an expensive mirror. He wasn't very interested in skating after this experience. However, other inventors produced some roller skate models, most with in-line wheels to imitate an ice skating blade.

A new skate, known as the Woodward, was invented in London in 1859. The Woodward skate had wheels made of vulcanized rubber, which offered better traction than iron on wooden rink floors. There were four wheels, two of them paired in the middle and slightly larger than those on the ends to make it easier to turn.

The shoe skate, a skating boot with the skate permanently attached, was introduced about 1900. They were used almost exclusively by professional skaters, though. Most people rented their skates at a rink, and shoe skates were seen as unsanitary, so clamp-on skates remained the rule for recreational skaters. These skates were often adjustable to fit people who took different sizes.

Most skate wheels were made of boxwood or maple during the 19th century. Early in the 20th century, manufacturers began to use steel wheels, primarily for outdoor skating, and wheels of aluminum alloy for speed skating. Fiber composition wheels were developed for rinks because they offered better traction on the wooden floors and were more durable.

#Roller skating has gone through several boom-and-bust cycles. The first boom lasted from the 1870s into the early 1890s. The Grand Hall Olympia in London, the largest roller rink ever built, with a skating area of 68,000 square feet, opened in 1890 but closed within a year. (It did reopen from 1909 to 1912.)

In 1857 roller skating had gained enough momentum to warrant the opening of the first public skating rinks. The Strand of London and Floral Hall enjoyed these first skating rinks.

The 1870’s rinks with hard maple had built floors in nearly every town and city. By paying an admission fee of twenty-five or fifty cents, men, women, and children could participate in races, fancy skating, or dancing on skates. Special skating dresses, which allowed more freedom of movement, became popular by the 1870’s. Indicative of the extent of the craze was this wry comment by the editors of Harper’s weekly, in the form of a potential gravestone inscription for a departed skater:
Our Jane has climbed the golden stair
And passed the jasper gates;
Henceforth she will have wings to wear,
Instead of roller skates.

The popularity of roller skating waned by the 1890’s, but like ice skating it helped lead to more freedom in dress and behavior for women.


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