|Title||'Took a slide on the ice:' Ice skating in New England|
|Type||Papers and Articles: Visitor Article|
Gliding along a pristine frozen lake on a clear brisk day is arguably one of the most delightful benefits of a New England winter. Prolific observer of New England life (and Yale College President) Timothy Dwight noted while traveling in New Hampshire in 1797 that "in the winter" boys and young men "are peculiarly fond of skating." William Davis recalled of his own boyhood in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the 1820s and '30s, that "with skating and its accompaniment hockey, the winter passed away … ." And in her classic 1869 New England novel Little Women, Louisa May Alcott described Jo, Amy, and Laurie ice skating (as well as Amy's terrifying fall through the ice). Skating became ever more popular in America as the nineteenth century advanced, reaching a peak by the 1860s.
Ice skating probably has its origins in ancient times, beginning as a practical means of winter locomotion. It may have first appeared in Scandinavia, Germany, or the Low Countries, but most likely it was in Holland that skating truly came into its own. There skates were "almost universally used by persons of both sexes when the season permits." Even Dutch soldiers used skates. In 1572 Dutch musketeers on skates successfully fought off Spanish troops trying to take the ice-bound Dutch fleet. By the twelfth century, if not before, skating spread to Britain. In London, boys sometimes used a pole tipped with iron to push themselves along the ice. These poles were also used for sham fighting in a sort of ice-jousting. By the middle of the eighteenth century, fashionable urban skaters had formed sociable skating clubs in Britain's cities. While the Scots were renowned as especially elegant skaters, minuets were also danced on the ice of the Serpentine of London's Hyde Park "with as much ease, and … more elegance, than in a ballroom." "[B]y turning and winding with much adroitness" skaters also made "upon the ice the form of all the letters in the alphabet." Many other Brits came to watch, either to enjoy the gracefulness of the skaters or to see (and be seen by) the elite.
Europeans brought skating with them to North America, and the sport spread from Virginia to Canada. One Virginian recorded in his diary in 1709, "[s]lid on skates, notwithstanding there was a thaw," and "took a slide on the ice." In colonial New York, winter brought ice carnivals of racing on skates and hockey, with enterprising merchants selling liquor and sweets from temporary booths. Most days spent skating were less structured, however. One New Englander recalled:
"I remember that when a boy [about 1800], I used often to go, with five or six companions, to some spacious pond closely frozen over, and pass the greater part of the day in skating. We would carry our dinner with us in a tin kettle, and at noon kindle a fire upon a rock, and sit down to our meal, with more enjoyment, than a king ever sat down to a feast. And then at night we would seize the flaming brands, and glide over the ice, swift as an eagle through the air. It was rare sport; but I would not recommend the fire-brands to my young readers, as they may often be the cause of mischief."
Even those children who did not have skates could still go sliding on the ice and have just as much fun, even if they often also incurred a few more bruises from frequent spills. By the 1830s Robin Carver in his Book of Sports could call skating "truly American."
While more boys than girls skated, it was nonetheless increasingly seen as a sport suitable for both sexes as the nineteenth century progressed. It often even provided an opportunity for courtship. One of the mill girls of Lowell advised her less-skilled sisters to "take firm hold" of the coat tails of her male companion. "[I]f he was a dexterous glider, and she maintained a firm position, a gay time she could have of it, enjoying all the pleasure without incurring any of the fatigue of exercise." Though skating was primarily recreation for the young, the elderly occasionally indulged in the sport as well. Sixty-four-year-old Aaron Greenwood borrowed a pair of skates one January day and "at [his grandson] Charlie's particular request" went to a frozen pond. There they "spent a couple of hours … skating. There were thirty-two boys and girls on the ice … ." Greenwood "was the oldest one … The others were probably from ten to eighteen … ."
Most skaters simply enjoyed gliding effortlessly along the ice with friends and sweethearts, racing, playing hockey, or "cracking the whip." Others "made figures." In an age of ubiquitous prescriptive literature, advice and instruction for skaters was not lacking. "A skater's dress should be as close and unencumbered as possible," warned one manual, which also advised the skater to dress in layers, with flannel next to the body to stay warm yet dry from perspiration. Once on the ice, "[t]he beginner must be fearless, but not violent: not even in a hurry." After the basics of skating were mastered, instructions for various figures and maneuvers were given, including the forward roll, the Dutch traveling roll, the figure 8, the figure 3, the double 3, the outside edge backwards, the back cross roll, the Cornua Ammonis, the Dutch Maze, and the Mercury figure.
The popularity of skating grew as the nineteenth century went along. In the 1850s Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the Atlantic Monthly urged his readers to adopt it as a good form of exercise. Some even called this growth of skating "Higginson's Revival." New York's Central Park saw 200,000 skaters a winter by mid-century, and in Boston special excursion trains ran to Jamaica Pond carrying 1,000 to 1,500 skaters daily. It was in the 1860s that New York's Jackson Haines (1840-1875) began to make figure skating into the popular international spectator sport that it remains today, introducing a less stiff and more fluid style.
Winter visitors to Old Sturbridge Village can see several pairs of early nineteenth-century ice skates—with their gracefully curving steel blades—"for sale" in Asa Knight's country store. Yet the very first ice skates were probably just simple strips of wood, or perhaps the rib bones of animals, strapped to the feet. New Jersey's first governor, William Livingston (1723-1790), recalled that as a boy his first skates were beef bones. By at least the sixteenth century, iron and steel blades set into wooden platforms securely tied onto one's boots had evolved, and these worked much better than bones tied to the feet. While some local smiths may have forged blades for homemade skates, such work does not often appear in the surviving business accounts of blacksmiths. Likewise among extant skates themselves, manufactured examples are much more common. Even in colonial times manufactured skates were advertised for sale. One eighteenth-century newspaper touted "Best Holland Scates [ sic ]. Different Sizes."
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most skates were imported from Holland, Germany, and especially England. By 1845 one English tool manufacturer made several different styles and qualities for export, including "rocking," "club end," and "figuring" skates, with a choice of fluted, hollow ground, or plain edges. By the 1820s (if not earlier) a few American makers began to enter the ice-skate market. By the mid-nineteenth century several American factories were turning out large numbers of skates. For example, by 1865 machinists Seth and Samuel Winslow of Worcester, Massachusetts, employed 15 men and two women making skates, and another three men and two women making skate straps. This firm alone made 20,000 pairs annually. Companies such as Coe & Sniffen, Union Hardware, T.A. Williams, and Barney & Berry made thousands more for an eager public.
However enjoyable skating could be, it carried a real risk: namely drowning in an icy pond or river. The author of one popular book on sports reflected, "If we may judge of the popularity of the different sports and amusements by the amount of danger which we see incurred in their pursuit, we should say that none stands so high in public favour as Skating." Skating could indeed be dangerous. Another writer warned that "In skating, you should first be sure that the ice is capable of bearing you. Many a boy has lost his life by the breaking of the ice." These were not idle cautions. On November 30, 1696, Samuel Sewell noted in his diary that, "Many scholars go … to scate [sic] on Fresh-pond …" and that two of these Harvard students fell in and were drowned. Two more teen-age boys, George and Nathan Howell, were drowned in 1728 while "skating at the bottom of the [Boston] Common, the ice breaking under them." Indeed, in the town of Sturbridge at least three young men and boys drowned in the winter months of the 1820s and 1830s, including 7-year-old Josiah James on January 7, 1838. One instruction book advised skaters to wear a "safety cape" to obviate "much of the danger incident to skating." This Scottish invention was made of waterproof cloth and, as with any cape, was worn around the neck and shoulders, although underneath it was also strapped around the upper body. In the event of immersion, the wearer used a small mouthpiece to inflate it. Presumably he could then call for help, cold but secure from drowning. (As with so many clever if impractical contraptions of the nineteenth century, these capes do not seem to have been very widely used.)
With the growth of America's cities and the ever-increasing popularity of skating came the creation of more—and safer—places to skate. In 1861 the city of New Haven, Connecticut, used its new water system to create a large artificial pond in its Hamilton Park. That same year the New Haven Fire Department began its annual "custom of flooding a corner of the Green for skating enthusiasts." Like skaters on a modern rink, one skating there could indeed still fall down, but was in no danger of falling in and drowning. No doubt that allowed for more carefree skating—for both nineteenth-century children and their worried mothers!
SourceOld Sturbridge Visitor, Winter 2002, 10-11.