Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part I

My favourite vintage skating photo in my virtual collection so far!

Humans have been ice-skating since at least 3000 BCE, as evidenced by animal bone skating shoes found in present-day Russia and Scandinavia. The first written record of skating came in the 12th century, describing children in Canterbury, England, playing on the ice with animal bones attached to their boots.

Edges came in the 13th or 14th century, by whom else but the skating-loving Dutch. For the first time, the blades attached to footwear were steel instead of bone. About the same time, blades took on proportions very close to their modern ones.

Skating first appeared in artwork in the 15th century, depicting the Dutch St. Lidwina, patron saint of ice-skaters, falling on the ice. This fall broke her leg and left her progressively disabled for life.

Then as now, the Dutch people loved ice-skating. Historical records and artwork testify to people from all walks of life enjoying the winter sport. Many people also skated as a means of transportation, since connecting waterways were often frozen for months.

In other places, only members of the upper classes were allowed to skate. Skating came to France during the reign of Louis XVI, and Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire loved it so much, a large ice carnival was built in his court in 1610 to popularize it.

Skating slowly began taking on its modern form in the 18th century. In 1742, the Edinburgh Skating Club became the very first ice-skating association, and in 1772, the very first instructional book, A Treatise on Skating, was published by Robert Jones in London.

Jones, a former artillery lieutenant, was instrumental in popularizing ice-skating in Great Britain. Sadly, his book was published the same year as a high-profile trial in which he was convicted of sodomizing a 12-year-old boy several times. His death sentence was commuted by King George III, on condition he leave Britain forever.

Jones’s book was intended only for men, as British women typically didn’t ice-skate in that era, even without all the jumps we expect today. This book also split ice-skating into its two main forms, figure skating and speed skating.

The next major development was the opening of several skating ponds in Central Park. This became the highlight of the winter social season for the upper classes. The first skating pond opened in 1858, and reignited New Yorkers’ interest in the sport. Earlier skating ponds downtown had long since been built over.

People who didn’t live within walking distance took carriages and horse-drawn railway cars. Sex segregation quickly disappeared, and skating became one of the few things single men and women could do together unchaperoned.

The sport’s growing popularity led to further skating ponds in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Jersey City, and Hoboken. In 1863, the Skating Club of New York was founded.

Park commissioners opened the ponds when 4–5 inches of ice had built up. When they felt it was safe to hold thousands of skaters at a time, they raised a red ball by the belltower, just south of the reservoir. “The ball is up” became code for a skating day, and created a great to-do.

The city railroad cars also signified skating days by flying white flags with red balls on the end of each vehicle. Some cars falsely displayed flags to attract customers.

Many surrounding buildings rented skates and provided fires to warm up by. On the southern side of the main pond, the “rude but comfortable” Casino (run by Charles A. Stetson, owner of luxury hotel The Astor House) sold hot cocoa, beer, and cream soda. For a quarter or less, skaters could also get cakes, fried oysters, clam chowder, pickled tongue, and sandwiches.

Other park restaurants catered to a less moneyed clientele.

Unsurprisingly, the haves soon backed away from rubbing elbows with the have-nots and suffering the crowds of Central Park. In 1862, they moved to the Fifth Avenue Pond, Manhattan’s first private skating pond.

To be continued.

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5 thoughts on “Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part I

    • The earliest roller skates were created in the late 18th century, though they weren’t practical or standardized enough for widespread use till the 1820s. The first public rinks appeared in 1857.

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  1. I wrote about ice skating in a work-in-progress years ago, but it was modern skating. And boy was it tricky describe the tricks, jumps, spins, and other maneuvers. My character was a skilled skater, a teenager. You reminded me of how I want to work on that story again. 🙂

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  2. I’d never really thought about the history of ice skating, but I had no idea it has been around as long as 3000BCE! That surprised me. I loved your images. They are really so interesting. The one for the Valentine’s Day story in The Ladies Home Journal was perfect.

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  3. Clee: I also didn’t know how far skating had gone into the world of humans. Nor about the children in Canterbury. I wondered if the Tales by Chaucer were connected?

    Chrys: I too wrote about skating in the late 1990s, and like you, it was modern skating. Was just able to watch some of the figure skaters in an international competition.

    Alex: I found the clubby aspect of skating interesting too – it reminded me of sailing/boating/canoeing and this includes the remote-controlled boats.

    Carrie-Anne: what a series!

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