Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part II

Manhattan’s first skating pond for the upper classes was opened and operated by Major Oscar Oatman, head of Park Slope’s hoity-toity Washington Skating Club, in 1862. Fifth Avenue Pond was one of several in the vicinity, and formed from a spring.

This pond was fenced, with a cloakroom and saloon with warming stoves. Employees constantly swept up debris to keep the ice spotless, and Oatman was also there around the clock. It spanned 11 acres, between 59th and 57th Sts., and Fourth and Fifth Aves.

Fifth Avenue Pond, in a hollow shielding it from the wind, had been used for years by boys, esp. ones from the Beekman estate around 61st St., between Fourth (today Park) and Fifth Aves. In 1862, Madison Ave. didn’t yet cut through the pond.

A raised thoroughfare cut through it in 1865, shrinking the pond’s size. The pond remained open through 1868.

Skating lessons were offered for women and kids, and chairs on large runners were available to those who couldn’t and didn’t want to learn to skate. By night, limelights (calcium lights) and large reflectors lit up the pond.

Each afternoon, a brass band played a range of operatic and national music. They played even in sub-zero temperatures in January 1866.

Oatman charged $10 for a season pass, only given to those who could produce so-called quality references. His pond was only for people of “character and respectability.”

The pond opened at 7 AM, for the many wealthy and fashionable people who had a habit of skating before breakfast. It closed at midnight, and wasn’t open on Sundays, the only day most normal people had off.

Skates in that era were long boots coming as far up as the knee, and were often utilitarian colours like brown, black, and tan. Forget about custom-dying skates to reflect one’s personality, or women and girls predominantly wearing the white skates popularised and made de rigueur by Sonja Henie in the 1920s.

These old-school, custom-made skates cost as much as $50 ($700 today). Dresses ending just above the ankle were considered short, again decades before Sonja Henie made shorter dresses and skirts fashionable and the sport’s standard.

Men wore Scottish wool trousers and chinchilla pea coats.

Every season, Harper’s Bazaar gave detailed recommendations for fashionable skating apparel. Outfits included bright colours (dark deemed too sombre), short jackets, fur-trimmed Russian suits, fur muffs, Highland plaids, beribboned caps, calfskin skates with chamois lining, and plumed sealskin toquet hats.

HB advised against white undergarments in favour of blue merino stockings. This was an era when women had to wear long skirts and dresses on the ice, and could neither wear pants nor shorter skirts and dresses enabling them to move more freely.

Elaborate hairstyles for women were considered bad taste. One of the hairstyles HB recommended instead was a braided chignon with a crimped tress.

Costume balls and carnivals were the highlight of the skating season. These events included fireworks, and many elaborate costumes. During the Civil War, some men dressed as Zouaves, a popular regiment with very bright uniforms.

Oatman also hosted women’s skating matches, which drew many crowds. Not only did the winner get a gold medal, but also all of her competitors. Members of the NY Skating Club were judges. The club, founded in 1863, had its HQ by Fifth Ave. Pond from 1865–68.

One of the club’s members, champion skater Alexander McMillan, designed an expensive, custom skate made of solid iron and steel.

After Oatman’s pond closed in 1868 (due to much nearby construction), the action moved to Mitchell’s Pond (the current site of Plaza Hotel). This pond too offered live music, contests, and carnivals. It was paved over in 1871 to build the Windsor Hotel.

After Mitchell’s Pond closed, patrons moved to McMillan’s Pond by 46th St. and Fifth Ave. As always, the city’s élites flocked to it.

Yet another move followed upon the heels of construction moving uptown. Artificial rinks began appearing, such as Empire City Skating Rink by 63rd St. and Third Ave. in 1868. It boasted hundreds of gas lights, a 70-foot high arched ceiling, and many refreshment rooms.

This era coincided with skating’s evolution into a real sport.

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One thought on “Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part II

  1. Wow.

    Loved reading about Harpers’ Bazaar and their influence on skating fashion.

    And how Manhattan and its skating world developed through the 1860s.

    Makes me think of Hans Brinker and his Silver Skates. Or perhaps I am mish-mashing some, Carrie-Anne!

    Like

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