Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part III

American ballet dancer Jackson Haines (1840–75) envisioned a style of ice-skating beyond the rigid, formal, prim and proper British style popular at the time. Drawing upon his background in ballet, he created artistic, graceful programs accompanied by music.

Another of his innovations was, for the very first time, permanently attaching skating blades to boots. Prior, skaters had fastened them with leather straps. With permanently attached blades, skaters gained greater balance, and more room to safely jump and spin.

Americans and the British hated this new style, so Haines went to Europe to teach and perform. His style, dubbed the International Style, became very popular in Vienna in particular. His Vienna School students created the International Skating Union in 1892.

The first European Figure Skating Championships were held in Hamburg in 1891, and in 1896, the first World Figure Skating Championships were held in St. Petersburg. The sport came to the Olympics in 1908, in London. Since the Winter Olympics didn’t exist yet, ice-skating was part of the summer games.

At the time, there were four divisions, but not the ones we know today. They had men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pair skating, and special figures. The lattermost involved figures far more elaborate than the now-discontinued compulsory school figures portion of competition.

Copyright User:Voyager; derived from image by User:Saippuakauppias (Jonas Haller); Source Lessons in Skating, George A. Meagher, 1900

Copyright Helena Grigar

Though these beautiful, artistic figures dominated the sport at the time, even after the International Style soon rose to prominence, a more athletic aspect quickly emerged.

Swedish skater Ulrich Salchow (after whom a jump was named), winner of 23 gold medals, three silvers, and one bronze from the Olympics, World Championships, European Championships, and Swedish Championships, developed slightly serrated blades enabling the launching of long jumps.

Norwegian figure and speed skater Axel Paulsen (1855–1938) invented the axel in 1882. The lutz was invented by Austrian Alois Lutz in 1913, and the loop (a.k.a. Rittberger) was invented by German Werner Rittberger in 1910. American Bruce Mapes invented the toe loop in 1920.

In the early days, women who did jumps were reprimanded for their “unladylike” behavior.

Skates remained mid-calf-length, and women continued wearing long, bulky skirts and dresses. Men competed in suits and ties.

One of the first indoor skating rinks was the Boston Arena, built in 1909. Organized public skating came to Boston in the mid-19th century, by Frog Pond in Boston Common (a large, historic park).

Like women jumping, pair skating too was originally considered scandalous and/or taboo by certain countries and people, since it involves very personal contact between a man and woman who often aren’t related.

Skating rose to new athletic heights with the advent of Norwegian Sonja Henie. Though she still wore high skating boots, her skirts were much shorter than previously deemed appropriate, and her skates were white.

She also showed the world female skaters could be true sportswomen, instead of just gracefully tracing pretty figures on the ice.

Today, almost all female skaters wear white skates (sometimes beige or tan). Men wear black skates. Proud tomboy I am, I’m going to get a pair of black skates when I’m back in an area with real skating rinks.

There were twelve compulsory figures till 1947, after which it changed to six, due to time constraints and number of competitors. They represented 60% of the total score till 1968, when it changed to 50%. In 1973, the compulsories were shortened from six to three, and the short program was added.

Also in 1973, compulsories were down to 40% of the total score. In 1988, they became 20%, and were discontinued in 1990.

Indoor competitions became the rule in 1968. Costumes for both sexes also became more artistic.

Ice dancing became a World Championship event in 1952, and was added to the Olympics in 1976 (after appearing as a demo sport in 1968).

Today, skating is a far cry from the winter scenes on frozen ponds of yore. Neither the Medieval Dutch nor Manhattan’s 19th century élite would recognize it as the same winter sport they so loved. Even the scoring system is different.


3 thoughts on “Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part III

  1. Very true, Carrie Anne.

    One of my favourite representations of skating in fiction are the early Chalet School books especially Jo of the Chalet School. They were set in the early 1920s and the girls in Austria do lots of skating, especially ice-skating, figure-skating and speed-skating.

    And some of the scenes can be drunken and brutal.


  2. Very well researched. I had no idea and never thought about how figure skating came to be, but it does seem to be a relatively modern sport.

    As for me, I enjoy watching skating, but you’re not going to get me on the ice. I’m pretty sure I’d hurt myself or at least severely bruising my pride.

    Tossing It Out


    • Ah, me too, Lee!

      In fact I find any balance sport very difficult.

      In the early 1990s I was not very good at roller-skating and I strained a ligament at my second roller-skating party.

      I think the first sports might have been to do with balls and hide and seek.


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