QUESTION: I’ve loved to ice skate ever since I was kid. When it got cold enough to the local pond to freeze over, my parents would take my siblings and I ice skating. I remember the first pair of skates I received for Christmas when I was just six years old. Over the years, my interest and love of skating has grown. Even though I’m no Olympic champion, I’m a good skater. I also have an interest in the history of skating and have begun to collect bits and pieces of skating history—old skates, postcards, photographs, and such. What can you tell me about the origins of skating and the possibilities of collecting skating memorabilia?
ANSWER: Even though people have been skating since 300 A.D., the great interest in skating, especially figure and speed skating, grew out of the advent of the Winter Olympics. And while you and others skated on frozen ponds, many people today, especially those living in cities, skate on man-made skating rinks, both indoor and outdoor.
There was a time when ice skates were more of a mode of transportation with even armies known to have strapped on blades before military engagements.
An animal bone strapped to a fur-lined clog-type boot was the earliest form of skate used 1,500 to 1,700 years ago. At times, skaters may have also used a staff, or pole, to assist in propelling them over the ice and uneven frozen marshes.
Elk, horse, cow and deer bones as well as walrus teeth were the most commonly used material for this rather unsteady mode of transportation. Most of the skates measured 11 to 12 inches. Leather thongs went through holes drilled at each end of the bone and tied around boots.
Eventually, skate makers developed a clog type shoe with metal strap for the blade that was fitted to the bottom, called a snow skate . They carved them out of a block of wood and placed animal hides into the clogs to keep the feet warm. Styles of skates varied depending on the country of origin and purpose.
Historians believe iron blades originated in the Netherlands as early as the 14th century. To help skaters glide over rough ice, the Dutch developed skates with a high curly prow at the front of blade. They made the sole of the skate from oak, rosewood, walnut or beech. They stuck a sharp pin or screw into the heel of the wooden sole to help secure the boot heel to the skate. But many skaters still suffered broken bones from these types of insecure skates.
The ingenious Dutch also developed a faster way to skate in the 16th century called the “Dutch Roll,” the current method of skating, which allowed Dutch skaters to travel 40 to 50 miles a day. Dutch peasants skated over frozen canals to markets to sell their wares. This type of skating was more about speed than artistic skating style.
Sometimes, skate makers replaced iron blades replaced with brass or bronze ones. The first English figure skate had short iron blades with gently curved bottoms. No more than two inches of the blades touched the ice at any time. Skaters needed great skill to keep their balance on these early skates. Today’s skaters still wear the curved bottom figure skate blade. And as skate designs evolved, skaters created new moves on the ice.
Early American merchants imported skates from England, Holland and Germany. In 1883,the C.W. Wirths Co. in Germany exported 600 pair of "high quality skates" to a firm in Philadelphia. They had exceptionally high curls on the prow and brass acorns at the tip.
There was an American skating mania from the 1850s to around 1900. As many as 50,000 skaters crowded onto the Central Park ice in one day. E.V. Bushnell, an American mechanic, invented the first integral, all metal footplate and blade skate in 1848. However, thousands of skaters still preferred the old wood platforms. Between 1800 and 1850, 200 skate models, good and bad, came into the U.S. Patent Office. An additional 400 patents related to skates appeared between 1850 and 1900. In 1870, skate makers developed the hollow ground blade and became a great help in executing sharp edges for many intricate moves.
An important American skater, Jackson Haines, presented skating exhibitions up and down the East Coast of America and Canada. He invented a new style of skate to help develop his skill and artistic skating. His forged his blade onto steel toe and heel plates that could be screwed directly and permanently onto the sole and heel of the boot. He added teeth to the front of the blade to help in jumping. He became known as the founder of the international style of skating, and invented the Sit Spin, which figure skaters still use today.
In 1914, John E. Strauss, a St. Paul, Minnesota, blade maker developed the first closed-toe blade of one piece of steel. He attached the tip of the prow to the front foot plate rather than protruding unsupported.
Skates from the 1850s with metal footplates sell in the $100 to $200 range, depending on their condition. Rust on any skate will detract from its value.
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