The History of Roller Skating

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

As an avid roller derby enthusiast (I would be a participant, but I can’t afford insurance -contrary to popular belief, blogging doesn’t make you a millionaire), I love not only roller derby, but the simple pleasures of roller skating. That’s why I was inspired to learn more about the history of skating. With any luck, this article may even motivate you to strap on some roller skates or at least check out a roller derby game in your local area.

Image courtesy of Paul Goyette [Flickr]

The first set of roller skates was created by an unknown Dutchman in the early 1700’s. The devices were known as skeelers and they were made by nailing wooden spools to strips of wood and then attaching them to shoes. Rudimentary at best, these devices never really took off.

One of the first people to bring attention to the concept was London inventor Joseph Merlin created a more refined version that comprised of boots with metal wheels on them. They may have taken off quickly, but Merlin had a bad plan to bring attention to his invention. He used them to crash a party in a by skating into the crowd while playing the violin. Because the early skate models could hardly turn or stop, he almost immediately crashed into a wall-length mirror, which brought him plenty of attention…although likely not the kind he was looking for.

The first time skates got the public’s attention (in a positive way) was when they were used during an 1818 summer performance of the German ballet Der Maler oder die Wintervergn Ugungen, which called for an ice skating scene. Since real ice skates couldn’t be used at that time of year, the company opted to improvise with roller skates. Within the next year, the first patent for a land-based skate was filed in France. The first design included two to four rollers made from copper, wood or ivory and arranged in a single row.

If you though roller waitresses were a creation of the nineteen fifties, think again. They aren’t even a phenomenon of the last century. The idea actually started back in a tavern near Berlin in 1840. Beer halls in the area were  massive, so waitresses opted to skate across the hall to better serve their patrons, and the number of people seeing skating waitresses help bring popularity to the sport in turn. By 1857, there was enough public interest in roller skating to open the first public rinks.

The modern roller skate wasn’t perfected until 1863, when American inventor James Plimpton came up with the idea to set up two parallel sets of wheels. The wheels were made of boxwood and attached to rubber springs. This was a huge step forward in skate technology because it allowed users to turn on a smooth curve, where previous skate models couldn’t. Plimpton also helped popularize skating by opening rinks, leasing skates at the rinks and teaching people how to use his invention.

As roller rinks started to gain popularity, skaters began to experiment with the versatility of their skates. Artistic skating, speed skating and roller hockey all became popular hobbies in skate rinks around the world. The speed skating competitions eventually led to the idea of a “roller derby,” which was originally just an endurance race. During the depression much of the endurance aspect was abandoned and a point system was put in place, along with rules of contact, setting the stage for modern roller derby.

In the fifties, skaters began staging theatrical plays combined with the rules of the game and this act gained a lot of popularity by the sixties and seventies, taking away focus on the athletic aspect and focusing on the theatrics.

When disco hit the scene, skating found a new renaissance. Over 4,000 roller discos were opened in the late 70s and skating discos started to be prominently featured in Hollywood movies. Skating lost a lot of popularity throughout the 80s, but when inline skates started to become popular in the early 90s, rinks started seeing more customers again. These skates also revolutionized the concept of roller hockey, allowing the sport to be as close as possible to ice hockey. Inline skates also allowed for a number of aggressive skating methods that were impossible with regular quad skates, bringing skating out of the rink and onto the concrete.

Image via Wikipedia user Xuacu

Right as the inline skating trend started to fade away at the end of the 90s, grassroots roller derby organizations started to sprout up, focusing on the athleticism of the sport again and removing the theatrics. At the same time, jam skating, a form of hip hop dancing on skates, also started to soar in popularity. These activities, paired with the continued success of roller hockey allowed many skating rinks to survive in a time where fewer casual roller skaters are to be found.

With the roller skating industry constantly changing in nature, it’s hard to tell what the future of the sport will be. But if you like skating, roller derby, roller hockey or anything else involving roller skates, you can help keep the sport alive by supporting your local rink, particularly during October, National Roller Skating Month.

Sources: Skateland, Wikipedia#1, #2

If you do decide to go skating and need any gear, Low Price Skates is a great place to order from.

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