Ice skating’s popularity boomed during the 19th and early 20th centuries due to a long string of cold winters in the Northern Hemisphere and improvements in the design of ice skate blades and footwear.   A good supply of frozen ponds, lakes, and rivers across the northern half of the United States enabled people to enjoy ice skating for the cost of purchasing a pair of skates, which was as low as 25 cents in 1862.

Looking back at sports in the 19th century, ice skating was one of the only sporting activities of the day that involved both men and women and people of all backgrounds participating in the same activity together.  By 1866, ice skating’s popularity rose to the level that prompted Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper to proclaim that ice skating was the “National Winter Exercise” of the United States.  Large gatherings of people, often well-dressed, would ice skate together on a large body of water which was frozen smooth by winter’s chill.

Cold winters of the 19th century

The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling of the Northern Hemisphere that began about 1300 and lasted until 1850.  Increased volcanic activity is one theory for what caused the weather to cool.  The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 is responsible for the infamous “Year without a Summer” in 1816 which produced frost and freezes even during the summer months from Northern Virginia through New England and into parts of Europe.  The resulting cold winters of the 18th and 19th centuries helped set the stage for the development of modern ice skating.

Analyzing temperature readings from a diary recorded near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the early 19th century, it can be noted that the low temperature dropped below zero degrees roughly three times more frequently during the winters of the early-to-mid 1800s than in recent times.  The weather data in the diary is not official, however, but trends can be surmised that the winters have warmed since 1800.

After the end of the Little Ice Age, during the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, winters remained fairly cold overall and ice skating continued to flourish.  Some may even argue that winters up until the 1980s were fairly good for outdoor ice skating from Virginia northward.

We certainly know that this winter has not produced good outdoor ice skating conditions in many regions with unusual winter heat in Europe and record warmth in the United States.

Ice skating history

The first ice skates were made from polished animal bones and are were primarily used to help with transportation over ice.  Poles were used by the skater for pushing across the ice since the bone skates did not have sharp edges which would allow the skate to be used for thrust.  Bone skates go back at least several thousand years.

By the 18th century, ice skates had metal blades which were mounted to a wooden platform that was then strapped to a shoe or boot.  The first ice skating clubs were formed in Europe and figure skating and speed skating started to emerge as specialized forms of ice skating.  The first instructional book about ice skating was published in London in 1772.  Ice skating through the 18th century was primarily done by men, however, and skating was not particularly popular in the United States.

The popularity of ice skating increased dramatically during the 19th century.  Frozen ponds, lakes, and rivers were abundant during 19th century winters in many parts of the United States and Europe and ice skates began to be mass-produced, making them affordable to the public.

When ice conditions were right, ice carnivals would be organized in cities like New York and hundreds of people would gather on the ice with skates and sleds.  The frozen ponds and rivers would become a melting pot of skaters from many different backgrounds and income levels who often donned their winter’s finest clothing for the event.

Ice skate designs improved during the 19th century.  A skate with a fixed blade that was clamped to a shoe or boot was invented by E V Bushnell in 1848.  In 1865, well-known figure skater of the day, Jackson Haines, developed a skate with a blade permanently fixed to the boot.  Haines’ improvements to the ice skate made jumping and spinning much easier and safer than with the older ice skate designs.  The sport of figure skating quickly developed.  By 1908, figure skating was made an Olympic sport.

Ice hockey also developed in the 19th century out of stick-and-ball games that were played on both land and ice.  By 1875, organized hockey games were being played in Montreal, Canada and by 1910 the National Hockey Association (NHA) was formed which was later reorganized to the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1917.  United States teams were added to the NHL in 1924, starting with the Boston Bruins.

Ice skating during the Civil War

The American Civil War was fought during a time when ice skating was very popular.  During the winter months, when the soldiers were in camp, they would sometimes ice skate for enjoyment and to pass the time.  One of the more interesting accounts mentioned how a regiment of Mississippi soldiers learned how to ice skate on the frozen Occoquan River near Manassas, Virginia during the first winter of the Civil War.  The soldiers from the deep south had not experienced frozen rivers before heading north to war.  Here’s an account from Captain E. Howard McCaleb of the 12th Mississippi Regiment:

In December, 1861, we went into winter quarters at Davis’ ford, some six miles from Manassas, on the Occoquan river, in Prince William county, Va., and there whiled away the time drilling and doing picket duty until the middle of March, 1862. It was there we celebrated the anniversary of the secession of Mississippi, on the 9th of January. It was there that we first endured the hardships of a Virginia winter and learned to skate on the ice of the frozen Occoquan.

When Davis Ford Road was straightened at the Occoquan River almost 20 years ago, the camp location of the 12th Mississippi Regiment was bulldozed.  Uniform buttons, bullets, and one of the soldiers’ ice skates were recovered.  A photo of the ice skate blade and uniform buttons is included above.

Artificial ice

During the 19th century, there were efforts to expand ice skating to indoor venues and to extend the season of skating.  Because the technology of refrigeration of ice rinks had not fully developed, artificial ice was invented as a substitute for skating.  The artificial ice was made out of hog lard and salt.

Artificial ice rinks were built as early as 1844 and the surface of artificial ice was described as “convenient” for skating.   Artificial ice fell out of favor primarily because the ice substitute smelled bad.  In addition, refrigerated ice rinks were getting established by the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century which rendered the lard and salt substitute obsolete.

Figure skating

In 1865, Jackson Haines invented an ice skate blade which was screwed directly into the boot.  Using the sturdy ice skates, Haines introduced a style of skating that combined ballet and dance on ice and involved more athletic jumps than was possible with the older, clipped-on skates.  He also was the first to accompany skating routines with music.

Haines realized that his new style of figure skating was more widely accepted in Europe than the United States so he moved to Vienna, Austria and became famous as a figure skater.  Today, Jackson Haines is known as the father of modern figure skating.

A few decades later, other popular figure skaters like Irving Brokaw would follow Haines.  Brokaw represented the United States in the Olympics in 1908 and his book, “The Art of Skating,” became well-known as the how-to-guide for figure skaters.

Many different figure skating clubs existed during the the 19th century and into the early 20th century.  In 1921, the United States Figure Skating Association (now known as U.S. Figure Skating) was formed.  Today, figure skating is one of the most watched sports in America.

Ice skating in Washington

The Potomac River, the Tidal Basin, and the Reflecting Pool were popular ice skating destinations in Washington during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  During the winters of the early 20th century, cars would park in front of the Lincoln Memorial and the skaters would make the short walk to ice skate on the Reflecting Pool.

Later in the 20th century, the development of man-made ice rinks combined with safety concerns of thin ice on rivers and ponds pulled much of Washington’s ice skating activity off of the natural bodies of water and onto man-made rinks.  Many photos exist, however, that show ice skaters on the Reflecting Pool and Tidal Basin during the early 20th century when those frozen bodies of water offered the best option for ice skating in Washington.

Ice skating continues to occur on ponds, lakes, and rivers when winters are cold and the ice is thick, but the days of large ice carnivals on frozen rivers are probably over for most cities.  Besides, winters are not as consistently cold now as they were in the 19th century, and natural ice is not as abundant.  Unless we have another “Little Ice Age,” many of us may have to stay on the rinks.