Friday, January 2, 2009

Figure Nines, Anyone?

2008 is gone, and we are about to embark on a fine 2009. While many of us are taking down our holiday finery, the young ladies and gentlemen of the nineteenth century would likely have kept theirs up until January 6 (Epiphany or Twelfth Night). But some years at this point England gets a cold snap, and ice begins to form on ponds and rivers. And you know what that means.

Ice skating!

Ice skating was very popular in the nineteenth century, practiced from the farmlands to the city alike. These folks are having a high time in near Kensington Palace in London.

In 1809, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in a magazine:

The lower lake is now all alive with skaters, and by ladies driven onward by them in their ice-cars . . . In skating there are three pleasing circumstances: the infinitely subtle particles of ice which the skate cuts up, and which creep and run before the skate like a low mist, and in sunrise or sunset become colored; second, the shadow of the skater in the water, seen through the transparent ice; and third the melancholy undulating sound from the skate, not without variety; and when very many are skating together, the sounds and noises give an impulse that the icy trees and the woods all around the lake tinkle.

There’s a reason he’s called a poet.

Americans started the trend of figure skating; exhibition skaters from America toured England and Europe in the middle to late nineteenth century, performing acrobatics on ice to music. The Dutch are credited with speed skating, but the first skating race was held in England in 1814. Some places had skating clubs. To join you had to be able to perform a specific feat, such as skating a complete circle on one foot or jumping over obstacles on the ice. The first artificial rink was built in Chelsea in 1876.

The skates themselves were blades that strapped over shoes as opposed to being separate boots. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the curve of the blade only allowed the skater to go forward, not back. To stop, you had to lean back on your heel with your toes pointing in the air. (Oh, the things I wish I’d learned before writing that skating scene in My True Love Gave to Me!)

But ice is also the prerequisite for another amazing activity, which I believe Marissa will discuss soon. Stay tuned!


Sarah O. said...

Very cool post. Didn't Louisa May Alcott's books often feature skating in her winter scenes?

Because it is personally interesting to me, I want to share that the spring skate, which was invented in the early 1860s, went into production in 1863, and played a huge role in the popularity of skating, was invented in Dartmouth Nova Scotia at the Starr Manufacturing Company. It's one of our little claims to fame. I found two articles, here and here.

Addie said...

I love to ice skate. I've actually set a personal record of going skating three days in a row! It's so much fun to slip and slide on ice. =)

Regina Scott said...


It's been a while since I read Louisa May Alcott, but I believe you're right about her featuring skating scenes. How cool on the spring skate! Thanks for sharing that!