Roller Skating and Blading

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Since the late nineteenth century, roller skating has played an important role in the history of American leisure. Through a series of "skating booms," from high-society clubs in the 1860s to the popular roller derbies of the 1930s, and the inline skate craze of the 1990s, roller skating has taken a variety of forms and meanings: professional sport and popular past-time, upper-class fad and commercialized mass entertainment.

First invented in eighteenth-century Europe, roller skating overcame a series of technical problems before it became suitable for any sort of mass leisure. Early models, such as Londoner John Tyer's 1823 inline skate "Volito," allowed for only limited direction and glide, and generally made for a bumpy ride. By the middle of the nineteenth century, roller skating had reached the United States. Joseph Gidman patented the first American skate in 1852, soon to be followed by the Woodward skate and a series of other models. Massachusetts businessman James Plimpton's 1863 invention of the "rocking skate", however, presented a real technological breakthrough. His skate allowed skaters to take curves easily through the addition of a compressible rubber pad that enabled the skate to lean in the direction of the turn. The invention of the "toe stop" (1876) and friction reducing ball bearings (1884) paved the way for the mass proliferation of roller skates by the 1880s. Samuel Winslow and Micajah Henley were among the first mass producers of skates. Sales of Winslow's successful model (the "Vinyard" skate) soon reached 260,000 pairs per year, but encountered competition in the national market such as the popular "Chicago Skates."

By the 1880s, the roller skate had technically developed into its modern form, though the utilization of polyurethane wheels since the 1970s made skating even easier. Most skates were equipped with four wheels attached in two pairs (so-called "quads"). Inline skates did not prove economically successful throughout much of the twentieth century. Only after existing models were modified in the early 1980s and equipped with better wheels and a heel brake, did the "quads" loose their dominant position. Successfully marketed to a young, fitness oriented consumer segment by companies such as Rollerblade, (often used synonymously with inline skate), the inline skate has virtually eclipsed the classic roller skate in the popular imagination since the mid 1990s.

As a Spectator Sport: Roller Polo, Roller Derbies, Roller Dancing

Since the mid-nineteenth century, a variety of roller sports from roller hockey to roller derby and roller dancing has emerged. While never wholly successful in gaining wide-spread recognition as competitive sports (unlike ice skating), roller sports have seen the development of professional associations and, at times, managed to draw considerable crowds of spectators.

Roller polo and figure skating appeared as early as the 1870s, as upper class leisure activities. As skating became more widespread, commercial roller rink operators encouraged competitions, races, and roller polo or hockey. In 1885, one of the first six-day race meets was held in New York's Madison Square Garden. By the beginning of the twentieth century several roller hockey teams were playing in the United States; a first World Championship was played out in 1936. A professional roller hockey league was established in the 1930s, but proved short-lived. From then on, roller hockey's most important popular outlet was the informal street hockey, played on the increasingly-paved roads of twentieth-century America.

The 1930s also witnessed the roller derby craze. In many ways a spin-off of the six-day bicycle races during the Great Depression, the derby race on oval tracks grew into a popular spectator sport. The 1935 Transcontinental Roller Derby, lasting more than 57,000 laps (equidistant to a trip from New York to Los Angeles), drew 20,000 spectators. By the 1940s, artistic roller skating and roller dancing drew increasing audiences, especially among youths. A first World Championship was hosted in Washington, D.C., and competitions were broadcast on television well into the 1950s. While several roller sports (such as roller hockey and speed skating) appeared as "demonstration sports" at Olympic Games, none has managed to acquire official recognition as an Olympic sport. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, roller sports have played only a marginal role as spectator sports in America. Still, USA Roller Sports, located in Lincoln, Nebraska, functions as a governing body for roller sports in the United States and provides an organizational framework for various disciplines, as well as maintaining the National Museum of Roller Skating.

As a Popular Pastime: From Roller Parlor to Roller Rink and Roller Disco

More important for roller skating's place in the history of American leisure has been its role as a popular pastime. Plimpton was the first to open a skating club for gentlemen in New York. To skate on the parlor's maple-wood floor, guests had to apply and prove "good social character." Roller skating then became a leisure activity for the "educated and refined classes."

With the increasing availability of affordable skates and the proliferation of commercial roller rinks charging between twenty-five and fifty cents, however, the roller skating audience quickly widened by the 1880s. The Casino roller rink in Chicago, for example, could accommodate up to 1,000 skaters by 1884, and was equipped with a modern lighting system from the Siemens corporation. Special dances such as the "Richmond Roll" contributed to the roller skate craze of the 1880s and 1890s. Around the turn of the century, the popularity of adult roller skating subsided somewhat. While children continued to skate on wooden sidewalks and elsewhere, sales of skates declined and upper-class patrons increasingly shunned the roller rinks.

Still, roller rinks continued to exist, and the 1902 opening of the Chicago Coliseum drew an astounding 7,000 skaters. The leisure activity, however, was increasingly associated with a "gutsier culture": teenagers, dusky skating rinks and an "other-side-of-the-tracks" atmosphere. Cheap, mass-produced, steerable skates, and roller rink tents allowed for another boom in roller skating as an affordable pastime during the Great Depression. The Roller Skating Rink Operator Association (now Roller Skating Association International) was formed in 1937 to ensure a minimum of standards among members, and rinks in the 1940s and 1950s attracted patrons with popular "roller bowls." Rink operators in the postwar era attempted to market their venues towards family leisure, but roller derbies and other events associated with "tough crowds" often continued to taint the image of roller skating. The association of roller rinks with working class and minority youth has led to a decline in recreational rink skating among middle-class families.

The 1970s saw another skating boom following the invention of plastic wheels, and the transformation of roller rinks into roller discos. The (once again) successful combination of wheels, lights, and music during the discoera even helped adult roller skating to leave the confines of the rink and to enter public life. Commuting to work or shopping on skates became a fad, and in the 1980s roller skates once again returned to the stage in the popular musical "Star Light Express." A decade later, in-line skates succeeded in penetrating public life even further, drawing on their appeal to a growing number of "fitness-enthusiasts," and a slightly more upscale, modern image. Most skating rinks have since adapted to the inline skate. What began as the upscale roller parlors of the 1860s, and proliferated as commercial skating rinks for a mass audience, had, at the close of the twentieth century, largely evolved into "family entertainment centers" that combine roller skating with video games, laser tag, and other activities.

See also: Fads, Postwar to 1980 Leisure and Recreation, Skateboarding


Dulles, Foster R. A History of Recreation: America Learns to Play. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965.

Harwood, J. A. Rinks and Rollers. London and New York: Routledge, 1876.

Lewis, David. Roller Skating for Gold. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Roller Skating Association International. Available from

Traub, Morris, ed. Roller Skating through the Years: The Story of Roller Skates, Rinks, and Skaters. New York: William-Frederick Press, 1944.

Turner, James, and Michael Zaidman. The History of Roller Skating. Lincoln, Neb.: National Museum of Roller Skating, 1997.

USA Roller Sports. Available from

Jan Logemann