Classics on Tuesdays

When I was little, one of the things I liked to do most was roller skate. How about you? I mean, the old-fashioned kind that you strapped on to your shoes and you had a special “key” to adjust them with. I was talking about roller skates the other day with my Mom who told me that she still had my skate key!

Anyway, I was surprised to learn that roller skating originated in Belgium. The first patented roller skate was introduced in 1760 by Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin. His roller skate wasn’t much more than an ice skate with wheels where the blade goes (a style we would call in-lines today.) They were hard to steer and hard to stop because they didn’t have brakes, so initially they were not very popular.

District of Columbia. Glimpses of life in the Nation's capital - A fashionable roller-skating rink. Photo via the Library of Congress.

District of Columbia. Glimpses of life in the Nation’s capital – A fashionable roller-skating rink. Photo via the Library of Congress.

One hundred years later, in 1863, James Plimpton, a businessman from Massachusetts invented a roller skate that could turn. It was called a “rocking” skate–the first one that really let people skate curves and turn. Plimpton opened a skating club in New York where gentlemen enjoyed showing off for the ladies by doing fancy figures, steps and turns.

Within 20 years, roller skating had become a popular pastime for men and women. Roller skating contests began to increase. Indoors, wealthy gentlemen in Newport, Rhode Island, played “roller polo,” a hockey game. Others held contests in dance and figure skating. Outdoors, men and women were racing in speed contests. The more the public saw of skating, the more they wanted to try it themselves. Roller skating was soon enjoying its first boom.

Safety first for this Miss, Washington, D.C. August 8. Equipped with bumpers fore and aft, 4-year-old Betty Buck is taking unnecessary chances as she tries her first pair of roller skates. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Safety first for this little Miss in Washington, D.C. Equipped with bumpers fore and aft, 4-year-old Betty Buck is taking unnecessary chances as she tries out her first pair of roller skates. Photo via the Library of Congress.

This continued for many years and roller skates were adapted and modernized and popular. They only waned in popularity in the 1980’s but saw a resurgence during the 1990s when inline skates hit the market. Inline skates allowed a far smoother ride outdoors, and became an instant hit. Ice hockey players, in large numbers, also began playing inline hockey during the off-season. Inline skates also became extremely popular with many people that enjoyed skating for fitness. The ability to inline skate outdoors, over long distances, became a dream come true for fitness skaters all over the world.

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