Dear Readers — I hope you’re doing well. As we inch closer to winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, please enjoy this reboot of Ice, Ice Baby originally posted on December 14, 2018.
Happy Friday! Today on Museum Bites we’re slipping and sliding into winter with a look at the history of ice skates. From ancient waterways to the Olympic Games, ice skates have played a fundamental role in our transportation, recreation, and sports. Join me for a brief twirl around the rink and learn how the ice skate was transformed from a humble pair of bones to hi-tech blades. We begin by dialing the clock back to the Bronze Age…
Bony Skates: The earliest ice skates on record date back almost 4,000 years to the Bronze Age. Crafted chiefly from horse or cow bones (i.e., ribs, thighs) this ancient footgear was tied to a skater’s shoes or boots and used to traverse the frozen waters of northern and central Europe. Bony and bladeless, the art of ancient skating was a tricky endeavor. Skates could slide in all directions (think hockey pucks but tied to your feet), so early skaters used a pole for balance and navigation. Click on this Bone Skate Demonstration video clip for a look-see, courtesy of Miika Vanhapiha and YouTube.
Fun Skating Fact #1: Marie-Antoinette, Napoléon Bonaparte, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and several British monarchs were avid skaters.
Iron Skates: During the Middle Ages the ice skate was upgraded from bone to blade. A clever craftsperson attached an iron blade to a wooden slat, and like its forefather the bone skate, it was tied to a skater’s footwear and used to glide across frozen waterways. The new-fangled iron blades added balance and some measure of control, allowing skaters to toss away their poles.
Fun Ice Skating Fact #2: The first artificial ice rink opened in London in June 1844. The Glaciarium was lauded as picturesque but smelly. The rink was made of pig fat and salts since the technology to keep large quantities of ice had not yet been invented.
Curlicue Skates: Curl-tipped skates (think elf or court jester shoes) made their debut in the 15th century. Researchers have speculated these curlicues may have been added to prevent skaters from getting their blades wedged into things such as the ice, embankments, their fellow skaters or themselves. The whimsical swirl may have also been a fashion statement.
Fun Ice Skating Fact #3: The Elfstedentocht (aka Eleven Cities Tour) takes place each year in the Dutch province of Friesland. Starting at dawn 15,000+ skaters take to the ice. The 200 km (~124 miles) roundtrip race runs through 11 cities and takes the speediest skaters approximately 7 chilling hours to complete.
Steely Skates: In the mid-1800s, E. W. Bushnell of Philadelphia created the all-steel skate, a vast improvement over the clumsy wooden versions worn for centuries. During the 1900s, skates became more specialized. A toepick was added to figure skates, enhancing flair and jaw-dropping jumps. Lengthy blades and shorter boots have given speed skaters more zip, while stiff boots and rounded blades protect and support a hockey player’s hustle. Today our ice skates are hi-tech and flashy, a far cry from those ancient bones of long ago. Click on this MonkeySee video clip to watch former Olympic figure skater, Michael Weiss perform the tricky single, double and triple lutz.
Fun Ice Skating Fact #4: The Lutz jump was named after Austrian figure skater, Alois Lutz who debuted his breathtaking jump in 1913.
That wraps up our brief look at the history of ice skates. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Quick Bites. In the meantime, be safe, be kind, and take care 🙂
Cover photo (cropped) by Jill Wellington, courtesy of Pixabay.