An American pastime that has seen many changes through out generations of participants and is still quite active with our youths is that activity that places wheels on our feet. The roller skate has been entertaining legions for over a century.
The first recorded use of roller skates, in a London stage performance was in 1743, but the inventor of this skate is lost to the obscurity of an undocumented history.
In 1876 William Brown in Birmingham, England patented a design for the wheels of roller skates. Brown’s design embodied his effort to keep the two bearing surfaces of an axle, fixed and moving, apart. Brown worked closely with Joseph Henry Hughes, who drew up the patent for a ball or roller bearing race for bicycle and carriage wheels in 1877. Hughes’ patent included all the elements of an adjustable system. These two men are thus responsible for modern-day roller skate and skateboard wheels, as well as the ball bearing race inclusion in velocipedes: later to become motorbikes and automobiles. This was arguably, the most important advance in the realistic use of roller skates as a pleasurable pastime.
Massachusetts businessman James Plimpton’s 1863 invention of an improved roller skate led to a boom in popularity in the late 19th century, particularly in cities of the American East Coast. At first, people roller skated at home, but within twenty years businesses dedicated to the activity began to spring up. Plimpton himself is credited with opening the first roller skating rink in New York City. Patrons who enjoyed ice skating during the winter months participated in the similar activity, now year-round. Early roller rinks varied greatly in size and type, both indoor and outdoor. Many consisted of simple wooden platforms that sometimes doubled as dance floors or ballrooms. While primarily an activity of eastern cities, a few enterprising individuals toured the rural areas of the Midwest and South with wagon-loads of roller skates. These entrepreneurs went from town-to-town, often in conjunction with circuses or carnivals, renting out skates and using whatever locally available surface as an impromptu rink. The post–World War II baby boom also saw a boom in roller rinks across the United States. Having a roller skating birthday party became something of a rite of passage for American children in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Roller rinks in the United States underwent significant changes in the 1970s. New plastics led to improved skate wheels—ones providing a smoother, quieter ride—and easier-to-maintain skate floors.
The Disco craze from popular 1970s culture led to another increase in the popularity of roller rinks-or roller discos, as some became. Gone were the classic lighting and old-fashioned organ music as a generally older clientele were replaced by adolescents and twenty-somethings skating under mirror balls and special lights to disco beats. The end of the Disco Era and the advent of inline roller skates hit the roller rink industry hard, with many rinks closing. However, as had happened throughout history, most rink owners adapted and survived the economic storm. Roller derby, a professional sport of the 1950s and 1960s once considered virtually dead, has seen a do-it-yourself, grassroots rebirth in popularity in the early 21st century with amateur and semi-pro teams forming leagues nationwide. Many rink owners support this activity, along with roller hockey, speed skating, and roller figure skating contests.
The roller rinks have diminished over the last 50 years probably peaking in the fifties following a lull in activity with a resurgence in the seventies in disco skating. The following decades witnessed the expansion of skates outside the rink’s with skate boarding parks outside the rink, and the advances in wheels, bearings, and safety protection for skaters to go beyond the rink, the parks, and just about anywhere they could roll. I remember the phrase “Skate or Die” which became a buzz word for skaters and gamers since it was taken from an Electronic Arts skateboarding game in 1988.
Growing up in the sixties I never owned a pair of roller skates, even the kind that would strap onto your sneakers but I remember the kids in my neighborhood who would skate around the sidewalks and I would watch them wishing I too could someday skate like them. On occasion I had the opportunity to borrow another neighbor kids metal skates that would clamp onto my shoes, but I never really became a part of that activity and truly never really mastered that skating ability. Roller skates were coveted as I recall, but being a lower-income middle class kid from the sixties, we did with what we could. For me, the outdoors meant everything. It was not until later that I at least was able to get around without falling down or going very slowly as I skated and that was just due to the limited amount of practice I was able to get.
As far as skating goes, in the sixties roller skates were fairly a popular thing, in the seventies it was the skate boards, in the eighties skates went in-line, and in the nineties and now the long boards ruled the roads.
The roller rink’s have had their share of people visiting the establishments. I recollect the few times when I did actually go to the rinks at a time when they drew some of my peers for a social venture. Palisade Gardens in North Park used to be a historic skating rink that was around from many years before it was redeveloped in later decades into apartments. It was one of the fewer places in town where boys and girls our age could meet and socialize. For me it was a great place to go, because I loved the colorful lights and music playing while everyone would skate at their own pace. They had a concession stand for snacks, and it was so fun since I very rarely had a chance to go to such a place. At that time I was by far a skater that was not as skilled as many of the other kids, heck, I could not even skate backwards. Still a shy kid, I relished the opportunity to go despite my angst since I loved the atmosphere. When you don’t have much opportunity to do something you enjoy, you find it a luxury and hold it closer to your heart than others who have greater access. If you have every been hungry, you find that your next meal tastes better than at times when you are full. I could not fully appreciate the skill of those really good skaters, but I still loved to get on that polished wooden floor and skate as best I could to the sounds and sights of that skate rink. Feeling the breeze pass around you as you skate and the large ceiling fans generate that freshly circulated air was very invigorating.
In the seventies I spent some of my time learning to skate board in the traditional ways. Being able to do tricks was an essential trademark of a skater when skating in front of others. As the years progressed, the tricks became more developed and extreme. There were times when our ingenuity to skate over different surfaces took us to the cities flood control rain gutters in the canyons. It was a poor boys way to skate as near a bowl or pool surface incline as we could find before the skate parks started opening up. I remember the Movin’ On skate park opened up literally just blocks away from my home at the latter end of the decade. That was truly a cool thing to happen despite my lack of having a decent board to use in the park, and thus not using the park as much as I would have liked. I still vividly remember hearing Boston’s More than A Feeling or Foreigners Hot Blooded when I skated at the park. To me they were skater songs since I have attached those memories to those particular songs and for that matter those particular albums. It’s funny how you set goals to the events that happen around you in your life. At that time, a goal of acquiring a better board, with better wheels and bearings was very high on my list. I wish I could remember the board that I finally purchased during that time. It was a very cool wooden board with all of the non slip surface stuck on top and a flip-up kick tail. The wheels were kryptonic’s with very fast German bearings. I believe I had tracker trucks as well. The best board I have ever owned, purchased second-hand.
Prior to those days before I had some decent equipment I especially remember the games we would invent as preteens.
One of them was the Rollerball game. A game that was inspired by the 1975 movie Rollerball with James Caan. All that would be required was a dead-end street with a fairly steep hill, (the steeper the better), a rain gutter at the bottom, (the smaller the better), two people with skate boards, and a large round rock. We would sit on our boards at the top of the hill on opposite sides waiting for the cue to rush down the hill and fight for the previously placed rock in the center of the hill. The goal would then be to battle downhill for possession of the rock on our fast paced ride and to see who could score the rock inside the rain gutter. Mind you, we had to be seated the entire trip, and our battle was truly just that, a battle of possession, sometimes getting pretty nasty with us sustaining injuries from the concrete created scabs and rough-housing bruises attained by boys in preadolescence competing like the Jonathan character from the movie. Man that was pretty brutal at times, thinking back.
Another was adjoining skateboards sitting down in a catamaran fashion flying down a steep hill. Once a friend and I were sailing downhill only for me to
lose control and not stop in time as I ran myself headfirst into the curb at the bottom of the hill. Had I not worn a helmet that day, I would not be posting this today.
I remember a girl I liked used to skate as well. When I visited her I remember she would place a bike tire tube underneath her board and lift up creating a huge jumping lift as she rode. I was impressed because I had never seen that before. I thought it was very clever.
Different decades with different memories around that very old American pastime of skating. It actually wasn’t until the nineteen-eighties that I actually became a fairly decent roller skater on the boardwalk at the beaches. I would like to take dates outside and skating was a refreshing alternative to other activities.
When I became a parent I would take the kids to the few remaining rinks in town. I still would like to put on skates and skate with them. I am amazed at how the kids today seem to have more experience with these things that once challenged me at that age. I think access to these things probably could be the answer to that question.
Which ever past decade one discusses, skating was in some small way apart of my life as it has for many others in generations past. The associations, memories, and passions we form in these pursuits leads us to reflect on a life lived. Whether skating, surfing, cycling, or some other pastime has its reflection calling out to you, enjoy those memories.
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
To shelter friends who come to call.
Though low the roof and small its space
It holds the Lord’s abounding grace,
And every simple room may be
Endowed with happy memory. The little house, severly plain,
A wealth of beauty may contain.
Within it those who dwell may find
High faith which makes for peace of mind,
And that sweet understanding which
Can make the poorest cottage rich. The little house can hold all things From which the soul’s contentment springs. ‘Tis not too small for love to grow, For all the joys that mortals know, For mirth and song and that delight Which make the humblest dwelling bright.” ― Edgar A. Guest
- The Controversial First Days of Roller Skating Rinks, Lowell – 1885 (forgottennewengland.com)
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