The winter of 1856 was one of the coldest in the nineteenth century. It was so cold that the Ohio River froze solid from bank to bank, creating a path for southern slaves to escape, just as Harriet Beecher Stove had envisioned in Uncle Tom’s Cabin two years before. Elsewhere, the long stretches of cold weather created favorable conditions for Americans’ new favorite pastime, ice-skating, then enjoying great burst of popularity.
This scene, of city-dwellers crowding the ice on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, furnishes a gauge of the strength of the trend. For though ice skating had been practiced for centuries, until 1850, skate blades were crafted only of wood or bone. A Philadelphia businessman, Edward W Bushnell, is credited with revolutionizing the sport of skating, by being the first to manufacture a blade of steel. Strapped and clamped to the bottoms of shoes, the sharp metal blades gave skaters unprecedented speed and control.
The excitement was considerable as the innovation took hold. The Quakers of Philadelphia had always carried on their hereditary skating traditions, but steel skates led to many novelties. By the time lithographer James Fuller Queen captured this scene, many men and boys had paid up for the new skates, which were very expensive at $30 a pair. Most of the ladies and townspeople pictured are spectators only, standing still as bold skaters thread their way through the crowd.
According to John Frederick Lewis, author of Skating and the Philadelphia Skating Club (1895), a Miss Van Dyke, daughter of James C Van Dyke, US attorney for Philadelphia, was the first woman in Philadelphia to appear on skates; she “rapidly became skillful and expert” in 1854. Other ladies followed her lead, making skating fashionable, once concerns about safety and possible harassment from ruffians had been cleared away.
Image: from this source.
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