America On Ice

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No one knows when man first ventured from terra firma onto ice that was less firm, and began to slide. It must have been a very long time ago, for primitive skate blades made of animal bone have been dug up all over northern Europe, and there are references to skating in ancient runic poetry. There is even an official first topple, recorded in the fourteenth century, when a Netherlands lass named Lydwina fell on the frozen Schie one brisk day and rose to become the patron saint of skaters. (This account, to be sure, is compressed, leaving out the more spiritual events for which Lydwina achieved recognition from Rome.)

Carried here perhaps by Lydwina’s countrymen, skating seems to have been a popular pastime in America from the days of the earliest settlers. Most of this was free-form frolicking on brooks and ponds, but there soon developed an interest in the “art” of skating. Enthusiasts tried to cut figures on ice: the better the skater, the more sophisticated the figures became, until patterns evolved that were as intricate as the lacy designs of Victorian antimacassars. One of the more prominent of America’s pre-Revolutionary figure skaters was the expatriate painter Benjamin West. In London in 1772—the same year West was appointed historical artist to George III—he performed on the Serpentine a majestic movement called the Philadelphia Salute, to the delight of large crowds. Among the admiring spectators was Colonel William Howe, who was later to lead British troops against West’s countrymen. But this was a happier day. “You are just in time to vindicate my praise of American skating,” the Colonel is said to have told the painter.

American skating received a more substantial boost several generations later, when it became a craze of sorts, paralleling a countrywide dancing craze that seized Americans in the restless days after the middle of the nineteenth century. Hardly a patch of ice near inhabited areas went unmarked. The village pond was a principal gathering spot where, though the air was chill, conversations and romances thrived. Sometimes the boys would build a fire; someone else might provide cider and doughnuts. Best of all, a gentleman could occasionally offer—oh tender moment!—to help a lady buckle on her skates. From the day the first thin trust of ice formed until it became thick enough to support a body or two, through the snowfalls and thaws whose effects on the ice’s surface were subjects of serious speculation, skating and talking about skating helped pass the long winters for rural Americans with little else to do.

City folk, too, became skating enthusiasts. But as urban ponds were drained to provide building sites and rivers had to be kept ice-free for winter commerce, skating might have disappeared from the cities if, at the beginning of this century, the artificial ice rink had not become practical. Enthralled by the novelty of a skating surface independent of the weather, a large number of hotels around the country installed rinks on their roofs. Then, in 1915, on artificial ice in the giant Hippodrome playhouse in New York, forty European skaters twirled through an ice ballet called “Flirting at St. Aforitx.” The “ice show” had come to America.

Eight years later, a knobby-kneed, dimpled little eleven-year-old girl entered the Olympic figure-skating competition —and came in last. But she won the next three championships and ten world titles to become the all-time skating girl; largely because of her a thousand rinks are dotted today with young women in white boots and short Haring skirts. With the aid of Hollywood, Sonja Henie also became the richest skater of all time, rewarded by a country that has almost forgotten that she was not its own to begin with.

Saint Lydwina, however, probably continues to have more in common with the average amateur skater, at least in his tendency to topple, although it does not seem to diminish enthusiasm for the pastime. Indeed, one Englishman, a certain Lord Dunmore, took great pains in recording every fall in a little book. In less than three years, he had over 2,000 marks (in the book, that is), which he exhibited proudly at every opportunity.

In this ancient and still-popular activity, pride has traditionally come after the falls. The illustrations on the next ten pages show what fun it has been.