- Historic Sites
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
The roller skate was born centuries ago in Europe when small boys tied wooden spools to their shoes. An eighteenth-century Belgian showman named Joseph Merlin is said to have fashioned the first metal-wheeled skates, though he never entirely mastered them: once, while simultaneously skating and playing the violin for a London party he “impelled himself against a mirror … and wounded himself most severely.” But it was an American, James L. Plimpton, who, in 1863, patented the first modern-style skates with two parallel sets of rollers, allowing the wearer to change direction with all four wheels on the ground. It was Plimpton, too, who opened the first public rink, at Newport, in 1866. Soon, every fair-sized city had one, where whole families whirled together to waltzes while bolder couples performed special acrobatic dances such as “On to Richmond” and “The Philadelphia Twist.” The fad has never really faded since. These enthusiastic lyrics and the hand-tinted lantern slides of a cavernous Manhattan rink that accompany them celebrated one of roller skating’s perennial revivals—that of 1907.