Growing up in Upstate New York, I learned to love the snowy winter months. The snow allows for people to engage in all types of fun outdoor activities. Indeed, some of my best memories are of me and my friends playing in the snow or out on the iced surfaces of frozen ponds. As part of an assignment for a class I am taking in graduate school, I was required to pick an object and research its cultural significance. I soon stumbled across an old, wooden ice skate, and, given my love for all things winter, I decided to learn more about this item.

Skate, Ice, 1800-1900, metal, wood, leather, L: 11 x W: 2 x H: 4 ¾ in. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Denton E. Stillwell, N0385.1963a. Photograph by Luke Murphy.

Skate, Ice, 1800-1900, metal, wood, leather, L: 11 x W: 2 x H: 4 ¾ in. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Denton E. Stillwell, N0385.1963a. Photograph by Luke Murphy.

In doing research on the skate, I found out that, though “crudely” handmade, it is representative of a style known as the “fancy prow skate.”[1] According the information provided by the records of the New York State Historical Association—where the object is housed— the skate was handmade between 1800 and 1900 and donated by a man named Denton Stillwell. While this date is rather vague, if we focus on what winters in New York were like before the advent of video games, television, radio, and even electricity in the more rural places, the importance of this object grows more and more as a symbol of fun for those that experienced the cold embrace of winter.

Image taken from Robert L. Merriam, The Ancient Art of Skating (Deerfield, MA: Deerfield Academy, 1957), 7.

Image taken from Robert L. Merriam, The Ancient Art of Skating (Deerfield, MA: Deerfield Academy, 1957), 7.

For thousands of years, people skated across glassed surfaces as a form of entertainment.[2] According to one source dated from 1868, skating only became popular in the United States in approximately 1850, which could serve as a “no earlier than” date for trying to estimate the origins of this skate.[3] An entire culture emerged around ice-skating, with many guides published on all aspects of the sport ranging from its origins and history, to the appropriate attire and the exercise benefits of ice-skating

During the period of this skate’s construction, the Victorian era, men and women were expected to fulfill different gender roles. This object, however, represented an activity that managed to span the formidable gender gap of Victorian America. Several drawings exist showing both men and women participating in skating activities together in public during a time when men were supposed to have dominated the public sphere and women the domestic realm. In fact, almost paradoxically, women did not start skating until the 1850s, the height of the Victorian era. Even more remarkable is the fact that women were encouraged to hold the arm of a man while learning to skate.[4]

Image taken from Frank Swift and Marvin R. Clark, The Skater’s Textbook (New York: John A. Gray & Green, 1868), cover page.

Image taken from Frank Swift and Marvin R. Clark, The Skater’s Textbook (New York: John A. Gray & Green, 1868), cover page.

Sadly, little information exists about this particular ice skate. Though the records indicate Mr. Stillwell donated the skate, no other information could be found regarding this individual. Judging by the worn appearance, it is relatively safe to say that the skate likely saw many years of use. What is certain, however, is that this skate is representative of an entire—and relatively inclusive—culture dedicated to exercise and amusement in areas that see many cold and snowy months.

[1] Robert L. Merriam, The Ancient Art of Skating (Deerfield, MA: Deerfield Academy, 1959), 7.

[2] Merriam, Skating, 1.

[3] Frank Swift and Marvin R. Clark, The Skater’s Text-Book (New York: John A. Gray & Green, 1868), 21.

[4] Merriam, Skating, 12.

For more information on ice-skating culture, feel free to check out these sources:

Merriam, Robert L. The Ancient Art of Skating. Deerfield, MA: Deerfield Academy, 1957.

Swift, Frank, and Marvin R. Clark. The Skater’s Textbook. New York: John A. Gray & Green,1868.

Luke Murphy

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