The pungent past of ice skating
Dec 4, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
It’s hard to believe December is upon us, but the frigid mornings remind me another year is ending and a new year is just around the corner. It’s the ideal time to dust off those beloved Winter traditions. Some of my favorites are sipping on eggnog by the fire, basking in the twinkle of Christmas lights, and wrapping that perfect present for a dear friend. There is another tradition that has a rich and storied history: ice skating. While gliding on a smooth plane of hard ice has always seemed daunting to me, when I see pictures of Victorian skates I realize just how daring this tradition has always been! Ice skating’s roots are Nordic (not surprising), but it quickly became a past-time for aristocratic circles stretching from China to England. By the time skating came to the continent it had evolved from construction techniques involving rib bones to wooden and metal designs. The feeling of weightlessness, combined with the graceful dance-like motions, made ice skating so popular it couldn’t help but burst forth from its noble constraints. Many paintings from the Dutch golden age depict crowds of everyday people enjoying a leisurely skate. Perhaps it was this Victorian obsession with seeing and being seen that fueled its popularity. (It didn’t hurt that some of Queen Victoria’s favorite courtship memories with Prince Albert took place on ice.) For the common folk, as a stroll down the promenade wasn’t appealing during the chilly months, ice skating became a socially acceptable alternative. After all, courting and conversation didn’t have to take a sabbatical just because the “weather outside is frightful.”
With royal endorsements galore, ice skating was developing quite the devoted following in the 19th century. Skating clubs were being formed so enthusiasts could compare techniques and explore this new sport. Inventors were keen to provide an eager buyer with new technological advancements. In 1850 the Philadelphia manufacturer E.W. Bushnell (who first revolutionized the children’s carriage industry) created the all-steel skate. On the surface, this may not sound all that impressive but it was a watershed moment. Up until this time skates incorporated a wooden footplate. These plates restricted movement and I’m sure were the reason for many an accident on the ice. (Fun fact – it took another 50 years before the toe pick debuted.)
It’s also important to note that up until 1844, ice skating was solely dependent on the weather. Without the cooperation of Mother Nature, you were not going to put on your blades. You may wonder what’s so special about 1844? To find out, I’d like us to pay a visit to one of my all-time favorite cities (London) to learn more about the pungent past of ice skating. We’re travelling specifically to Portman Square – a posh and largely residential part of Westminster. To further orient ourselves, it’s nearly equidistant between Hyde Park and Regent’s Park. They say location is everything and housing a world-class attraction between two of the most famous parks in Europe surely got things off on the right foot (or skate I should say). The project would be named the Glaciarium and it would become the first artificial, permanent ice skating rink.
The concept was all-encompassing. Patrons could skate, no matter the weather, to live music as they were surrounded by murals of idyllic Alpine scenes. I can only imagine the anticipation was palatable on the opening day – a spectacle that was unlike any other and could be revisited. Sort of like a Disneyland for the fun-loving 19th century family. Everyone expected this to be the hottest spot in town – especially as the temporary rink in Covent Garden had been the darling of a chilly English winter. The permanent structure was built in a dizzying five months and opening in June was a decidedly bold choice. But that was meant to be the appeal – capturing the essence of a treasured Winter experience regardless of what the calendar said. The rink itself was 3,000 square feet and that figure sounds residential in scale for such an iconic attraction. But no matter, the crowds lined up to spend their shillings.
All signals pointed to a rousing success, but there is one human sense that is the strongest tied to memory and for the Glaciarium, that unfortunately is smell. You see, refrigeration hadn’t quite caught up to the scope of this project – engineers were dreaming big and improvising. The only combination that they found to work – adding pig fat and salts to the frozen concoction. London was an internationally renowned hub of culture and commerce, most of these skaters were removed from the more intense aromas of the countryside. Translation: it smelled bad and in their view, that stench was extra stinky! The project, which started with such promise, shuttered within six months.
But like so many other vintage and historic moments we’ve explored, the intrepid nature of this pursuit laid the groundwork for future creativity. About three decades later a curious veterinarian by the name of John Gamgee introduced a revolutionary system – one that included a submerged network of pipes which distributed water and chemicals. But for a sport with such democratic origins, this breakthrough wasn’t enjoyed by all. Gamgee wasn’t just an inventor and veterinarian, he was a businessman. His rink was members only and was positioned off King’s Road (which was a private, royal road for generations). Nothing quite says exclusive like a location once only accessible to a handful of people. (In fact, I’m not sure even women were welcomed into the club – no comment on what the Queen made of that!) Despite the elite nature, the rink was wildly successful for about a decade and by then, other inventors had taken up the cause of year-round ice skating for the masses.
This winter as you prepare to lace up your skates (which you can do no matter the location!), I invite you to indulge in a little time travel. Take a moment to pause and appreciate the history you’re gliding into – the smells, sounds, and sights of a sport that worked its way into the most elite circles, breathtaking masterpieces, and vernacular of our everyday lives. If you’re a lady, imagine having to bundle up in all the layers, making sure your bustle remained intact along with your manners. If you’re a gentleman, imagine feeling your cravat shielding you from the chill while you accelerate across the ice. Ice skating is one of those special Winter traditions that is a touchstone to our past. Tell me, dear reader, what other traditions make you feel connected to your ancestors?