When I’m out rolling, sometimes, people in the street like to stop me to talk about how great it is that ‘roller skating is back in style.’ I am pretty sure that they are talking about a resurgence of 70’s skate culture – a time when rinks were in every suburb, and seeing roller skaters on the street was a daily occurrence. But, I am not sure that they know about the long history of roller skating that came before that. Neither did I, until self-isolation came along and I had way too much time to scour the internet. Skating, I discovered, isn’t just as old as my parents, or my grandma, or even my grandma’s grandma – it has been around for centuries.
So, once we all emerge from our skate hibernations and a nostalgic Rosie or Ronda stops you in the street for a roll down memory lane, you can arm yourself with these great historical roller skating facts to wow them with your eight-wheeled expertise.
1. The first recorded use of roller skates was during a London stage performance in 1743, but sadly the inventor of these roller skates is unknown. The first recorded skate invention was in 1760 by Joseph Merlin, but unlike the quad skate on the London stage, this was a basic inline skate with small metal wheels.
2. The first roller rinks opened in The Strand in London in 1857, and soon after in 1863 in New York, James Leonard Plimpton improved on previous quad skate designs. Plimpton’s quads had rubber cushions for pivoting action, and he opened New York City’s first rink in his furniture store in 1866.
3. In 1876 the first toe stop was patented, further improving skaters manoeuvrability, and in 1880 roller skates were being mass produced in the USA where thousands of skates were sold each week during peak periods.
4. Closer to home here in Australia, you can access an incredible archive of pictures of the Beyer family (Hilda Beyer and her companions pictured at the top of the page and below), who ran roller skating rinks and events across Melbourne from 1890 to 1910.
5. In 1935, the Chicago Coliseum hosted the first Transcontinental Roller Derby and Chicago became the birthplace of roller derby.
6. Soon after, in 1937 the Roller Skating Rink Owner’s Association took on management of the ‘sport’ of roller skating, and saw a boom in the various skate disciplines and participants over the coming years.
7. The GOLDEN AGE OF ROLLERSKATING lasted from 1937 to 1959 in the USA during which time roller skating was the NUMBER ONE participatory sport in the country.
8. As the USA readied for World War II, the government considered adding roller skates to the essential equipment of its battalion due to the possibility of using skates to move infantry around Europe in order to save money on gas!
9. The 1970’s saw the birth of the ‘roller disco’ era, which is what most people think of when they talk about skating’s most popular period.
10. In 1983 Ronald Reagan declared October national roller skating month.
As anyone who has watched the recent HBO documentary United Skates knows, African American skate culture has its own fascinating history, which is documented in this film from the civil rights movement to the present day. It’s definitely worth watching (and re-watching) while you are housebound.
And for those who were wondering, the mass produced inline skate patented as the Rollerblade was first released in 1981! So next time that scooter kid at the skate park asks you how long you’ve been rollerblading, you can bust this history lesson out on him too.