Philadelphia on ice

Colorful lithograph showing skaters crowding the ice near the Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1856.
The winter of 1856 was one of the coldest in the nineteenth century.  It was so cold that the Ohio River froze solid from bank to bank, creating a path for southern slaves to escape, just as Harriet Beecher Stove had envisioned in Uncle Tom’s Cabin two years before.  Elsewhere, the long stretches of cold weather created favorable conditions for Americans’ new favorite pastime, ice-skating, then enjoying great burst of popularity.

This scene, of city-dwellers crowding the ice on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, furnishes a gauge of the strength of the trend.  For though ice skating had been practiced for centuries, until 1850, skate blades were crafted only of wood or bone.  A Philadelphia businessman, Edward W Bushnell, is credited with revolutionizing the sport of skating, by being the first to manufacture a blade of steel.  Strapped and clamped to the bottoms of shoes, the sharp metal blades gave skaters unprecedented speed and control.

The excitement was considerable as the innovation took hold.  The Quakers of Philadelphia had always carried on their hereditary skating traditions, but steel skates led to many novelties.  By the time lithographer James Fuller Queen captured this scene, many men and boys had paid up for the new skates, which were very expensive at $30 a pair.  Most of the ladies and townspeople pictured are spectators only, standing still as bold skaters thread their way through the crowd.

According to John Frederick Lewis, author of Skating and the Philadelphia Skating Club (1895), a Miss Van Dyke, daughter of James C Van Dyke, US attorney for Philadelphia, was the first woman in Philadelphia to appear on skates; she “rapidly became skillful and expert” in 1854.  Other ladies followed her lead, making skating fashionable, once concerns about safety and possible harassment from ruffians had been cleared away.

Image: from this source.
Click on the image for a much larger view.

This is the third in an occasional series on ice-skating.  Click here to go to the first post.

6 responses

  1. Yes, in the 1850’s paying $30 for a pair of skates was a huge sum. I imagine that only the upper classes could afford that price………..When I was young the park district ( Chicago, early 1960’s ) used to flood the large field located just east of the Waveland golf course and many folks would skate there, renting the skates at a small hut.

    • I too was startled at that price–I thought it might be a typo–but then think about how few things were made of steel back then. I need to find an example of what the skates looked like–they had that curving front and may have been tricky to fabricate. . . .

      Interesting memory about skating near Waveland. . . I have a memory of ice skating at night in the fountain in front of the law library at the U of Chicago back when I was in college.

  2. Rather mind-blowing to think what our piece of the Ohio would be like froze over, though my grandfather did remember it doing so in 1936. Would loved to have heard his stories about it. Great post, Susan!

    • Yes, that would have been amazing, J.G. One of the inventions the Philadelphia Skating Club members were working on back in the 1850s was a sort of a ‘reel’–a sort of safety equipment for rescuing people who had fallen through the ice. I gather that all ice-skating was done on natural bodies of water until the 1870s or so when someone came up with the idea of an artificial rink.
      I liked the historical photos on the NWS web site showing the frozen Ohio. It was wondrous when it happened!