Winter

Winter in a nineteenth-century village was a season of stilless and restoration.  Snow fell, waterways froze, earth hardened to stone.  Farmers envisioned next year’s crops, sat by the fire, visited neighbors.  They drank.  Women cooked from larders bulging after a harvest season they had spent cellaring root crops and preserving perishables with the help of smoke, vinegar, salt, fat, and alcohol.

When night fell, folks sat up a while, then went to bed, mainly because they were tired or cold, or because there wasn’t enough light to see.  Barn animals still had to be cared for in the morning, but otherwise winter was a time of reflection, togetherness, and relative leisure.  Young people, freed from helping in the fields, could study or play.  Sundays, people worshipped at church.  Afterward, if conditions were good, skaters ventured out to glide across ice.

Joesph Moriller’s 1869 lithograph depicts villagers engaged in peaceful winter routines.  This winter, my habits, homebound due to the pandemic, are more like those villagers’ than they’ve ever been.  I seldom go out.  My days, if busy, are sedentary.  I don’t commute to work.  I seldom drive.  I cook like crazy.  My circle of association is cherished and tiny.  I notice the moon in the limitless black sky.

Yet, the nineteenth century featured a type of serenity, an intensity of direct experience, we creatures of mass society cannot attain.  Its conditions were more elemental and earthy.  Illness, injury, and death loomed large, starkly menacing life, love, and prosperity.  Humans, defenseless against certain types of suffering, endured with a sincere and fervent reliance on Providence.  Modern people, so much more heavily equipped with knowledge and remedies, need faith less, living from cradle to grave without what’s divine.

Nor can we access the simplicity of a purely local, face-to-face society.  In the nineteenth century, the society of the village and household was strictly bounded, a condition the railroad and telegraph had just begun to break down.  Local people knew one another thoroughly.  The intimacy of home life was seldom punctuated, as ours is, with distressing communications of all sorts streaming in everyday.  Word traveled less.  The very mystery of what lay beyond the horizon, or beyond human ken, paradoxically promoted tranquility and intense personal joy.

Image: from this source.

Maidens Speed-Skate, 1809

Women racing on ice skates in 1809.
‘At a women’s skating race in Leeuwarden [the Netherlands] in 1809, the crowd watched sixty-four unmarried women vie for a gold cap-brooch. The winner was Houkje Gerrits Bouma. For greater ease, many had thrown off their cloaks. Baur painted the finalists with bare arms, a jettisoned cloak on the ice. It left little to men’s imagination and caused an outcry; therefore it was the last women’s race for many years.’

 

Image: Nicolaas Baur (Dutch, 1767-1820)
‘Women’s Skating Competition on the Stadsgracht in Leeuwarden, 21 January 1809’
Rijks Museum via Wikimedia Commons

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

Speed skater Hugh Palliser

Hugh Palliser skating toward the camera circa 1904 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The speed skater circa 1905 stood out as an other-worldly figure, his gear and garb outlandish to those around him.  Here is Hugh Palliser, a gifted amateur skater, manifesting the transformation that a trending obsession with speed brought on.  His clothing, his hat, his skates, his stance: all set him off from skaters out only for recreation.

His simple tunic, tight woolen leggings, and practical beanie register how science was changing the centuries-old sport of skating.  Hugely popular as a late-nineteenth-century pastime, skating was developing a more serious side, as passionate competitors like Palliser pondered how to apply the new principles of efficiency to the business of getting across the ice.

The speed skater shunned the bulky street clothes his contemporaries were wearing.  For the sake of speed, he donned a minimalist outfit one step away from wearing nothing.  Equipment manufacturers like Spalding were producing new kinds of skates, with blades engineered with speed in mind.  American skaters had begun looking beyond their nation’s boundaries, racing against Europeans and Canadians, and forming a cosmopolitan fraternity that fostered a flow of innovation.

Champion speed skater Morris Wood

Palliser skated for the Euclid School in Brooklyn, NY, then one of the nation’s top speed-skating teams.  His teammates included national champion Morris Wood, Allen Taylor, and ‘Gus’ Stolz.  All four appeared as poster-boys for their sport in Spalding Athletic Library’s 1904 How To Become a Skater, which introduced a new generation to the gospel of speed.

Images: from this source and this.
This is the eighth in an occasional series of posts on ice-skating.