February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be. I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.
As ice-skating became a leading pastime in the 1860s, pictures of ice-skating and ice-skaters proliferated in the popular press, recording its impact on society. Looking at such pictures, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that skating represented something special in the lives of women, while also violating existing norms. If skating let women escape a certain social confinement, it rendered them more vulnerable, too. Ice-skating, though fun and bold, exposed women to certain perils, among them a mixing of classes and sexes that nineteenth-century society was set up to avoid.
The ice-skating craze that swept the northern US in the 1850s cracked the shell of stiff propriety imprisoning respectable women then. Normally, women were obliged to swaddle themselves in yards and yards of fabric, to garb themselves in full-length dresses and hoop-skirts completely concealing their lower bodies. Even equestrianism, which offered upper-class women a welcome chance to get some exercise, entailed riding side-saddle in a skirt that was abnormally long.
When Cole Porter penned the line, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking,” he summed up the 1850s economically.
Ice-skating changed that in a snap—as long as ladies and gentlemen were on the ice. To step onto a frozen pond was to sail into a world where the rules of genteel behavior were relaxed, strangers mingled, and even women could get a little bit wild.
This opening for women was symbolized in the creation of a special petticoat, designed to be worn as activewear under their skirts. The Balmoral petticoat, as it was called, was associated with Queen Victoria and the outdoor pastimes—such as skating, hiking, hunting, and riding—that she and her family were known to pursue on their country estate in Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands.
Fashion plates, like this one, and this one, showing skaters in balmoral petticoats, underscore the connection between this article of dress and an active outdoor life. Women donned such petticoats to skate or, in warmer months, to play croquet.
According to Leimomi Oakes, who writes about historical fashion at dreamstress.com, the balmoral petticoat typically had broad stripes at the bottom. Sometimes it was made of a colorful plaid. The petticoat was made to show off, furnishing a flash of color under drawn-up skirts. While full enough to be worn over a hoop, when it was not, it showed off the wearer’s ankles and legs. The full effect could be startlingly bold, as in the cover illustration for the song, “The Gal with the Balmoral” (1861).
Women began wearing these shortened skirts as soon as they began learning to skate. The petticoat was in vogue by 1859, as this print shows.
So, for a brief time in the 1850s and 60s, ice-skating offered a taste of sweet liberation, when women could pin up their skirts and have fun outside.
Sheet music cover, circa 1868
Images: Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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This is the sixth in an occasional series on ice-skating. Click here to read from the beginning.
For the most part, boys who wanted to skate had to clear the ice themselves.
Ice rinks, though not unheard of, were far fewer in number and far less interesting than frozen waterways, whether rivers or ponds; and, for the better part of a century, most American skaters enjoyed their sport in such natural settings.
Here, boys of various ages pose with their shovels while clearing the ice in Washington DC. Half-pose for the camera, I should say, for, while cooperating, still they couldn’t quite stifle their pure excitement and joy, their clowning and jostling frozen forever, along with their readiness to have a good time.
Despite differences in headgear, the skaters’ dress is fairly uniform: their knee-length trousers terminating above long wool stockings and lace-up skates. Most wear jackets rather than long overcoats, and a few wear ties! In the vanguard, an earnest-looking boy wears a serious woolen hat, its folds covering his ears, neck, and chin in a heavy cowl.
The knee-length pants were known as knickers. Their uniform usage in this photograph suggests that it was taken in the nineteen-teens.
While these skates were of a style that had been used for centuries, skate design was on the cusp of dramatic change. The 1850s saw many innovations, as ice-skating boomed in popularity. Many different styles of clip-on and strap-on skates were being brought to market, as makers vied to make skates stronger, faster, and more stable. The toe pick and the elongated blade extending beyond the back of the skate, both features of modern figure skates, hadn’t yet been thought of. Stopping or turning in these old skates could be tricky! Note the nail sticking up from the platform of the skate, which embedded itself in the heel of the wearer’s shoe, as a means of making the skate more stable.
Skating ahead of the Curve documents the newfangled skates being made at the time. These skates, dating from 1840-60, have taken a leap forward in material and design. Made mainly of metal, including cast steel, they feature a heel cup and thick leather straps that would have attached firmly to a boot or shoe.