News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 30, 2013

HISTORICAL TREASURE: Skate over to see this treasure

Linda Patrick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It’s December, it’s cold and soon it will be perfect weather for this week’s Historical Treasure — ice skates.

Ice skates weren’t always used for sport or just for fun; they were a necessity for survival in winter. The origin of the ice skate is unclear, both the Dutch and Scandinavians claim them from their Viking ancestors. The oldest pair of skates known was found when dredging the bottom of a lake in Switzerland. They’re made of polished bone and are estimated to be about 3,000 years old. Evidence of skating was also found in Roman ruins in London, dating from about 50 B.C. Excavations there uncovered leather soles and animal bones that had been flattened on one side. Skates similar to these have since been found in several other places in Europe.  

As mentioned above, these early skates were made from bone, usually the leg bones of cattle, horses or other livestock, with one side flattened. Holes were bored in both ends of the bone and held on the feet with leather straps. Because one side was flattened, the skater couldn’t get any forward momentum and had to use poles to move forward, rather like a combination of skating and skiing.

Around 1250 A.D. the Dutch replaced bone skates with blades made of iron. About 1500 they added a narrow metal double-edged blade. These “modern” ice skates led to the discovery of the “Dutch Roll” because skaters could now push and glide with their feet, doing away with the poles used before. The metal blade took on a different, more sophisticated design, having a triangular shaped platform and a beautifully curved “prow” on the front. During the Small Ice Age of the 17th century ice skates became common objects. The basic foundation founded in the 17th century lasted into the 20th century.

The Industrial Revolution brought many changes to ice skates. Blades were no longer forged but punched from sheet metal, doing away with the curved prow on the front. In 1848, E.V. Bushnell of Philadelphia, Pa., invented the first strapless skate with an all-steel clamp. Now skates could be clamped directly to the shoe. For the first time skaters can twist, turn, jump and spin without losing their blades.  

These skates were similar to the ones shown in the accompanying photo, being adjustable in both length and width. In 1865 Jackson Haines, a famous American skater, developed the two-plate all metal blade that attached directly to his boot. He became famous for his new dance moves, jumps and spins. In the1870s Haines added the first toe pick to skates, making toe pick jumps possible. In 1908 figure skating was made an Olympic sport.

The skates in the photo have been with the museum a long time and unfortunately there’s no documentation as to their history. They will be a part of the museum’s latest exhibit, “Christmas on Wabash Avenue.”

The Vigo County Historical Society is having an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 8. Why not glide in to see them? Also, the Historical Society will be a collection site for the Toys for Tots campaign.