A Short History of Ice Skating
The discovery during the nineteenth century of ancient bone skates in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the Danube valley and England suggests that ice skating may be much older than 1,700 years. These bones were from horses, oxen, deer and sheep and were shaved off to a point at the front. Holes were drilled through them and they were then fixed to the foot with leather thongs. As these ‘blades’ would not likely grip the ice very well a sharp pole would also be used to help propel the skater across the snow and ice.

Iron shod ski-skates are known to have existed in at least the 1300s. These skates would not exactly be bladed but rather an iron strip fixed to a wooden block the length of a normal adult foot and shaped like a boat with a pointed prow that turned upward. This strip might have been 24 inches long and 2/5 of an inch broad and 1/8 of an inch high. The blade was turned up to help the skater move easily over rough ice and snow. A pole was used, not in the primitive manner of pushing, but for steering and braking making it possible to keep up a good speed over frozen roads and beaten snow tracks.

Skating developed differently in different countries. As Scandinavia is covered with blankets of heavy, deep snow, skating would have been restricted to the few clear stretches of rivers and lakes that escaped the severe snowfalls so ski-skating was more popular. The Netherlands was quite different. It was threaded with canals that formed the main arteries of communication between one town and another and in the winter these long stretches of artificial rivers were frozen but not often covered with deep snow. Skating became the best and fastest means of communication between towns and villages. In deep winter they were often the only means of reaching a place.

It cannot be said exactly when iron bladed skates were first developed but it was almost certainly in the Netherlands. The use of a metal blade allowed the wearer to get a grip on the ice meaning there was no longer a need for the staff or long pole for propulsion. By the latter part of the 16th century the iron skate and the ability to control and use it correctly had reached a certain degree of perfection.

There is no doubt that well before the mid 1600s ice skating had become an important recreation in Holland. It was practiced by every class of society from the simplest peasant to the royalty themselves. It was especially among the nobility that skating found its true beginnings as a sport. While speed would be the main preoccupation of the peasants hurrying to market, refinement and grace would be more important to the nobleman. Under the influence of princely company, skating unconsciously acquired the dignity of the court. Arms and legs were poised with deliberate elegance. Heads were held high- grace was part of skating.

This kind of skating was likely brought to England during the Restoration when the Stuarts returned to England from exile in the Netherlands. Sometime in the second half of the 18th century the Edinburgh Skating Club, the world’s first skating club, was formed in Scotland. To gain membership in the club it was necessary for the skater to be able to skate a complete circle on either foot and to jump over one, then two and then three hats placed on the ice. England also lays claim to the first artificial ice rink built in Chelsea in 1876.

Blades began to be developed differently depending on how they were to be used. Skating on the canals of Holland required a long, speed skating type of blade. Skating in the small ponds and lakes in England meant having to make sharp turns and so the skates were modified to have shorter blades and more rocker. The skate also began to be higher to allow for more lean. Before the mid 1800s skaters stopped by leaning well back on their heels with their toes pointed in the air. This was possible because the blade stopped under the middle of the heel. At this time skaters only went forward. But soon the blade was extended the whole length of the foot to allow for backward skating and skaters could stop by sliding the blade sideways.

In England, skaters became fascinated with developing edges and turns and developed hundreds of combinations that they would skate together in groups of 2 or 4 or 6 or more. This became known as Combined Skating or skating in the English style. Scandinavians became expert in Continuous Skating- drawing elaborate patterns on the ice on one foot. The English were very concerned with body position and form so they did not agree with the body contortions necessary to create these patterns. On the Continent skaters were more interested in what would become free skating- pirouettes, jumps and field moves known as the International Style imported from America by Jackson Haines. In the late 1860s he traveled Europe leaving a trail of enthusiasm for the excellence of his exhibition skating. In 1865 he invented a new skate that screwed permanently onto the skating boot. Within 5 years he added toe picks. He traveled Europe for many years performing his flamboyant routines to music and in colourful theatrical costumes.His memory is kept alive in modern skating by the classic sit spin that he invented. The Dutch with their experience in skating in a straight line because of the canals became proficient speed skaters.

Skating in North America was likely introduced during the 1700s by British army officers. Of course skating outside was always fraught with danger. It was fairly common for skaters to fall through the ice and so when the first skating club in North America was established it was called the Philadelphia Skating and Humane Society. Members were required to carry little wooden reels attached to their left wrist containing a length of strong thin rope and were given instruction in how to resuscitate a drowning victim. North Americans developed the first all-metal skates that clamped onto the skater’s boot. This was necessary to accommodate the violent twisting and turning that was a part of American two foot figures and stunts.

It was in Canada that the first covered rinks appeared. These large sheds were constructed over top of natural ice. They were gas-lit so skating could carry on at night in complete safety. These rinks were the scenes of elaborate fancy-dress balls, the forerunners of the great Canadian ice-carnivals of today.
Eventually competitions between countries began to appear and the first World Championship was held in St. Petersburg in 1896. Gilbert Fuchs of Germany was the Champion. During the early years of the 20th century the turns and patterns developed through these competitions became formalized into a set of standard figures that were practiced all over the world. These ‘school figures’ would remain the foundation for determining champions in skating up until the end of the century.

During the 1924 Olympic games at Chamonix the appearance of Sonja Henie, eleven years old, created a sensation. She went on to win the European championship eight times, three Olympic Gold Medals and ten World Championships. During the decade in which she dominated figure skating she gave flow to the sequences of figures and meaning to her programmes. She also popularized the short skirt that allowed women to participate in jumping and spinning like the men. After her amateur career she went on to become one of the wealthiest stars in America through her ice shows and skating movies.

During the time of the world wars there was very little skating going on in Europe but in America skaters were still practicing and developing the sport so when World competitions resumed following the second world war it was no surprise that North American skaters with their double and triple jumps dominated. Television and ice shows soon brought figure skating to the general public more than ever before. In the 70s skaters like Canada’s Toller Cranston & Britain’s John Curry pushed the limits of free skating with their incredible artistry and musical interpretation and school figures became less important as the value of free skating increased. As the popularity of free skating grew through exposure on television and in touring ice shows this momentum culminated in figures being removed from International competition entirely in the early 1990's.

In the early years of the 21st century we now have an entirely new judging system in place. Who knows what the future will bring but people young and old are sure to continue to enjoy skating in all its forms. 

Source: Ice Skating by Nigel Brown