By: Angela Vanderbilt
One of the favorite pastimes of children in the 1920s and 1930s was roller skating, which is evident from the many pictures in this collection of kids with the four-wheeled contraptions strapped to their shoes. Invented in 1760 by Belgian Joseph Merlin, roller skates continued to evolve in style, functionality and popularity for the next 170 years, with the version found in our images among the most popular and affordable of the period.
I had mistakenly considered roller skates as a 1950’s phenomenon, until I came across the article “History of Roller Skating in the United States” on the Planet On Wheels website, where I learned the invention of roller skates dates back to 1760. Much earlier, although not as early as the ice skate which, according to the same article, boasts a 3,000 B.C. date of origin based on artifacts discovered in Switzerland! Similar in style to the ice skate was the inline roller skate, first invented by Monsieur Patibledin of France in 1819, a streamlined design that fell out of favor, but become hugely popular again in the 1990s.
While there were varying styles of roller skate available in the mid-1800s, it was American businessman James Plimpton of Massachusetts who, in 1863, invented the first 4-wheeled roller skate with a wheel base that allowed smooth turning, referred to as a “rocking” skate. The clamp-on skate was introduced at about the same time by another Massachusetts businessman, E.H. Barney. The clamp-on style was popular because it could be attached to any shoe, and adjusted to fit by loosening or tightening a screw on the bottom of the skate. If you have ever heard the term “skate key,” this was the device used to loosen and tighten the adjustable skates.
Other advances in skate design included the addition of a “break” – at first simply a metal screw that was affixed to the heel of the skate. Later, in the 1950s, the toe stop became the popular breaking mechanism for roller skates. Similar to the toe pick of an ice skate, it was a rubber pad attached to the toe of the skate which slowed the skater as it was drug on the ground.
A once avid roller skater, I was surprised to learn of the long and varied history of the roller skate. (Yes, I admit it; I spent the majority of my childhood summers rolling along the sidewalks of Lancaster, Ohio with best friends Cindy and Angi. Some days we headed west down Main Street hill to Beiter & Flege Drug Store, other days it was east down Main Street hill to Risch’s Drug Store – both still had working soda fountains in the back and we had a few odd cents burning holes in our pockets! The brick sidewalks, raised in spots by tree roots and lowered in spots by age, were our ready-made obstacle course and by 6th grade, we were pros at navigating them.)
The children of Cincinnati, boys and girls alike, also enjoyed roller skating as part of their outdoor play. Whether out in the suburban neighborhoods or downtown, kids could be found roller skating from place to place using the clamp-on style of skate that was the most available at the time. The shoe skate, a boot with roller skate wheels attached to the base, were available at the turn of the century, but were more costly and generally worn by professional skaters. They were often considered unsanitary, but became the skate of choice at roller skating rinks around the country when the fad took off in the early decades of the 20th century. Patrons could “rent” a pair of shoe skates at the rink if they did not bring their own.
The technology of the roller skate continued to advance as new materials became available for skate construction. Different styles of skating evolved, including roller dancing, skate races and “polo skating” took on popularity and skating rinks were becoming the place to be seen. Indoor and outdoor roller skating rinks continued to open across the country and in the 1930s, the first skating association was formed by a group of skating rink owners, known as the Roller Skating Association (RSA). The 1928-1929 Williams Cincinnati Street Directory lists the Reichrath’s Park Roller Rink at 3722 Spring Grove Avenue. The 1929-1930 directory lists the Palace Gardens Skating Rink on Beechmont Avenue east of Wilmer Avenue, as well as Reichrath’s Park Roller Rink. Other directories from the 1930s list both the Reichrath’s Park Roller Rink and the Palance Gardens Skating Rink.
But it was the introduction of disco in the 1970s that gave roller skating its biggest boost in popularity. According to the Planet On Wheels article, over 4,000 roller discos opened around the country, with numerous movies being made that featured roller skating as either a main or supportive theme, such as the 1980 hit “Xanadu” with Olivia Newton John.
Roller skating is still a popular pastime in Cincinnati, with several roller rinks still in business. Family-owned for 25 years, The Skatin Place is located in northwestern Cincinnati; to the north, there’s Skatetown in West Chester, the Fun Factory in Norwood and Sports Plus Ice and Roller/Inline Skating Rink in Sharonville, and on the west side is Western Rollarama near Covedale. One outdoor roller rink is available during the summer months at Sawyer Point downtown. Ready! Set! All skate!