Curator’s Favorite: Roller Skating Fun

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Curator’s Favorite: Roller Skating Fun


[David] Lothrop, Man on Roller Skates. (Philadelphia, ca. 1890). Albumen print cabinet card.

[David] Lothrop, Man on Roller Skates. (Philadelphia, ca. 1890). Albumen print cabinet card.

The Library Company recently acquired this wonderful circa 1890 studio portrait of a man on roller skates. Taken in David Lorthop’s North Ninth Street Philadelphia studio, the nattily dressed gentleman, sporting checked trousers and a porkpie hat, poses in front of a painted backdrop. Four-wheeled roller skates are clipped to each shoe.

Our unidentified man was participating in the roller skating craze sweeping the country in the late 19th century.  A Philadelphia Inquirer writer reported in 1885 that as many as twenty rinks had opened in Philadelphia and that the city supported two publications about the activity including the Weekly Roller. The same reporter visited a Philadelphia rink and on March 28, 1885 published his observations in a lengthy article. On the Thursday evening of the reporter’s visit about 500 patrons, mostly in their teens and twenties, skated in a circle to live music, while as many as twice that number observed the skaters. Tickets to the rink cost twenty-five cents and could be purchased at local hotels and other places of business throughout the city, as well as at the rink.

Trade card for the Philadelphia Roller Skating Rink. (ca. 1881). Chromolithograph.

Trade card for the Philadelphia Roller Skating Rink. (ca. 1881). Chromolithograph.


Verso of trade card for the Philadelphia Roller Skating Rink.

Verso of trade card for the Philadelphia Roller Skating Rink.

The reporter took a dim view of what he observed at the roller skating rink. The lack of formality between the sexes particularly disturbed him. “A young fellow, after apologizing to a lady for his awkwardness in skating directly across her path, instead of retiring, as he should have done,” chided the reporter, “improved the occasion to stop and talk, and before long the pair were skating about the room side by side.” His observation of the mingling between the sexes is confirmed by this trade card in our collection advertising the Philadelphia Skating Rink at Twenty-third and Chestnut Streets where many of the skaters have paired off in coed couples. The idea of unsupervised interaction between the sexes was also played out on a series of trade cards entitled Mr. Pickwick on Wheels. This card portrays “Mr. Pickwick getteth embraced, first time in forty years,” but when Mr. Pickwick returns the embrace in the next card, his forwardness is soundly rebuffed. A minister warned in an April 1885 Philadelphia Inquirer article that while ice skating was a “healthful and innocent exercise,” roller skating rinks “corrupt the morals of all who associate with them.”

Trade card for The Opera House Pharmacy. (ca. 1890). Chromolithograph. Gift of William H. Helfand.

Trade card for The Opera House Pharmacy. (ca. 1890). Chromolithograph. Gift of William H. Helfand.

The roller skating craze spawned truly bizarre variations on the activity. A West Philadelphia rink manager offered patrons the opportunity to chase a pig and two turkeys around the rink with the winner taking the animals home as Thanksgiving dinner. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in to stop the fun.,  Instead, the rink owner  held a series of races with the animals being the prizes for the fastest skater. Curiously, the SPCA did not stop performances by Black Crook, the skating horse. Black Crook rolled across the stage of a Philadelphia museum at Ninth and Arch Streets wearing four roller skates. Much to the audience’s delight, Black Crook ended the act by performing a waltz on roller skates. Truly, a sight to behold and one that I can only hope to find an image of someday!

Sarah J. Weatherwax
Curator of Prints and Photographs

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