Grab Your Skates and Let’s Go!

Left: Winslow ladies’ skates with key, 1875-1920. WHS collections 2010.1.36.
Right:
Barney & Berry ladies’ skates, 1880-1930. WHS collections 2010.1.69.

As the mercury sinks below freezing and the snow drifts pile high, many New Englanders are inclined to nestle into a cozy spot by the hearth. Others prefer to take in the brisk winter air and enjoy outdoor activities including sledding, skiing, and ice skating. Until the nineteenth century, such outdoor recreations were a luxury for only wealthy Americans. However, the Industrial Revolution produced both an increase in leisure time for the middle class and a profusion of affordable recreational equipment. It is this equipment that fills many of the Windsor Historical Society’s storage shelves, including six pairs of ice skates, a lone single skate, and a few pairs of steel blades.

The Samuel Winslow Skate Manufacturing Company crafted one pair of ladies’ skates in the collection (above, left). Winslow opened his factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1856 and by the 1880s was making 260,000 pairs of ice and roller skates per year. Barney and Berry, Inc. were one of the largest skate manufacturers in the country (above, right). At its height, B&B produced around 600,000 pairs of skates annually at their Springfield, Massachusetts, plant and employed nearly 250 workers. In the 1860s a pair of their ladies’ skates would have cost around seven dollars, or about a week’s wage for an average worker. Almost forty years later the 1897 Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalogue offered a similar pair for sixty-two cents. Between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, the rise in skate manufacturing, profusion of affordable skates, and expansion of leisure time for workers turned ice skating into one of America’s national pastimes.

In January 1865 the Hartford Daily Courant noted the locales for good skating including:

“on the Connecticut [River], above the East Hartford bridge; on Wethersfield Cove – to reach which take the horse cars; and on Way’s pond – take the cars to Canton street, and you can skate from the pond to the river.”

The skating season was in full swing as early as December 10th in 1867: “The ringing and the clanging of the steel, and the darting here and there of pretty feet can be seen and heard.” Skating was so popular that a group of Hartford businessmen built an indoor skating rink on Elm Street along Bushnell Park in 1869. Children paid fifteen cents each, and Saturday afternoons included ice skating races for boys and girls under the age of fourteen. But, the presence of the indoor rink did not keep ice skaters off the rivers and ponds. In February 1875 one Wethersfield resident was highlighted in Middletown’s Daily Constitution for his full day of ice skating on the Connecticut River:

“Mr. Buck, of Wethersfield, on Saturday last, skated from that place to Windsor Locks, and then back again. He then took the cars at Wethersfield, and went to Saybrook Junction, and skated from there on the river to this city [Middletown]. He stopped here an hour or two, and in the evening started for home on the ice.”

Gemmill, Burnham, & Co. trade card, 1871-1882. WHS collections 1986.75.900.274, gift of Marguerite Mills.

Postcard, c. 1910, WHS collections 2007.9.1.189, gift of Joyce Banta.

By the 1880s ice skating was a suitable recreational activity for both the young and the young-at-heart. Gemmill, Burnham & Co. in Hartford utilized an image of two boys and a girl ice skating on one of their trade cards (above, left). Similar imagery is found on a twentieth-century postcard sent to Laura Hastings of Windsor around 1910 (above, right). This repeated portrayal of happy children skating cemented the idea of ice skating as a national pastime and as a topic about which adults could fondly reminisce.

The Oral History Project at the Society has captured many Windsor residents recalling their ice skating adventures in the early twentieth century. Albert Endee recollected that in the 1920s the ice skating was very safe on the Connecticut River as well as the Farmington River and at Hatheway’s Pond. Anne Wittenzellner Drake remembered skating in the 1930s on a low spot in her family’s pasture that froze over in the wintertime and on the Park Avenue pond where the “older kids would build a bonfire.” She also detailed her singular solo excursion on to the Connecticut River:

“I looked at the [Connecticut] River, and it was all frozen. It was so nice, and I decided I was going to try it. I got down on it, and you know because the water is moving, that’s not frozen. And so it started cracking…I wanted to get back to where I was supposed to…I finally did, but I learned a lesson. I never did it again.”

Skating and sledding on a pond in Hayden Station. WHS collections 2017.4.254.

Washington Park in the 1940s was another hot spot for ice skating according to Symond Yavener and Elizabeth Bryant Parker. Parker noted that it was well lit so you could skate there at night with music piped in courtesy of Michael’s Jewelry Store from Hartford. Windsor interviewees also spoke of ice skating on Loomis Pond, Rainbow Pond, and Mill Brook. Today most ice skating takes place at rinks with Zamboni machines, skate rentals, and copious adult supervision, so the Oral History Project has captured a fleeting part of the history of childhood recreation and ice skating in twentieth-century Windsor.

The ice skates in the Society’s collection speak to a time when any frozen body of water was an opportunity for this wintertime recreation. Do you remember where you used to skate in Windsor? What happened to your old ice skates? Come visit WHS this winter to view some ice skates from our collection, and please feel free to share your ice skating stories with us!

Many thanks to Karen Cameron and the Antique Ice Skate Club for their assistance dating some of the ice skates in our collection.

By Christina Keyser Vida, curator, 2010

2018-01-16T16:11:26+00:00