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Gliding Through History: A Trip Down the Roller Skating Memory Lane

Gliding Through History: A Trip Down the Roller Skating Memory Lane

Where it all began

It’s yet another lavish masquerade night at the Carlisle House.  At the time, the mansion was rented by Madam Cornely, an operatic soprano and impresario, famous for her extravagant gatherings and for being the mother of Casanova’s only daughter. 

Inventor John Joseph Merlin decided that that was the night to demonstrate his new creation: a pair of wheeled shoes, at the time dubbed ‘skaites’. Yet despite being an ingenious creator and a flamboyant personality, Mr. Merlin underestimated the velocity of his ‘skaites’ and their lack of appropriate brakes. The party came to an end when he crashed into a huge mirror, injuring himself and shocking the guests. 

And that’s how the first-ever roller skating accident was recorded in history, as well as the general rule-of- thumb to wear a helmet when learning how to skate!

Roller skates were first patented in 1863, by James. L Plimpton, who not only enhanced the original design but also founded the New York Roller Skating Association. He promoted the sport as a great date night idea for young ladies and their admirers, while chaperoned of course. Plimpton was the very first to open a skating rink, where he would rent skates and give lessons. He quickly grew to make a decent living on this original endeavor.

1950s – A True Family Affair

Despite roller skates getting patented in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the sport became truly popular around the world. The baby boom generation was said to “cruise through the 50s”, having turned roller skating into a popular and fun pastime.

The ‘nifty 50s’ brought a wave of roller rinks, a popular location for a Friday night of freedom.  Accompanied by music, everyone was welcome at the rinks – from enamored teenagers to busy moms and dads who needed an evening off together. Roller skates were soon introduced to the ballroom, which quickly became a new leading trend amongst dancing enthusiasts. In addition to this, waitresses on wheels started popping up in diners across the United States.

During the 50s, skating rinks were like no other. There were separate sessions for couples, scouts, little children, and as well larger groups when pretty much anyone could be on the rink. Roller skating promptly became a sport encouraged to maintain health and fitness, as well as wholesome, all-around family fun.


1970s – The Groovy Disco

The 70s were perhaps the most important decade for roller skating. Up until this point, it was a popular leisurely activity advocated to be a great hobby and exercise. In the 70s, roller skating was blended with dancing, fashion, and upbeat music… and became art. 

Disco music developed an integral club culture in the 70s and paved its way into the fashion world swiftly enough. Club goers combined funky style, together will skating skills to create a craze of their own – the roller disco.

Roller discos were pretty much normal roller rinks, but with fun disco music roaring in the background. The atmosphere inside imitated the bright lights and groovy dancing of Studio54, minus the avid cocaine and alcohol use.

Elegant ballroom roller skating was quickly forgotten and replaced with grooving and boogying on wheels. By the end of the decade, Cher released a song called ‘Hell on Wheels’, where she skates in a leotard down the freeway, while followed by a group of fascinated truck drivers and bikers. What a time to be alive!


1980s and 1990s – The Two Decades of Rollerblading

In the 80s the “quad-style” of roller skates, that included four wheels to mimic the configuration of a car, started to decline. It was replaced by inline skate where 4-5 wheels were positioned in a single line It was rumored that even before Mr. Merlin invented his skates and ruined a party, an inventor in Holland created wooden inline skates – unfortunately, not much is known about the inventor or his invention.

Rollerblade skates were born in 1980 – they were the first inline skates to appear on the market. Rollerblades quickly started appearing on the streets across the United States during summer. They were invented by two brothers who were hockey enthusiasts and needed to find a way to train during off-season. However, it was not until the mid-90s that rollerblading really took off – the U.S alone had over 30 million rollerbladers at the time.

The 90s was also the decade during which aggressive inline skating was born. Falling under the subdiscipline of inline skating (or rollerblading), aggressive inline skating includes executing tricks like grinds and jumps. There were multiple global inline skating competitions such as the World Inline Cup.

But as the 2000s crept in, inline skating slowly started dying out, mainly as a competitive sport. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of inline skaters declined by over 60%. Competitions fizzled out, and the Aggressive Skaters Association was shut down.



2020 – The Rebirth

2020 was complicated year at best. The COVID-19 pandemic left many locked at home or even unemployed, with little to distract them from the impending global public health crisis. As cities locked civilians at home, a walk or jog in the park became the highlight of most people’s days. In most countries, some outdoor activities were still allowed so people started turning to alternatives to running and cycling.

To the surprise of many, in mid-May 2020 there was surge in searches for roller skates on Google Trends.  Gen Xers were remembering their youth at roller discos, Millennials were digging their attics to find their old rollerblades, while the Gen Zs were filming themselves performing tricks to music in their new Impala skates on TikTok.

Roller skating has always been closely tied with fashion, inspiring modern roller skating companies to produce colorful, fun skates from bright pastel fade  to 50s-inspired, classic white. Suddenly, the trend was back with coastal cities across the world filled with roller skaters of all ages.



Skating Away From The Pandemic

The revival of this seemingly forgotten hobby has been one of the little highlights of 2020.  In perfect contrast to the immobility and exasperation of the past year, roller skating gives us a sense of freedom and perhaps even some nostalgia. It reminds us of seemingly easier times, when our young selves could pull on some skates and glide around our neighborhood, not worrying whether the world we know will be different tomorrow. 

In a world crippled by lockdowns, where visiting your friends and going out for dinner has become illegal, roller skating is a breath of fresh air. And you must admit, it’s more fun than a running or a HIIT class!


"Danskin Roller Disco" by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is licensed under CC0 1.0

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