As I sat down to write about the history of roller skates, I thought it would be an easy task. Not so! For something as simple as a roller skate that I had so much fun on as a kid my internet search provided no results except the following very dry information from the New York Times:
“The first modern two-by-two roller skates were patented in 1863 by James L. Plimpton, a New York City furniture dealer. Instead of being attached directly to the sole of the skate, the wheel assembly was fastened to a pivot and had a rubber cushion, which allowed the skater to curve by shifting his weight. A modification in 1866 added leather straps and metal side braces. “At last a roller skater could move around the floor as if he were on ice,” Mr. Turner wrote.”
This description would not suffice as it failed to detail the happiness, pleasure and bruised knees that a pair of roller skates could bring.
I grew up in a city, with lots of sidewalks and streets on which to use my skates. I was perhaps around 8 or 9 when I, along with every other kid on my block received a pair of brand new roller skates from Santa.
Now the good thing about living in certain cities is the lack of snow in the winter, so I was able to attempt using my new skates without a long wait until spring. It looked so easy, but alas it was not. Time was required to strap and fit them onto your shoes. Sneakers, I found out, wouldn’t work as well as a pair of good old ‘Buster Brown’ hard sole leather shoes.
The skate key was without a doubt one of the most important parts of the roller skate, for without it, all you could do was to look down at a pair of very useless new shiny skates. The key helped to adjust the length of the skate to fit your shoe, and once on your feet would work well to adjust the front clamps to fit snugly around the toe of your shoes. The back leather straps were fairly easy to put on and tighten to the desired fit.
Once the desired fit was obtained then you were ready to take off and skate with your friends, well almost. Maybe not as easy as it looked.
It’s like your first time on ice skates. Your balance is off and your feet want to fly out from under you. You couldn’t ask for help, because what 9 year old boy needs help, or would ever admit to wanting help.
I finally managed to get the hang of skating and was fairly steady on my feet and able to manage to skate a fair distance, that is, until I met my demise…the sidewalk crack!
Those cracks between the large concrete sidewalk slabs were as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. Yes there were many that were small, narrow and fairly visible, but then there were the big ones! And on my first attempt, down I went, hurting both my knees, out stretched hands, and mostly my pride. Others too, would fall as they attempted to make it across this divide, only to be looked at and laughed at by those who mastered the crossing.
I never really became a great roller skater as so many others did. In time many of us who were unable to master the art of roller skating decided to take our skates apart and make box scooters out of them. Now this was the best part of my roller skating days. All you needed was an old orange crate or another wooden box left out behind the local grocery store, a hammer, some nails and a few other additional pieces of wood. The skate key was used to take apart one skate. The front part of the skate was nailed to the front of your board, and the back part of the skate t the back of the board.
This was something that I could finally master along with the other kids who were not great roller skaters. As a group, we would cruise the sidewalks and streets on our homemade box scooters. A new form of freedom was found.
Years later I went to a roller rink which had form-fitting shoes with the rollers attached, but unfortunately my attempts at this were no better than my old fashion metal skates. The worst part of a Roller Rink, was that falling down was witnessed by all around you as you sat there embarrassed, trying to figure how to exit the rink gracefully.
And that’s my story of “Roller Skates”. If you have your own experiences, please share them with us. If you want to look at an old pair of Roller Skates and reminisce, visit us at the museum.