11 Things You Might Not Know About Roller Skates

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It’s summertime, and at many points over the past few centuries, that was the only reason necessary to strap on some roller skates. Though it’s a sport and leisure activity that in this century has largely been replaced by other pastimes, roller skating has enjoyed some notable moments in history.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A VERY DRAMATIC ENTRANCE

The first recorded roller skate inventor, John Joseph Merlin, originally of Belgium, decided to debut his metal-wheeled roller skates at a fancy masquerade party in London in 1760. Merlin’s plan was to suavely skate into the salon while simultaneously playing a violin. Unfortunately, Merlin hadn’t practiced skating much prior to the soiree, nor were his skates engineered for turning. Merlin ended up crashing into a large mirror and suffering serious physical injuries, though his pride might have been the part of him most severely bruised.

2. “TRUCKS” CHANGED EVERYTHING

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Roller Skating

Though many more inventors would create their own versions of the roller skate over the next century, it wasn’t until 1863, when James Plimpton tried his hand at this whole roller-skate-inventing thing, that there came into existence a skate actually capable of turning. Plimpton’s four-wheeled skate made use of springy carriages called trucks that allowed the skater to turn by leaning in the direction of travel. Plimpton built a roller rink in his New York furniture-business office, and he also established the New York Roller Skating Association to promote skating.

3. ROLLER SKATING’S POPULARITY IS LIKE A ROLLER COASTER

Roller skating tends to have its heydays and its fallow eras. Though the 1970s may be thought of as the most famous roller skating decade, the early 1900s experienced its own roller skating craze. In 1905, roller skating rinks opened in cities on the East Coast, and skating was often chosen over dancing and other types of entertainment. The craze then snaked its way across the Heartland and to major cities on the West Coast. By 1906, newspapers were running trend pieces about roller skating fashions. Then, in 1916, Charlie Chaplin starred in The Rink, the first movie about roller skating (above).

4. PEOPLE GOT MARRIED ON ROLLER SKATES

The first recorded marriage on roller skates took place in 1912 in Milwaukee between a Miss Hattie Baldwin and a Mr. W. McGrath, according to the National Museum of Roller Skating. And, yes, there is a National Museum of Roller Skating. It’s in Lincoln, Nebraska, and it recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.

5. SKATES MADE SERVING FOOD EASIER—OR AT LEAST MORE FUN

In the 1950s and early ‘60s, the roller skating carhop was a ubiquitous sight at drive-ins. Movies like American Graffiti and TV shows like Happy Days further solidified the carhop’s place in American pop culture. Roller skating carhops still exist today, and the Sonic restaurant chain hosts an annual event called the Sonic Skate-Off, a competition to find the most skillful skating carhop from its 3,500 drive-ins nationwide.

6. SWAGGER WAS OFTEN INVOLVED

At the height of the 1970s roller revolution, each major American city developed its own skate style, though some styles were more distinctive than others. Chicago especially became known as a roller skating city and became famous for JB skating, which borrowed many of its intricate moves from the Godfather of Soul (“JB” is said to be an abbreviation for “James Brown.”) Fancy footwork and standing dance routines are hallmarks of the JB style, and a well-known move is aptly called the “Crazy Leg.” The JB style is still practiced on Chicago skating rinks today.

7. CHER WAS HIP TO THE ROLLER CRAZE

In 1979, Cher released a song called “Hell on Wheels.” The accompanying video was one of the very first modern, MTV-style music videos. It features an interesting mix of truck drivers, bikers, and Cher on roller skates wearing a zebra-print jumpsuit.

8. AND SO WAS PATRICK SWAYZE

Before he was Johnny of nobody-puts-Baby-in-a-corner fame, Patrick Swayze made his big-screen debut as Ace in 1979’s Skatetown USA. Dubbed “The Rock and Roller Disco Movie of the Year,” the film also starred Scott Baio and The Brady Bunch's Maureen McCormick. In the clip above, you can see Swayze as Ace, using his belt as an imaginative prop in a roller disco contest.

9. SOMEWHAT SURPRISINGLY, EVEN THE AMISH ROLLER SKATE

The Amish typically eschew technology and complicated machinery in favor of a very simple life. Cars, motorcycles, and even bikes are forbidden modes of transportation, but roller skates have been used for decades in Amish communities. In the 1990s, however, in the middle of the Rollerblade craze, the New York Times reported that though the Amish youth had adopted inline skates as transportation, only a third of Amish congregations had approved their use. Some of the elders were concerned that Rollerblades, which were able to achieve greater speeds than roller skates, could dilute the Amish no-frills lifestyle.

10. THE ROLLER SKATE STILL INSPIRES PARADES

The largest parade of roller skaters took place in Paris on June 15, 2008, according to Guinness World Records. The parade consisted of 1188 participants who skated for 12.68 miles.

11. AND IT WEATHERS NATURAL DISASTERS

Once a mecca of roller skating, New York City now has only one remaining indoor roller rink, RollerJam USA on Staten Island (though another makeshift rink operates out of a gym in Brooklyn). RollerJam USA was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, and for a while it looked as though New York’s rink count would be reduced to zero.

It took $750,000 and six months of extensive repairs to finally reopen the rink this past spring, according to RollerJam USA’s owner Joe Costa. “It was worth it,” Costa says. “There’s still this whole underground skating community that you wouldn’t even know exists—people from the ‘70s who are still doing it. And there’s a new generation that’s definitely getting interested in roller skating. Gliding on skates to the music—there’s no feeling like it.”

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August 12, 2013 - 5:11pm
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