Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Roller Skates in the House: America's Scandalous Pastime

Let's talk about James Cox. Who was he and why is he relevant to my home? The first time I had ever heard mention of James Cox was when I first found my home listed in the town's historical database. Among the businesses listed for my property was this:

So, we knew that in 1885, a business called James Cox's Skating Rink was located on my property lot. Such a little tease of information. Is it any wonder that it sparked my curiosity?

Well, Philip the Historian was recently able to add more information about this mysterious James Cox & his skating rink to the database. James Cox purchased the property in December of 1884. He owned the property lot from 1884 to 1889. It's entirely possible that he could be responsible for building my house as he falls within the 1876-1885 time slot.

James Cox was a wealthy Englishman who owned Bellgravia Plantation in the Shenandoah alley for a period of time. I have to have it confirmed, but I assumed he's listed amongst the "succession of owners before the Brumback family in 1907."

He bred cattle and trotting horses.When he sold the property to Mary Hottel in 1889, his residence as shown in the recorded deed was Liverpool, England.

James Cox established a skating rink on the property by July of 1885. Do you think 7 months is enough time to build a house? The fact that the skating rink was established in July tells us that it most definitely was not an ice skating rink. It was a ROLLER SKATING RINK.  Why didn't this occur to me sooner? Finally, we know that Mr. Cox charged 10 cents for a pair of skates.

Can you imagine roller skating while dressed in full Victorian garb?? HOLY MOLY!

Frankly, I didn't realize that roller skates were even in existence in the 1880s. I knew ice skates were around, but not roller skates. AWE-some! Of course, I had to do a little research into the history of roller skates and let me just say, they were quite scandalous!

Roller skates, or "dry-land skates," first show up in the historical record in the 1700s in Holland where ice skating was the widespread method of getting around on the many frozen canals in the winter. Roller skating popped up when an unknown Dutchman attached some spools to his shoes with strips of wood for getting around in the summertime.

Roller skates next appeared in London, England in 1760 when Joseph Merlin, an instrument maker and inventor, attended a masquerade ball wearing his latest invention, metal-wheeled boots. Merlin wanted to show off his new invention by skating around the ball and playing the violin simultaneously. Everything was going splendidly until he skated into a giant mirror. Whoops.

In the following century, roller skating quickly spread and became popular worldwide. The U.S. was no exception. In fact, the 1880s saw a roller skating craze in the United States. With the advent of adjustable skates and the toe stop, roller skates began to be mass produced by the 1880s, the first of the sport's several boom periods. Rinks began popping up everywhere and "rinkulating" became a favorite pastime.

Some rinks required their patrons wear full evening dress while skating. Fortunately, new skating dresses which increased mobility for females were produced by the 1880s, allowing the sport to flourish. The sport was so popular that in some cases, businesses even began forbidding their employees (such as the telephone girls in NYC) from participating because they would come to work tired the following day.

New music, such as the 1885 "Gliding in the Rink", was inspired by the roller skating craze. In addition to becoming a fun sport to participate in, skating garnered a lot of spectators as well. Owners came up with advanced skating shows, theme nights, and costume wearing. Skating became the thing to do for young couples of the 1880s. With so much popularity and rinks starting up in both large and small towns, it's no wonder that James Cox started one up in my little town... But where? In my house? In my backyard?? No idea.

Here is a set of quad roller skates, ca. 1880s, which were meant to be strapped over a person's shoes. These would probably be similar to what James Cox rented out for 10 cents a pair.

Not everyone loved the new popular pastime. There was plenty of opposition from groups who considered it to be scandalous. Churches with declining attendance were concerned with the moral standing of their youths. Theater districts and other businesses which depended on evening attendance were concerned by declining customers. As other pastimes such as bicycling and baseball came onto the scene, the popularity of rollerskating began to decline until it's rebirth during the 20th century.

Finally, even though they are outside of my time frame, I just had to share these because they just look SO CRAZY! In 1896, in-line Ritter Skates became popular for road use.

Yeah, buddy, check those out! Who wouldn't want a pair of these stylish accessories?

I'll take two pair. So I can skate around town with my darling husband. He's got a beard right now, but he could shave off everything but the mustache...

I need these.

Here is a more advanced pair from 1905. They are HOT! Like wearing little bicycles on your feet.


Yup. I was born in the wrong decade. How could I have missed out on these?? Guess who just added antique roller skates to her list of items to be found while thrifting?

Ultimately what we can take away from all of this is that the wealthy James Cox founded a roller skating rink on my property in 1885 at the height of the sport's popularity and he rented out skates for 10 cents a pair. And that bicycle feet need to come back into vogue. Like, now!

Pretty neat, huh?

**All roller skate history research done by reading various online articles and is therefore subject to error and suspicion.


  1. that is amazing! who would have thought??
    and seriously, i kinda hate roller skating now (i'm a wall-holder), so i can't imagine doing it in a bustle!

  2. I love that employers would forbid their employees from rollerskating!
    Your house is so fun! :)


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