Crazy SK8s

There’s something about strapping on a pair of roller skates and the exhilaration of speeding across the floor, taking fast turns, testing your agility as you maneuver against and in tandem with those like-minded. The sport is very near and dear to my heart, as I recently joined the ranks of the DC Rollergirls, the National Capital Region’s only women’s flat-track roller derby league.

Roller derby world series semi-finals, Aug. 29, 1950. (Prints and Photographs Division)

But, we wouldn’t have derby without the invention of these four-wheeled wonders of motion. In 1863, James Leonard Plimpton invented the quad skate. Roller derby’s origins can be traced as far as 1884, as the growing popularity of roller skating in the United States led to the formation of organized endurance races.

In April 1905, roller rinks opened in cities in New England and New Jersey, beginning a revival of the sport. Skating was deemed a “craze,” hailed for its amusement and health benefits, all documented in the print media of the era.

An article in the Nov. 12, 1905 issue of The St. Louis Republic offers valuable pointers, such as using automobile tires around the waist and chest to safeguard the skater – an early form of protective gear, no? After falling repeatedly, the skater should resolve to “learn the game or die.” And, in the derby world, that mantra isn’t such a far stretch. Neither is the falling.

The Los Angeles Herald published a story on Nov. 25, 1906, regarding the “Costumes for the All-Absorbing Craze.” And, while I can’t imagine wearing a corset, I could be persuaded by chiffon.

Extolling the health benefits is an article in the Jan. 27, 1907 issue of The Washington Times. “Nervous trouble of all kinds, rheumatism and colds contracted from over-heated houses are among the diseases for which the physicians advise the roller skate. And, whisper it gently, lest the streets be blockaded with skaters, roller skating is the best anti-fat remedy in the world!”

A line of roller skaters, 1907. (Prints and Photographs Division)

That’s not to say that skating didn’t have its naysayers during that time. The author of an op-ed piece in the Feb. 25, 1906 issue of The San Francisco Call claimed the craze “an intoxicant … a fresh outbreak, but a deal more virulent than it was before, attacking all ranks, ages and conditions, in no sense a respecter of persons.”  She likens the sprouting of rinks and skating schools  to the spread of chickenpox.

Roller skating is just one of the featured Topics in Chronicling America. Presented are several newspaper articles on the pastime along with suggested search terms to use in the Chronicling America database.

And, for a final bit of fun, what words can’t say, a short film will do. Long live this craze! And knee pads!


  1. Dmobile215
    February 2, 2011 at 11:30 am

    This is a really nice story something I enjoyed really because I skate myself..

  2. Laura
    February 2, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Interesting post! What’s your roller derby name? There are so many librarian related possibilities–Dewey Decimation, The OPACinator…

  3. Larry Terrell
    February 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you very much. The links and vid are lovely to get lost in. I have a few friends whom have recently formed a Derby team and it will be a pleasure to forward this along to them. I appreciate the knowledge, too.

  4. edward day
    February 3, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    This was an absolutely delightful insight into life in my grandparents’ time. The policeman was right out of Mack Sennett!!!
    Only one criticism: it was far too short. Send us more of this sort of videos, please.
    May I add, too, that your sending of the Civil War Faces and the Civil War Photographs was a masterpiece. They bring life to our heritage as no other collections I’ve ever seen have. Shows us that History is People.
    Thank you so much.
    Edward Day

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