‘Rinkmania’ was all the craze in Victorian England
January 4, 2022
There are days in history on which an invention so novel arrives, that it becomes all the rage – at least for a time.
One such invention was the four wheeled roller-skate, patented on January 4, 1863 by American James Plimpton.
Unlike an ice skate, the wheeled variety did not require a flat frozen surface and could be enjoyed in a variety of settings.
During the late 1800’s, it also was the catalyst for a ‘sexual revolution’ of sorts.
The roller skates story begins in 1743 when a pair was used in the theatre in Great Britain. John Joseph Merlin patented his version of the skate in 1760. But they were difficult to steer and, because there was no braking system, stopping at will was problematic.
It was Plimpton’s 1863 design which proved to be commercially successful. The Infallible Wikipedia informs us that Plimpton invented what was known as a rocking skate:
“… (He) used a four-wheel configuration for stability, and independent axles that turned by pressing to one side of the skate or the other when the skater wants to create an edge. This was a vast improvement on the Merlin design, one that was easier to use and drove the huge popularity of roller skating, dubbed ‘rinkomania’ in the 1860s and 1870s, which spread to Europe and around the world, and continued through the 1930s. The Plimpton skate is still used today.
Eventually, roller skating evolved from just a pastime to a competitive sport; speed skating, racing on skates, and inline figure skating, very similar to what can be seen in the Olympics on ice. In the mid 1990s roller hockey, played with a ball rather than a puck, became so popular that it even made an appearance in the Olympics in 1992. The National Sporting Goods Association statistics showed, from a 1999 study, that 2.5 million people played roller hockey. Roller skating was considered for the 2012 Summer Olympics but has never become an Olympic event. Other roller skating sports include jam skating and roller derby.
Roller skating popularity exploded during the disco era but tapered off in the 1980s and 1990s. Sales of roller skates increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as people sought safe outdoor activities.
Roller skating saw a revival in the late 2010s and early 2020s, spurred on by a number of viral videos on the popular video sharing app TikTok. Many popular brands sold out to the point of back-order, with many people taking up the hobby during COVID-19 quarantines across the globe.”
One aspect of the roller skates history which intrigued was the claim that it inspired a sexual revolution back in the 1860’s. This is attributable to the stodgy Victorian moral codes of the day in Great Britain.
According to one article, the skating rink proved to be the one place where romantically inclined young Brit’s could meet other young people.
“By the mid-1870s, a craze for indoor rollerskating had come to Britain, with 50 rinks in place in London at one point. The press dubbed the phenomenon ‘rinkomania’, but the healthy exercise that Plimpton had boasted of was not all that attracted the young ‘rinkers’.
‘The skating rink is the neutral ground on which the sexes may meet,’ reported Australia’s Port Macquarie News of goings-on in London and elsewhere, ‘without all the pomp and circumstances of society. The rink knows no Mother Grundy, with her eagle eye and sharp tongue, for Mother Grundy dare not trust herself on skates, and so the rinker is happier than the horseman of whom Horace sang.’
Holding hands and whispering sweet nothings became easier without Mother Grundy – a contemporary term for a stern matriarch – and her ilk tagging along. Prolonged eye contact with one’s intended replaced stolen glances.”
Skating rinks were also built all across the United States and remained wildly popular for one hundred years. In the late 1990’s and into the early part of the 21st Century, many were shuttered.
But thanks to the global pandemic of 2020, roller skating has emerged as a great way to get exercise. Roller rinks are seeing a revival in popularity.
I must admit that when I came across this topic, it produced nostalgia. It’s been about 15 years since I’ve been out roller skating. A fear of falling and breaking something keeps me from pursuing this particular activity.
But as a child, I was fearless. In fact, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t roller skate. It was in 1966 when my parents did a home remodel and our carport was converted to a family room. The driveway was relocated and became a large, flat expanse of concrete. It was perfect for a child with a pair of all metal roller skates which attached to her shoes. I spent many hours in the driveway skating around. No doubt I skinned my knees dozens, if not hundreds, of times. But I was undaunted.
When the weather turned inclement I’d sometimes get to go to my Aunt’s house a couple blocks away and skate in circles around their basement.
But the holy grail of experiences was on the days when I got to go to Skateland, Yakima’s very own roller rink. I loved everything about Skateland. How it smelled. The wood cubbies where one stored their shoes and coat. The flashing lights suspended over the rink. The planked floor with numbers painted on it for when they had a contest. The sound of hundreds of wheels rolling across it. The impossibly loud music. Dancing the hokey pokey.
I feel quite confident that roller skating is in my rear view mirror but I wonder if there is some inventor out there who could create a contraption that would allow all us Baby Boomers to skate once again. Places like Skateland in Yakima, or Skagit Skate not too far from where I currently live, could make it a real thing.
What we BB’s need would be akin to training wheels or even a walker like device. Something that would allow all the old fogies to stay upright and be able to recapture a few fleeting moments of our youth. Ah yes, those were the good old days.
A few links:
First up is Jim Croce’s classic ‘Roller Derby Queen’ – his explanation at the beginning is great!