Skating on Thin Ice… And Blades: How Equipment Transforms Sports

The Winter Olympics. Two weeks of television showing “all forms of sliding,” as my roommate says: on ice, on snow, on skis, on boards…

Despite the hectic Winterthur schedule, we refused to miss said sliding and found the games at night an inspiration to work harder during the day. We did not miss a minute of the action. We watched the United States compete at the highest level with gold-medal performances from Shaun White, the US Women’s Hockey team, and the US Curling Team. We watched as competitors accomplished unfathomable achievements; Mirari Nagasu, the first American woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics and Nathan Chen, who became the first person to land five quads in one program. Yet, as Winterthur students we were nearly as excited about the commentator asides as we were about Chloe Kim’s near-gold medal and near-perfect score in the snowboarding half-pipe. Did anyone else notice that the Olympic commentators extensively discussed the materiality of the sports? Nearly every event featured a short about the history of the sport, the materiality of the equipment, and the relationship between achievements and advances in equipment technology.

Skating ensemble in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This nineteenth-century outfit includes a velvet hat, fur-lined, quilted-silk jacket and skirt, and even a fur muff.

Could you imagine Mirari Nagasu completing her program in this ensemble?
Skating Ensemble, Artist/maker unknown, British, 1863-1867, silk, fur, Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 1980, Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.72.1a,b. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One particular interview with Dave Cruikshank, former Olympic speed skater, captured my attention. Dan began with “a pile of skates” and discussed the differences in boot and blade combinations worn by figure skaters, short distance speed skaters, long distance speed skaters, and hockey players. The stiffness of the boot, the width of the blade, and additional features such as the toe-pick in figure skates and the clamp technology of speed skates accommodate the differences of movement across each sport. While toe-picks allow figure skaters to dig in and create the force needed to accomplish jumps and spins, the clamp technology in speed skates allows for a longer stride and more natural gait, extending the forward productivity of the competitor. While it is true that Dan briefly and shamelessly promoted his new hockey boot technology, he also got me (and hopefully others) interested in learning more. When did these changes come about? How did they alter the trajectory of the sport? How did the trajectory spur new technologies? I can’t possibly to go into all of this in one blog, so I’ll focus on some things I learned about figure skates – hopefully you will find your path to considering these questions across all kinds of skates and even all kinds of sports!

“The Difference Between Speedskates, Hockey Skates, and Figure Skates” with Dan Cruikshank.



Infographic from smartereveryday illustrating the key differences between figure skates, hockey skates, and speed skates. Figure skates have high boots, curved blades slightly longer than the boot, and toe picks whilst hockey skates have boots with high backs and low fronts, flat blades the length of the boot, and toe boxes. Finally, speed skates have low boots with long, flat blades, and a toe hinge.

Infographic courtesy of smartereveryday.


As early as 3000 BC simple bone-blade skates with leather straps were made in Scandinavian countries to minimize physical output when travelling great distances – particularly across frozen lakes.[1] However, ice skates as we know them likely were not developed until the 14th century when the Dutch started using flat, wooden platforms with iron blades as skates. However, poles were needed to propel the skater forward until around 1500 when the Dutch invented a metal, double-edged blade which allowed the skater to glide forward on their own. By the late 17th century speed skating had become both a transportation method and recreational sport in Holland. [2]

For the next two hundred years, skating equipment saw few major changes, though as the pursuit moved from Holland to England and France figure skating developed among the elite classes. However, the focus of early figure skating was on decorum and creative precise figures, or carvings, rather than artistic skating.[3]

It was not until the nineteenth century, when the sport reached a height in popularity in the United States, that skating developed into the artistic pursuit we know today. In the period from 1840 to 1890, ice skating was touted as a recreational and community-based activity, uniquely for both men and women.[4] As a result of its immense popularity, the period experienced a plethora of new patents in skate and ice technologies ranging from removable blades for easy transport to boots converting from roller skates to ice skates and back again.

A U.S. patent for ice skates from 1916 featuring a blade only slightly longer than the boot, but with toe clamp technology.

“The principal feature of the invention consists in the novel construction of the skate and the manner of securing the two parts together to allow the free bending of the foot.” This technology is surprisingly similar to the clamp technology later introduced into speed skates. Patent for Ice Skate, Carl Louis Falstrem and John Albert Bragg, June 15, 1916, Accessed online, March 2018,


A U.S. patent for ice skates from 1860 featuring a shoe which holds the foot in for walking, and contains a groove on the bottom, so that one may slide their ice skating blades into the shoes whilst wearing them when they arrive at the ice.

Perhaps the boy in the trade card below would be more successful if he had skates with removable blades! “Persons who indulge in the pastime of skating frequently find it inconvenient and exposing to fasten on their skates after arriving on the ice…to obviate these difficulties and to enable the skater to walk over the ground with his skates on is…a skate shoe having a groove for the reception of the skate runner.” Skate Shoe and Foot Check, John B. Gibbs, November, 13, 1860, Accessed online, March 2018,


In the background figures skate and sleigh across the ice. In the foreground a young boy sits in the snow preparing to strap his ice skates to his shoes.

Lion Coffee Trade Card, Woolson Spice Co., Toledo, Ohio, late 19th century, Collection of the H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Collection 9. Image courtesy of H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens.


In 1848, Philadelphian E.V. Bushnell invented the first full steel clamp, and in 1865 Jackson Haines developed the first all-metal, two-plate blade for tighter turns and the one-piece boot. Haines also became the first to add the toe pick to the figure skate which allowed him to generate the necessary momentum for a controlled, upward lift.[5] Haines’ skates allowed him to pioneer jumps, spirals, curves, and spins. His integration of new movements with dance elements had never been seen before. While at first his style was considered pretentious and showy, in the following decades it redefined the development of figure skating, finally separating it fully from a transportation method or recreational activity to an artistic medium.

Skates in this period also changed, no longer having a simple flat bottom with leather straps to attach them to the user’s shoes. Instead, late-nineteenth-century skates become a complete entity of their own, composed of a unique leather boot and blade which one would have to change out of their walking shoes to wear. Finally, in 1914 John Strauss developed the first closed toe blade made from a single piece of steel. The lighter, stronger blades allowed skaters to become increasingly daring with their jumps, spins, and combos.

Pair of early nineteenth century ice skates from the Winterthur Collection. The skates consist of a flat, wood bottom with black leather straps to hold the wooden bottom onto the foot and an iron blade which extends far beyond the boot and terminates in an upward curve over the toe.

Ice Skates, C.W. Wirths and Brothers (Maker), Remscheid, Germany, 1800-1850, Wood; Iron; Leather, Collection of the H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens,1965.1978.002. Image courtesy of H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens.


Pair of late nineteenth century ice skates from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ice skates consist of full, black leather boot, and two-part steel blades which only extend slightly beyond the tow of the boot.

Man’s Ice-Skates, Artist/maker unknown, American, c. 1895, black leather, steel,
11 1/2 x 3 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, blade length: 11 3/4 inches (29.8 cm), Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1970-95-1a,b, Gift of Mrs. James D. Wilson, 1970. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Pair of early twentieth century ice skates from the Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ice skates consist of flat steel bottom with leather straps for attaching to shoes and flat steel blade.

Even after full boots were added to the design of ice skates, some still preferred to use the flat bottom, leather strap design which predominated for millennia. Ice Skates, Made by Union Hardware Co., Torrington, Connecticut, c. 1900, Metal blades and soles, leather straps, Each: 4 3/4 x 3 1/8 x 11 inches, Gift of Mrs. James G. Brown, 1972.Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 972-179-6a,b.


Two pages of an 1886 sports equipment trade catalog open to the section on ice skates. The left page shows four flat bottom, leather strap, steel blade options ranging from $1.25 to $2.25. The right page shows a number of ice skate accessories including replacement leather straps, ice spikes, and keys for removing and replacing blades.

Contemporary trade catalogs illustrate some of the material issues – splitting wood, tearing leather, broken heel bands, dulling blades – nineteenth century ice skaters contended with. Price List of Out & Indoor Sports & Pastimes, Peck &Snyder, New York, 1886, Collection of the H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens, Rare Books and Trade Catalogs, GV747 P36 TC. Image courtesy of H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens.


While the history of figure skating is far more complex and continues well beyond 1914, I will leave you here with a cliffhanger. Instead, stop and think about questions you may still have. How did women shape the trajectory of the sport, and in what ways did the sport allow women to gain a particular element of power and agency? How did artificial ice and indoor rinks arise and in what ways did they remove economic barriers to practicing figure skating year-round?

Early twentieth-century photograph showing hundreds of individuals skating on an outdoor pond.

Figures Ice Skating on Pond, Artist/maker unknown, American or European, possibly made in Europe or United States, c. 1900-1910, Gelatin silver print, 4 3/8 x 6 1/4 inches, 125th Anniversary Acquisition, The Lynne and Harold Honickman Gift of the Julien Levy Collection, 2001, Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001-62-2181. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


I am no expert in the history of figure skating, but I do stand testament to the fact that this year’s Olympics was certainly inspiring – even in some of the most unexpected ways. I never expected to find myself wondering: How did toe picks revolutionize figure skating? And will Nathan Chen’s accomplishment of landing five quads in one program change the judging of the sport and the technology of the classic figuring skating boot? What questions can we ask of sports equipment materiality and the shape of American culture? How do our understandings of human anatomy and concerns for public health impact sporting equipment past and present?

This year’s competition saw unfathomable highs and unexpected lows; from the near-perfect performances of Evengia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, to the terrifying crash and unimaginable revival of Nathan Chen. This moment in the history of figure skating, embodied by the performances in Pyeong Chang, will certainly inspire new jumps which dare to defy physics and may require the help of some new gear. Perhaps this will be the topic of a future Winterthur blog… or thesis?


[2] Steve Milton, Skate:  100 Years of Figure Skating (Toronto:  Key Porter Books, 1996),


[3] James R. Hines, Figure Skating in the Formative Years:  Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women (Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 2015), 11-30.

[4] Luna Lambert, The American Skating Mania:  American Skating in the Nineteenth Century, Exhibition Catalogue, National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., December 1978 through February 1979.

[5] Milton, 20-23.


Further Reading: 

-Hines, James R. Figure Skating in the Formative Years:  Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women. Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 2015.

-Lambert, Luna. The American Skating Mania:  American Skating in the Nineteenth Century. Exhibition Catalogue, National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. December 1978 through February 1979.

-Milton, Steve. Skate:  100 Years of Figure Skating. Toronto:  Key Porter Books, 1996.

-Shulman, Carole. The Complete Book of Figure Skating. Champaign:  Illinois, Human Kinetics, 2000.

-Vandervell, H.E. and T. Maxwell Witham. A System of Figure Skating:  Being the Theory and Practice of the Art Developed in England. London:  Horace Cox, 1874.


By Rebecca Duffy, WPAMC Class of 2018

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