Sports history: roller skates, bicycling

Roller-skating had been introduced by James L. Plimpton in 1863, and New York's social leaders, hoping it could be restricted to "the educated and refined classes," quickly made it fashionable. Their Roller Skating Association leased the Atlantic House in Newport and made over its dining-hall and piazza into a skatingrink. It held weekly assemblies where such distinguished guests as General Sherman and Chief Justice Bigelow watched "tastefully dressed young men and girls, sailing, swimming, floating through the mazes of the march, as if impelled by magic power."

But Newport soon had to surrender to the democracy. Rinks were built in every town and immense ones established in the cities, with a general admission of fifty or twenty-five cents, which welcomed all comers. In Chicago the Casino accommodated four thousand persons -- three thousand spectators and one thousand skaters. There were not only dancing and racing. Professor A. E. Smith introduced special fancy skating -- the Richmond Roll, the Picket Fence, the Philadelphia Twist ("rolling his limbs far apart and laying his head sideways on one of them"), and the Dude on Wheels. Night after night the band played, the new Siemens lights shone down on the hard-maple floor, and a vast attendance crowded the Casino's spacious and elegant rink.

Going further west, skating was even more popular. The Olympian Club Roller Skating Rink in San Francisco advertised five thousand pairs of skates and 69,000 square feet of hardmaple floor. It was holding races, roller-skating polo, and "tall hat and high collar" parties.

Young and old skated -- men, women, and children. For a time no other sport seemed able to match its popularity. A writer in Harper's Weekly cited a gravestone inscription:

Our Jane has climbed the golden stair And passed the jasper gates; Henceforth she will have wings to wear, Instead of roller skates.

But ia remained for bicycling to become the most spectacular craze of all. While it had had a brief vogue in the 1860's (the first velocipedes -- the French "dandy horses" -- were known as early as the opening of the century), it was the introduction about 1876 of the high-wheeled bicycles, supplanting the old wooden boneshakers, that first made it a popular sport. Within half a dozen years of the first manufacture of the new wheels, there were some twenty thousand confirmed cyclists in the country; in 1886 the total had swelled to some fifty thousand, and a year later it was over a hundred thousand. Clubs were organized in almost every town and city throughout the land, and to bring together organizations of like interest and promote cycling as a sport, they banded together, in 1881, to form the League of American Wheelmen.

"There has been heretofore in our American life, crowded to excess as it has been with the harassing cares and anxieties of business," a writer in Harper's Monthly Magazine stated in July, 1881, "so little attention paid to the organized practice of healthgiving outdoor exercise, to which bicycling is peculiarly adopted, that the organization of this League of American Wheelmen can not fail to be recognized as an important subject for public congratulation."

The safety bicycle and the drop frame for women were still almost a decade away. This was the first enthusiasm of the high-wheeled pioneers, those daring riders who went forth perched on a postage-stamp saddle athwart a sixty-inch wheel. A header from that dizzy eminence meant broken bones, if not a broken head. But forth the wheelmen rode -- high-necked jackets, close-fitting knee-pants, and little round hats (later, ventilated duck helmets and imported English hose) -- prepared to defy all the hazards of the road. They generally went in company. Club runs were the fashion. The cyclists mounted to the bugle call of "Boots and Saddles," and sober pedestrians watched in awe as they wheeled past in military formation.

It was also the era of impressive bicycle parades, competitive club drills, hill-climbing contests, and race meetings. On July 4, 1884, news of the bicycle world included a meet on the Boston Common drawing thousands of spectators; a parade of seventy cyclists at Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the first club run of the Kishwaukee Bicycle Club at Syracuse, Illinois; races for the Georgia championship at Columbus; and medal runs at Salt Lake City. Thomas Stevens was off on his famous bicycle trip around the world, and in New York a bicycle school with thirty uniformed instructors was teaching Wall Street bankers to wheel to band music.

The rĂ´le of women in this bright dawn of the bicycle age was limited but none the less well recognized. The high-wheeled machine was too much for them, but they were given the tricycle. Here was recreation on "a higher plane than the ball-field or the walking rink," an outdoor activity which marked "a step towards the emancipation of woman from her usually too inactive indoor life." In this vigorous propaganda to promote female cycling, The Wheelman also called upon the support of ministers and physicians. Bicycling was both godly and healthy. One word of warning, from A Family Physician: "Do not think of sitting down to table until you have changed your underclothing, and, after a delightful wash and rub-down, quietly and leisurely dressed again."

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