Ice-Skating in the 1860’s

An illustration of ice-skating (1859)

Ice-skating! Across the chilly regions of America, this favorite pastime created fun and energetic entertainment during the Civil War era. In city parks, the winter activity was refined as a social skill and art while on less sophisticated ponds or lakes youngsters had their ice-skating parties. Ladies participated in ice-skating, a sport that allowed them out of the decorated parlors and gave them another reason to visit the dress makers. Ice-skating created a pleasant diversion from the tragedy of war, especially during the Christmas season.

According to an article published in the New York Herald on December 24, 1864, ice-skating on Central Pond gained a happy reputation at the beginning of the decade and had increased popularity each year. A system for judging and announcing ice thickness and safety had been developed, and the citizens eagerly watched for a red ball in the park which signaled skating season had begun. On the city ponds, workmen swept away the snow and scrubbed off the rough piles of ice or frozen snow to make a smooth, glassy surface for easy skating. According to the paper’s account, the ponds were prepared for skaters by noon on fine days when the ice was safe. Skates and ice chairs were available for rent in Central Park, and the enterprising merchants set up booths to sell hot drinks and refreshments.

Central Park Lake Terrace in Winter (modern photo, public domain)

Appealing to the desires for good health, the reporter extolled the frozen winter wonderlands over the crowded and close atmosphere of the ballroom, claiming:

Skating and dance are the only two forms of recreative exercise within the reach of the gentler sex, the former being infinitely more healthful than the latter, from the fact that the rapid motion through a clear, bracing atmosphere, incident to skating, quickens the circulation and introduces the pure oxygen of nature into the system, instead of the noxious gases of the ballroom, where the atmosphere is redolent of caronic acid, frivolous tittle tattle, eau de colgne, insipid small talk, cutaneous exhalations, and simpering stupidity. The contrast, too, between the social surroundings of the skating pond and the ballroom is equally in favor of the outdoor recreation… The sanitary benefits accruing from skating are great, and especially is the exercise advantageous to females. The prominent cause of the delicate and sickly constitution of the majority of our city ladies arises from their great neglect of outdoor exercise and recreation…[i]

An illustration of a lady ice-skating, c. 1867

Many ladies eagerly took advantage of the outdoor sport. Unwilling to leave behind their fine clothes, they developed “ice skating costumes,” complete with hoopskirts. Godey’s Lady’s Book regularly featured new designs for these fashionable ensembles during the winter months. And, of course, a gorgeous hat, muff, and perhaps a fur-trimmed coat completed the classic Christmas image of an idealized lady gliding across the ice. Ice-skating gave women an opportunity to continue their feminine appearance while participating in a semi-liberating activity.

If skating gave women another social opportunity to step outside the home and enter a public arena, it also gave couples a chance to interact without close supervision in a parlor and gave singles the opportunity to meet rather casually. The New York Herald reporter even hints at this in his article: “In fact, the exercise not only brings roses to the cheeks, and imparts buoyancy to the spirits, but weaves nets to catch Cupid, and makes cages to retain him.”[ii] If eyes brightened by the exercise[iii] did not catch the gentleman’s attention, there was always the possibility of a graceful tumble to draw attention to oneself and create a need for gallantry. In an 1864 letter, a Virginian teen boy hinted that some girls skating on the frozen river kept purposely falling to continue the interactions with him and his handsome friends.[iv]

For some Union soldiers, skating and sledding were typical social activities in their small towns. Private William P. Lamson, Jr. in the 20th Maine Infantry asked his sister several times about the ice-skating parties at home and noted a major difference in the weather in Virginia and Maine: “You say you had good sleighing and skating [on] Christmas. We had neither snow nor ice after the sun got up, and have had none since. I never spent a New Year’s Day without seeing snow before.”[v]

“Winter – A Skating Scene” by Winslow Home, c. 1868

Southerners enjoyed their ice skating too – if they lived in a region that stayed cold long enough for ice to form and thicken. Miss Lucy Buck lived near Front Royal in the Virginian Shenandoah Valley and recorded her skating adventure in her diary.

January 12, 1864

Father took Laura and me down on the ice and gave us our first lessons in skating. It was a magnificent morning and I felt so invigorated by the bracing air, the bright sunshine and the run through the crisp sparkling snow. Then the ice formations at the dam were so exquisitely delicate and beautiful. We were there about two hours – Father predicting that we will make expert skaters – did not get one bad fall though Father did. Returned to the house with tired ankles but in a perfect glow…[vi]

During the Civil War era, ice-skating created a joyous homefront diversion, and many soldiers far from home associated memories of cheerful winter days with their skating escapades. Fashionable and fun, healthful and happy, this winter activity included men, women, and children, pulling them outside into the chilly winter days air and making the air ring with jolly laughter, joyous shouts, and the steady, faint swish of skates making circles on the ice.

And – for just a few moments, perhaps – the war seemed far away while the cheer of Christmas and magic of winter reigned.

Central Park skating pond, 1862

[i] “Skating at Christmastime” from the New York Herald, December  24, 1864. Published in The Civil War Christmas Album, edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, (1961), page 67-68.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A reference from classic literature. In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813), Mr. Darcy comments that Elizabeth’s eyes were brightened by the exercise, comparing her favorably against her rival who tended to stay indoors and complain.

[iv] Beverly Stanard to his mother, February 21, 1864. Published in Letters of a New Market Cadet, edited by J.G. Barrett and R.K. Turner, Jr., (1961), pages 40-41.

[v] William P. Lamson to his sister Jennie Lamson, January 9, 1863. Published in Maine To The Wilderness: The Civil War Letters of Pvt. William Lamson, edited by Roderick M. Engert, (1993), page 49.

[vi] Lucy Rebecca Buck, Sad Earth, Sweet Heave: The Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck, edited by Dr. William P. Buck, (1973), page 243.