As the winter chill descends on the city, New Yorkers combat the cold in their various ways: layering up in thermals, overloading on tea and hot chocolate, and spending every possible moment indoors. But there are those New Yorkers who live for the glorious thrill of wintertime NYC: the Prospect Park jogger, the Union Square Greenmarketer, the Central Park horseback rider and of course, the ice skater. But not only is ice-skating in New York one of our great pastimes, it has also been a telling social and historic indicator. Indeed, ice-skating was one of the first great class levelers, an equal-opportunity activity that took place on the rivers, lakes and ponds of our city and taught New Yorkers how to have fun.
Prior to our high-speed, techno-happy homesteads, before the innovations of gas- and oil-based heat, hell, even earlier than the advent of electric lighting in 1882, there wasn’t much to do at home for recreational purposes during the long cold winters. Children could play games and tell stories, men could read the paper and converse with their wives, and the wives could darn socks and mutter “Yes, dear” back at their husbands. With six-day workweeks, domestic tedium was at its peak on Sunday afternoons, the only time away from the 12- or 14-hour days spent at the factory or sweatshop for those unfortunate enough to be stuck in the working class. Sunday then, was a day to be spent in recreation and play, a day to relax and enjoy a little entertainment. From the middle to the end of the 19th century, a family with any type of earnings set aside for fun could attend theater in Astor Place, visit any number of dime museums and entertainment parlors on the Bowery, or enjoy a stroll and picnic through New York’s backyard — the spectacular new Central Park. But for those of limited budget and meager means there wasn’t much to do outdoors, save for staring at the glamorous window displays of the shops on Fifth Avenue, watch the wealthy depart from their horse-drawn carriages at the Battery’s Castle Garden, or slide around, sans skates, on the frozen ponds throughout the city — Downtown, Midtown, in Central Park, out on the edges of the rivers and in Prospect Park as well. Keep in mind that these ice rinks only happened when the weather was cold enough for a sustained period of time. The ability to create artificial ice in quantities large enough for skating hadn’t been developed yet.
Thanks to articles in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the New York Daily Times (precursor to the Times) the Herald-Tribune and other day-to-day rags documenting the city’s rich urban history, we have announcements and descriptions for ice-skating as early as 1861, although skating on Central Park’s 22-acre lake (on the West Side, up in the seventies) took place as early as 1858, while the park was still under construction. Undoubtedly, ice-skating happened here long before the craze of the late 1800s — there are unverified legends of gung-ho British and Dutch colonialists skating across the frozen East River from Brooklyn to the city, and the various gangs and youths of the Five Points were fond of pushing each other onto the sludgy ice of the Collect Pond in today’s Chinatown; but it was hardly comparable to the hollering newspaper headlines from the second half of the 19th century.
“Skating at the Park. Thousands Enjoy the First Day’s Sport on the Ice. The Crowd was Largest in the Evening. Good Skaters, Bad Skaters and People Who Could Not Skate at All Were There.” Brooklyn Eagle, December 30,, 1892.
From the 1850s, up until WWI, New Yorkers adopted their severe social behavior code from Victorian England. It was mass social manipulation — the rules for acting, dressing, speaking, walking, participating in public events and the like were all stringently followed. One wouldn’t dare leave the house without all the right accoutrements: for men it involved coordinating your hat, scarf, gloves, topcoat, frock, suit, shirt, tie, cravat, undercoat, pocket watch, glasses and facial hair with those of your saloon chums. Women had it harder: they had to universalize their fashions, makeup, hair, diamonds, furs, dead animals other than furs (1895 was the year of the hummingbird, which made a brief and delightful appearance on frilly neck adornments), bouquets and the sort so as to be seen in public without ridicule or finger-pointing. It was the culture of conformity; what’s more, once out on the street, one wasn’t expected to have any fun for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of a severely restrained social construction. And they wouldn’t dare think of dirtying or scuffing their meticulous get-ups either.
But to skate on the ice in Central Park’s lake, to engage in ice hockey on the Clermont Avenue Rink in Fort Greene, to pirouette on Washington Pond in today’s Bed-Stuy, or to engage in a game of “Base Ball on the Ice” on Prospect Park’s lake was to break with social custom and engage in public sport and mass recreation — to have fun, with others having fun. To fall down and not care about possible embarrassment. To participate in collective rebellion of the first order. To let the harsh social codes of the century melt away and leave just the skater, the hockey player, the Good, the Bad and the Not At All to enjoy themselves, without fear of reprimand or reproach.
As the times evolved, along with technology and social codes, New Yorkers ceased ice-skating as a subversion of Victorian customs, and just zigged and zagged for the sake of enjoyment and physical exertion. Now we have the capacity for artificial freezing and moveable rinks: the brand new Bryant Park rink is 100 percent temporary (and free, if you bring your own skates): it’ll be gone come March. But the desires to push social boundaries and fight the system will remain; it always has. Just not at the local ice rink.