Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Volume 17, Number 1, Spring, 2005 Page: 12
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ROLLER SKATING IN DALLAS
A Century on Wheels
BY MICHAEL V. HAZEL
hen Dallasites developed a passion for riding
on wheels in I906, it was not in automobiles or
on bicycles-both relatively new means of locomotion-but
atop roller skates. In flocking to
the new skating rinks, they were following a
fashion that had flourished in other parts of the
nation for the past forty years.
People had, of course, glided over frozen
lakes and rivers on ice skates for centuries. But
roller skates are a fairly modern invention.Joseph
Merlin, a Belgian-born craftsman who settled in
London in 1760, is generally credited with
inventing roller skates. Mounted atop a pair of
skates with small metal wheels, and playing a
violin, he made an appearance at a masquerade
party at Carlisle House, Soho Square.
Unfortunately he couldn't control either the
velocity or direction of his skates, and he hurtled
straight across the room into a huge mirror, shattering
it and his violin, and injuring himself.'
Several patents were issued in the early nineteenth
century for skates with wooden wheels
and braking devices, but they were still incapable
of making turns. In 1849 Giacomo Meyerbeer
placed performers on roller skates to simulate an
ice carnival scene in his opera Thze Prophet. The
public was fascinated by the sight, but roller skating
remained a novelty.2
The true father of modern roller skating was
an American, James Leonard Plimpton, who in
1863 patented skates, commonly called "rocker"
skates, that would turn. These skates made roller
skating smoother and more controlled. Plimpton
was also a master entrepreneur. He built a huge,
beautifully decorated rink with a special cross
cut maple floor in downtown New York in
1866, then an even more lavish "Roller Palace"
in Newport, Rhode Island, a favored resort of
the rich. Plimpton even hired a ballet dancer to
give roller skating exhibitions. The wealthy
flocked to his rinks, thereby making skating a
socially acceptable pastime.3
The design of skates steadily improved, with
metal wheels replacing boxwood in 1866, and
ball bearings patented in 1884. Adjustable sizes
and skating boots became available. Most important,
mass production brought the cost down as
low as $1 to $3 a pair, within the means of even
working-class of Americans.
Roller skating was quickly transformed
from a novelty patronized by the rich to a pastime
enjoyed by countless Americans of average
means. Rinks were built all over the country,
sometimes with only concrete floors.The admission
charge of 15 to 20 cents usually included
rental of skates. "Rinking," as it was called,
became such a popular Sunday sport that church
The roller skating "boom" would not have
been possible without the growth of towns and
cities after the Civil War and the increased leisure
time that urban life afforded. In fact, some nineteenth-century
writers bemoaned the shift from
farm to city life because they feared that
Americans, removed from the traditional pastimes
of hunting, trapping, and barn-raising,
were growing weak and flabby. In 1856 the editor
of Harpers Monthly complained that his fellow
countrymen were becoming "a pasty-faced,
narrow-chested, spindle-shanked, dwarfed race."5
12 LEGACIES Spring 2005
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Dallas Historical Society. Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Volume 17, Number 1, Spring, 2005, periodical, 2005; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth35090/m1/14/?q=: accessed November 26, 2022), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Dallas Historical Society.