A Century Before Roller Disco, Cincinnati Caught Roller Skate Fever In The 1880s

The rise of rollerskating in 19th Century Cincy.
While the fad swept through Cincinnati, it appeared that everyone in town was gliding about on roller skates and, if not skating, then talking about it.

From Illustrated Police News Volume 23, Issue 577, 17 November 1877, Digitized by University of Minnesota Libraries

Roller skating seems to ebb and flow in popularity from generation to generation, or so it has seemed in Cincinnati. Older folks may remember the roller-disco craze of 1980 which swept through the Queen City from the West Coast.

Cincinnati’s first exposure to roller skating occurred just after the Civil War when a group of businessmen opened the Queen City Rink in the autumn of 1866. Their rink was located on Freeman Street between Laurel and Betts in the West End, opposite Lincoln Park. The partnership included Enoch Carson, seller of lighting fixtures; Charles Wilstach, stationer and later mayor; and Frank Alter, shoe store owner.

Queen City Rink was popular, but apparently none too profitable. The business model was based on renting skates and did not bring in the volume required to turn a profit. The Cincinnati Post [4 April 1885], recalling this inauspicious start, said the enterprise produced “Irish dividends” – losses – throughout its existence. This despite booking stars of the roller-skating world, such as “Professor” Alfred Moe, who did tricks like skating on stilts. The rink seemed to attract an unsavory clientele. One newspaper sniffed that the customers were “far from select.”

That risqué atmosphere earned the Queen City Rink a starring role in a drama, “Heart of the Queen City,” staged in 1868 at the National Theater. The scenes in this play, described as “not at all moral in its character” and offering “peculiar attractions of the sensational kind,” were set at various Cincinnati locations, including the old Millcreek House tavern, the Public Landing and the Queen City Rink. The rink scene incorporated comic and trick roller skating routines by then-famous skaters Eugene St. Clair and Henry Levi.

As the 1880s dawned, skating began to attract increasing numbers of fans. When the very high-tone Highland House atop Mount Adams opened a roller-skating rink in 1881, the city took notice. So did the Methodists. A bishop in that church told the Cincinnati Enquirer [15 February 1885]:

“Roller-skating in public rinks is not a whit different, in its moral aspects, from dancing in ballrooms. The discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church is construed to put dancing in mixed assemblages under the ban which it explicitly pronounces against ungodly and demoralizing amusements.”

By 1885, Cincinnati boasted eight roller rinks including the revitalized Queen City Rink, Highland House, Melodeon Hall, Princess Rink on Linn Street, new rinks in both Cumminsville and Brighton and two rinks patronized exclusively by African Americans on Sixth Street in the West End.

The aroma of impropriety still clung to roller rinks. A Cincinnati Post review [4 April 1885] of skating in town confessed that it could not be truthfully stated that the rinks attracted “all the best people in town.” Still, the management generally maintained a level of decorum:

“The managers can not prevent ‘mashing’ or the voluntary cultivation of any sort of acquaintances by young ladies – the class in most imminent danger – but they can and do prevent the entrance of nearly all of both sexes who have forfeited all rights in respectable quarters.”

Once a “masher” fondled an innocent woman’s ankle while helping her lace her skates, she was on the slippery slope to perdition according to the moralists of the day.

From The Illustrated Police News. Volume 37, Issue 957, 28 February 1885, Digitized by University of Minnesota Libraries

Despite the managerial vigilance, the fact remained that roller rinks brought in young people from both sexes and mixed them together in an activity that invited close if not intimate contact. Whether fondling a young woman’s ankles while helping her lace her skates or catching her as she fell, young men found salacious opportunities at every turn.

The Cincinnati Gazette [6 June 1882] reported the misadventures of a young bookkeeper named W.R. Goodall, “not deficient in personal attractions,” who spent so much time at the Queen City Rink that he was known as an informal instructor “in the graceful manipulation of that modern breakneck invention called roller skates.” Young women sought this charmer to elucidate the finer points of skating. It appears that Goodall couldn’t keep himself from bragging about his many “students” and said some unflattering things about some of them. Their boyfriends were not amused. Zeke Workum accosted Goodall on Fourth Street and bloodied his nose and Louis P. Ezekiel cornered him on Baymiller Street a pulled a knife on him.

Cincinnati was transfixed by a Commercial story [8 February 1885] about a Bucyrus, Ohio, heiress who eloped with a roller-skating instructor. Her clandestine husband, Sylvester Osborne, when confronted by his wife’s very unhappy father suggested that he might consent to disappear after having the marriage annulled if Daddy would give him a mere $20,000.

Still, Cincinnati generally escaped the more sensational skating scandals that plagued other cities. A lot of the local skating activities were just peculiar. For example, the opening of the Highland House rink led to the creation of a Highland House Roller Skating Club, organized to not simply skate, but to play an indoor version of polo on the rink. Although known as “polo,” contemporary descriptions of this game sound more like hockey.

The Cincinnati Tennis Club introduced roller skating as entertainment during pauses in their matches at Music Hall and the Cincinnati Gazette [29 October 1881] suggested that tennis on skates was the next logical step.

The Princess Rink, which hosted regular “polo” competitions, introduced a new attraction by staging a game of baseball on skates. Rink manager John M. Cook told the Enquirer that a wholly different set of skills is required from participants in this game.

“Base-ball on roller-skates, he said, depends more for success on expert skaters than it does on expert ball-players. The game will, no doubt, be productive of lots of fun and amusement.”

Mayhap, although it does not seem that the experiment was repeated more than a few times.

Although some folks worried about the moral temptations of skating, most skaters spent more time pondering bruises, scrapes, sprains and broken bones.

From Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette 3 October 1885, Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Like all fads and crazes, roller skating had dwindled into a childhood pastime by the end of the decade. While it lasted, however, the amusement made a substantial contribution to the economy. The price of boxwood – used then to make the wheels of roller skates – doubled in the early 1880s, launching a search for an agreeable substitute. Richmond, Indiana, according to the Enquirer, kept 19 factories busy manufacturing roller-skating paraphernalia, employing a thousand men.

A sporting equipment dealer told a Cincinnati Times-Star reporter that he was raking in money because of the fad.

“Everybody in town will be on wheels and I am going to get rich selling skates. Can’t I sell you a pair?”

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