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Becky Honeycombe writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

You could be forgiven for thinking the heyday of the roller skate was in the 1980s with leg warmers and neon Lycra being the order of the day. The truth is that there was a craze just as big a hundred years earlier and we have a pair of Victorian skates in our Making the Modern World gallery as evidence.

Pair of wooden roller skates, c 1880. Credit: Science Museum.
Pair of wooden roller skates, c 1880. Credit: Science Museum.

By 1880, roller skates of some kind had already been around for over 150 years.  The first prototypes of the roller skate are said to have been created by an anonymous Dutchman in the early 1700s, who as a fan of winter skiing wanted to extend his hobby into the summer months.  He created his ‘skeelers’ by attaching wooden spools to strips of wood and then nailing them to his shoes. The first recorded use of roller skates in Britain was not until 1743 when they were used as part of a London stage show.

One of the most famous early appearances of roller skates occurred in 1760 when inventor Joseph Merlin rolled into a masquerade party playing a violin.  Although his entrance was undoubtedly dramatic, it wasn’t a complete success as he only managed to stop by crashing into a huge mirror, breaking not only the mirror, but his violin and several of his bones too.

Over the next century, several different designs for roller skates were created and tested.  Many were heavy and difficult to control and it was not until 1863 that the quad skate we know today was designed by James Leonard Plimpton in New York.  The ease with which the new skates allowed users to manoeuvre them made them an instant success and Plimpton opened New York’s first skating rink in his furniture store before expanding to a bigger venue like the one in the picture below.

District of Columbia, glimpses of life at the national capital – a fashionable roller-skating rink
Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, USA

By the end of the 1800s, skates like the ones in our gallery, were being mass produced, which meant they were cheaper and more readily available.  Roller skating became a popular leisure activity and regular skating endurance competitions were held. London businessmen could even be seen skating to work! The sport’s popularity continued to grow into the 20th century where its success as a mainstream pastime is demonstrated in early films such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Rink.  Today, with new skate designs like the Land Roller and sports such as roller derby gaining large followings, it is clear that the popularity of the roller skate continues.

Do you think your favourite hobbies will stand the test of time?

Becky Honeycombe is a member of our Learning Support Team.