Monday, May 3, 2010

A Question of Morality

Priests and ministers condemned it from the pulpit. Newspapers editorialized against it. Physicians called it a threat to the health and morality of the young. Government bodies and businessmen assailed it.

What was this thing that outraged so many segments of society across the nation in the early 1880s?

The skating rink. Huh? Seems rather benign these days, doesn’t it? But after equipment improved and roller skating became a popular activity in the late 19th century many civic leaders raised a national outcry against the recreational arcade. One major concern seemed to be the meeting of “the virtuous girl and the woman of loose character” on a common plane.

A Belgian, Jean-Joseph Merlin, is credited as the inventor of the roller skate in 1760 and the first patent for a skate design was awarded to a Monsieur Petitbled in France in 1819. Since these early skates were not very maneuverable, inventors continued improving design and James Plimpton of Medford, Mass., came up with the first practical four-wheel skate in 1863.

The first public skating rink opened in 1866 in Newport, Rhode Island. Design improvements continued and mass production of skates in the 1880s spurred the first of the sport’s several boom periods.

The first woman to publicly demonstrate her proficiency in roller skating was Carrie A. Moore in 1871 at the Occidental Rink in San Francisco.

When an indoor roller skating rink opened in Dodge City, Kansas, on April 6, 1885—considered the peak year for the skating craze in America—the Dodge City Globe derided its patrons as “intellectual paupers.”

It’s been estimated more than $20 million was invested in roller skating rinks in cities and towns across the United States in 1885.

“Patrons would find far more rest, if not recreation,” the Globe said, “in the reading of some valuable book and in acquiring information upon current events about which they are in woeful ignorance.”

The Lowell, Massachusetts, Sun called the rink “…the resort of some of the most immoral classes of the community, prostitutes and libertines, both married and unmarried, and that it serves for many the purpose of a house of assignation; that it is in its effects the most immoral licensed institution that we have; that it is the cause of more and worse immorality—yes, ten times more—than the worst conducted rum-shop in the city.”

An editorial in the Jan. 30, 1885 edition of the Shamokin Weekly in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, called that community’s rink a “propagator of prostitution and sapper of health.”

This editorial said, in part: “The skating rink craze has become epidemic in this country, and is spreading in every direction in spite of all righteous opposition. If it were one of the silly harmless crazes that sometimes affect empty heads and light heels it might be left to run its natural course like a case of cold. But it is a demoralizing evil, injuring the health, corrupting the morals, and ruining the souls of some of the infatuated devotees of the rink. There can be no question but that these rinks have led to a great increase of extravagance and there are a great many opportunities for indiscretions and the first steps toward vice; there is no parental supervision; legitimate business is interfered with; and the craze is a direct antagonist of all religious effort.”

A Scranton, Pennsylvania, newspaper charged that the daughter of a respected railroad superintendent had eloped with a railroad brakeman she met at a rink. It was reported a girl named Ida Clayton died of convulsions after suffering an injury in a fall at a Yonkers, N.Y., rink. The Shamokin Times quoted a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, story of a seduction case resulting from a chance meeting at a rink.

A Danville, Pennsylvania, school director charged some students were forging absence permits in their parents’ names so they might spend more time at the skating rinks.

One report even made the ridiculous comment that “Supporting posts for the roof of a roller skating rink may be regarded as useful, but they are unsightly and even dangerous. Abolish them!”

The Shamokin Times reported both the Catholic and Protestant clergy were sermonizing against the dangers of frequenting the rinks. Rev. Joseph Koch, who shepherded St. Edward’s Catholic Church for fifty-one years, expressed the hope young people would seek more suitable recreation and urged parents to supervise their children on this point. He also warned continued patronage of the rinks by members of his flock would bring offenders under the discipline of the church. Rev. J. A. Flickinger of Shamokin’s Lutheran Church expressed the view that as between two evils, ballroom and rink he would choose the former as the least dangerous to social morality.

When pleas of immorality fell on deaf ears civic leaders turned to physicians for support. Prominent physicians agreed, declaring the skating rink a hot bed of disease and a source and cause of physical debility. One declared spending time and exerting oneself in an over-heated space and then going out into the cold laid the foundation for quinsy, consumption and pneumonia.

A father complained to his local newspaper, “I was puzzled for some time to account for the failing health of my daughters. They complained of languidness, fever and nervousness. The family physician ascribed it to undue exercise. I scoffed the idea, until he spoke of the rink. Investigation proved him right. My daughters were frequent visitors, wearing themselves out in misconceived recreation.”

Shamokin Borough Council took action to impose an amusement license tax it hoped would drive the owners of the local establishment out of business. These upholders of morality must have shouted with glee when it was announced at the end of January 1885 that the county sheriff was holding sale on the property since one of the three owners had defaulted on an outstanding loan.

That may have resolved their situation, but it remained an issue elsewhere. In February 1885 a grand jury was convened in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, in an effort to have the rinks condemned as a public nuisance. In recognition of the charges brought against the rinks, Judge J. W. Simonton instructed the grand jury to carefully investigate and report on the issue. Their response is summed up in a brief paragraph:

“In the matter of the skating rinks in this city (Harrisburg), we would respectfully present that with the information laid before us, we believe such places of amusement to be detrimental to the health of our young people and in a great measure destructive of the morals of the youths who frequent them. And in the opinion of this grand jury in this respect they are nuisances.”


  1. No change of me being morally corrupted - I can't skate, have terrible balance.

    Very unusual and interesting blog, John.

  2. “the virtuous girl and the woman of loose character”

    I've been striving for just this title my entire life! One of woman's best to being a...well, you know. LOL!

  3. Hi John,
    What a wonderful post.Isn't history grand? Things we consider harmless now were considered debauched last century.
    The virtuous girl and the woman of loose character. That has got to be a line for a book surely.



  4. I hereby grant permission for you ladies to fight over rights to the title, 'the virtuous girl and the woman of loose character.' Thanks for reading.