Believe it or not, the history of roller skating actually begins with rollerblades. That’s right! The very first roller skates were designed to mimic ice skates, so the wheels—usually two to six—were aligned in such a way as to be a “blade” beneath the skate boot. This design of skate steered well, but lacked brakes and was difficult to balance on, so its use was limited. Some users had been told by doctors to ice skate for their health; they would rollerblade when they couldn’t ice skate, but the learning curve was so steep that there was little other reason to use them.
“Prehistoric” Roller Skates
In the early 1860s, James Plimpton—who had been prescribed ice skating for his health by a doctor—changed the roller skating world forever. Skating is a fun and healthful activity, but at the time people found it to be more trouble than it was worth to balance on the “bladed” design of wheeled skates or to steer the paired-wheel design. Plimpton’s “rocking action” skate placed a rubber cushion between the wooden plate and the axles, allowing the “truck” to move from side to side when the skater shifted his or her weight. This element of control added to the increased stability of the paired-wheel design made skating easy and fun for a greater number of people, which brought about the first roller skating craze.
Around that same time, clamp-on skates were being patented by Everett Barney. In the past, skates had only ever been secured by way of leather straps tied over the skater’s normal shoe . . . and the straps tended to break. Everett Barney invented a skate that could be clamped onto a shoe or boot and adjusted with a metal screw. Many skates came to be designed with the clamping feature at the toe and the traditional leather straps at the heel.
In the 1890s, a two-piece, adjustable skating plate emerged. This allowed a single pair of skates to fit a variety of shoe sizes. While perhaps not intended as such, this became a major feature of children’s skates that stuck around well into the 1960s and continues, if to less fanfare, to this day. One company well-known for manufacturing children’s toys has been making brightly colored, adjustable plastic varieties of both roller skates and rollerblades for decades, and has innovated safety and learning features like a graduating skating system that switches from non-rolling wheels to wheels that don’t roll backward to normal roller skates as a child becomes more proficient.
Modern Roller Skates
“Shoe skates” started to appear in the early 1900s. This form of skate had the plate attached permanently to a skating boot that rose partway up the skater’s calf. Professional skaters of the time didn’t use anything else, but sanitation concerns meant that the average casual skater continued to use clamp-ons at roller rinks into the late 1950s. With time, however, the sanitation concern was resolved and the modern roller skate was used in public rink and personal settings.
Shoe skates ultimately led to the quad (roller) skate. Invented by Louis Legrand of France for use by women in an opera, modern quad skates are made from leather and cut lower than shoe skates—usually to the ankle. They’re generally available in black or white, but can be custom-dyed.
Modern skates usually have polyurethane wheels, but that hasn’t always been the case. Before polyurethane, roller skate wheels were made of wood. Rubber wheels came about in the early 1850s, and wheels made of metal and fiber came along around the same time, but wooden wheels stayed at the forefront until 1910 or so.
Today, the wheels of roller skates and rollerblades are entirely synthetic. In the 1960s is when polyurethane stepped into the limelight, and since then it’s never left. A versatile material that’s easy to color and customize, polyurethane can be made harder to roll better, or softer to grip better.
The addition of steel ball bearings to the wheels in the mid-1880s reduced friction and let wheels turn with greater freedom. This made skating less strenuous, which increased its popularity. The bearings were organized in 1908 with the “cup and cone” innovation, which caused the bearings to actually roll in a sealed casing rather than rub or slide against the wheel or axle.
Toe Stops and Toe Plugs
A toe stop—of a sort—was first recorded in the mid-1870s; it was a rubber pad secured to the front of the skate. Similar ideas were patented, but never made commercially, in 1908. The 1940s is when the toe stop found its common use. Like the toe picks on ice skates, toe stops are used for jumping off of and to assist in sharp, fancy moves. Their usefulness in quick stops and turns made roller skates much more useful than rollerblades in early roller hockey.
You’re likely to see jam skaters with toe plugs. The toe plugs’ job is less to assist with stopping a skate and more to protect a rink floor by plugging the hole a toe stop would normally be bolted into. Their smaller size and lower profile makes harder skating tricks possible. Like roller skate wheels, they’re made from polyurethane and come in a rainbow of colors.
As mentioned at the start, the first roller skates were actually inline skates (rollerblades). But they never really caught on because they did little more than move in a straight line. Quad skates were the first to get the improvements that allowed for precision skating and techniques that were more like that seen in ice skating, so they pulled ahead in popularity in pretty much every field.
But since 1990, inline skate technology is pushing the longtime boundaries of what inline skates can do compared to quad skates. Roller skaters have seen the advancements and advantages of inline skates, particularly when it comes to speed, and now in national competitions speed skaters and hockey players use inline skates exclusively. Other skating disciplines require greater maneuverability and so have been harder to satisfy, but manufacturers continue to work with variations in wheel location, height, and alignment to provide a worthy product.
How Far Has Roller Skating Come?
In 1906, men’s roller skates cost $4.50 per pair. Extra wheels were just thirty cents. It was so inexpensive a sport that even during the Depression most people could afford it. In modern times, skate prices range from fifty dollars for an off-the-shelf pair to well over fifteen hundred for complete custom-molded sets. Top competitors will go to this expense to boost their game and suit their equipment preferences.