In the U.S., our mental image of people skating may involvs a blonde woman in Daisy Dukes skating by the Pacific Ocean or a bell-bottomed disco enthusiast skate-dancing to ABBA in hot polyester. But the first recorded use of skates took place more than two centuries before any of that, in a 1743 theater production in which actors affixed wheels to their footwear to mimic ice skating on the stage. The wheeled debut of inventor John Joseph Merlin made a lasting impression on the historical record.
Known for his eccentric personality and flamboyant clothing, the Belgian-born Merlin used skating as a way to get more attention for his other inventions, like this weighing machine. He designed the first roller skates after he moved to London from Huy, Belgium, in 1760. Unfortunately, his skates lacked brakes, and he lacked balance. As he attempted to skate through a masquerade party while playing a violin, he promptly plowed into a mirror, broke his instrument, and ended up with severe injuries.
It wasn’t long before other intrepid inventors realized the potential of roller skates. The French inventor M. Petitbled patented a three-wheeled inline skate model in Paris in 1819. But it wasn’t until 1863 that James Plimpton “revolutionized the roller skate” by designing quad skates, according to the National Museum of Roller Skating. Plimpton didn’t stop there. Along with the product, he also manufactured demand. He established the New York Roller Skating Association; opened the first skating rink at a Rhode Island resort in 1866; and gave skating lessons during the 1870s. His real genius, however, lay in marketing roller skating as an appropriate activity for men and women to do together, allowing young Victorian couples to meet without reprisal or rigid chaperoning.
Contemporary skating still has a trace of that romantic Victorian whimsy, something that other roller sports, like in-line skating, skateboarding, and especially ice skating—with those weaponlike blades scraping across a frigid floor—simply don’t have. Perhaps that’s why roller skating has yet to be taken seriously as an Olympic sport: it’s just too much fun. With a relatively low barrier to entry, roller skating also fits into a personal exercise regimen more than other sports. While a decent pair of skates may set you back as much as $150, that is really the only necessary investment. There are no monthly gym fees, and you can skate anywhere there’s smooth pavement.
That being said, many people prefer to skate in rinks. By the 1880s, manufacturers were mass producing skates, and rink-building followed soon after, mainly in New England.