Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society was founded on December 21, 1849 – and for the following seventy years – nearly all figure skating around Philadelphia took place outdoors, most often on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. An ice skating fad swept America and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, and hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life – fifty thousand each day in New York’s Central Park ice rink alone – joined in the craze. Today, the rivers rarely see a skater, but it remains particularly fitting that Philadelphia, which so well championed the rights of the individual, should be the father of the most individual of outdoor sports­ – figure skating.

Early Philadelphia skaters made good use of the rivers when frozen and, according to the meticulous minutes kept by the club’s executive committee, it was a rare winter when less than thirty-five skating days were noted. In those days, skating was an event of importance in the social and recreational life of the city. A delightful vignette of skating on the Delaware River is recorded in the club’s committee minutes of January 26, 1856.

Cold and clear wind N. West. Skating still good on the river … the Club was largely represented. Several sail boats on runners … propelled over the ice. It is estimated that over 20,000 persons was on the ice to-day … and at Poplar St. Policemen were stationed to regulate the passage of persons walking the planks from the wharf on to the ice … A number of gentlemen on skates exhibited their gallantry by pushing chairs on runners, on which was seated damsels. Two or three young ladies on skates attracted great attention, while hundreds formed a circle around the most graceful skaters belonging to the Club. The merry sounds of sleigh bells added excitement to the scene, making the scene one of the most animated ever witnessed on the Delaware.

Although the sketch portrays it as an idyllic pastime, river skating was not immune from problems. An 1878 report noted “large numbers of skaters had been taken from the water by the members of the Club and cared for at the club house.” There were frequent skirmishes with the ice companies that chose the best skating ice for cutting and marketing. And then there was the case of a contrary tugboat captain, who would only proceed back and forth where the ice was best, ruining the area for skating.

The Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, which has been housed indoors in Ardmore, Montgomery County, since January 1938, is the oldest and largest skating club in North America. Boasting twelve hundred members, the club continues to offer opportunities for beginning skaters as well as those of Olympic caliber. “It’s a unique place,” says Geoff Drayton, current membership chairman. “We’re one of just two clubs in the nation that own its own facility. There’s so much that’s great about it, and there’s so much history.”

The club, which retains a smidgen of its outdoor legacy because of a nearly wall-sized window at the rear of the rink, is leisurely paced, recalling less hectic bygone days. Off-ice events, such as weekly skating exhibitions and teas, competitions, brunches, and dinner dances, are popular with adult members. “In the old days they used to have an
orchestra playing the music,” says Cynthia Drayton, Geoff Drayton’s wife, who recently placed at the U.S. Adult Nationals. A group described as a “number of Gentleman friendly to the formation of a Skaters’ Club for the City and County of Philadelphia” gathered together at Stigman’s Hotel on George (now Sansom) Street in 1849 for “improvement, pleasure, companionship and safety.” The first order of business was to draw up a constitution for such an organization which they initially called the Skaters’ Club of the City and County of Philadelphia “The object of the association,” the constitution read, “shall be instruction and improvement in the art of Skating, the cultivation of a friendly feeling in all who participate in the amusement, and the efficient use of proper apparatus for the rescue of persons breaking through the ice.”

The group’s first elected officers, included James Page, president; Josiah Evans, vice president; James Sullender, treasurer; William H. Jones, secretary; and Edward D. Yates, corresponding secretary. George W. Paul, Oliver C. Gaul, George L. Sartell, R.S.R. Andrews, and William F. Van Hook made up the organization’s executive committee. In 1861, the club applied for a formal charter of incorpora­tion, which was granted.

Club members respect their institu­tional history and revere tradition. Early on, an insignia was adopted, a badge crested with a small silver skate and, with a slight design modification since, is still worn by members today. One of the club’s first formal actions was the approval of a bylaw providing that a cord and reel, for rescuing purposes, should be carried by each member when skating.

Failure to comply carried a fine of one dollar. The reel, about five inches long, made of hardwood, was wound with a cord about sixty feet in length, and ended in a noose for encircling the wrist. The provision remains in the present bylaws for outdoor skating, and the penalty has been enforced in recent years – even against the club’s president.

From its inception, the club has been active as both a sporting club and as a humanitarian group. Its executive committee kept a log recording the weather, the condition of the ice, the various improvements and additions to safety apparatus, and detailed reports of rescues. The perils of skating outdoors are less appreciated today, but thin ice and air holes were common hazards. In event of mishap, two or three members were directed to go to the rescue, while others acted as guards to keep back the curious. Rescuers first fastened a noose securely to one of their wrists and tossed the reel to the individual in the water, who, having grasped the device, was then pulled out onto firmer ice. Besides the reel, one or two boats with airtight compartments and iron runners were maintained for instant action. Danger flags were used to mark air holes and weak ice. Rescuers also used specially designed safety ladders, described in 1853 as “twenty feet long with a joint three feet from the end, with hinges, so that upon reaching the hole in the ice, it will settle in the water and enable the person to escape with much more ease, giving a firmer support to the feet.” A particularly exciting account of an early rescue appears in the executive committee minutes of February 9, 1861.

Warm as a Summer day. Wind south which made the ice very weak. Thousands of persons assembled on the banks of the river, and had the ice been strong it would have been the gala day of the season; but weak as the ice appeared many hundred persons ventured on it, while the more cautious remained on the bank. … A number of persons broke partly through the ice, and during the afternoon, 17 persons were rescued, two of whom (in the opinion of many) would have been drowned find it not been for the timely assistance rendered with the boat, in the first case, manned by Conrad B. Andress, and in the 2nd case manned by Francis F. Ott & Geo. W Gable. This is the most desperate and exciting case that has occurred for some time back; the man was in the middle of the river … some hundreds of feet of nearly skim ice had to be … quickly crossed … and reels thrown to him, but he was so much frightened that he was almost hopeless, and it was some time before we could get him to take the cord (within his reach) and then it appeared that he did not know what he was doing, for his jaws and eyes appeared set, and his head was falling back and he was fast sinking under the ice, when the boat … plunged in the water and the drowning man was saved. For some moments after the boat party got hold of him, his face had the set and deathly appearance as above described and it was not until after considerable exertion had been made to get him in the boat that he recovered his senses. A line was then thrown from the boat to the members who had approached near the hole from the west side of the river and the boat quickly drawn out of the river amid the cheers of thousands of persons . .. who had for some minutes stood motionless, fully expecting that the rescuers would arrive too late.

In 1869, the report of the executive committee lists a total of two hundred and fifty-nine persons saved from drowning by the members of the club. By 1888, a special prize, a twenty-dollar gold piece, was awarded by the club to the individual who showed the most courage in rescuing a person or persons on the river during the skating season. Two years later, in 1890, the season witnessed not one casualty.

When rumors arose in 1859 that the old Humane Society of Philadelphia was about to dissolve, many believed that the skaters’ club was the logical successor. The Humane Society of Philadelphia had been established in 1770 “for the recov­ery of drowned persons … persons disordered by noxious vapors, lighten­ing, drinking cold water, and from the action of excessive heat and cold upon the body.”

“The Humane Society was concerned with safety of people, and testing wells for purity,” says E. Hendricks Funk Jr., club president from 1979 to 1982. “It had nothing to do with cats and dogs … but kept busy pulling out and saving people from the water.” The prospect of succeeding that organization was most agreeable to the skaters because they naively assumed that the Humane Society possessed a substantial endowment of some twenty-two thousand dollars, which could be appropriated to build a skaters’ clubhouse. Unbeknownst to club officers, the Humane Society had quietly turned over its assets to the Pennsylvania Hospital three years earlier. Nonetheless, no one objected to the club assuming the society’s life-saving functions.

Erection of a clubhouse in Fairmount Park, which would provide a permanent home near the banks of the Schuylkill River, was an idea first proposed in 1855. Club officials attempted to procure land from Philadelphia City Council, but the city fathers balked. The club persisted, and five years later, on January 28, 1860, council approved the transfer of a lot to the club “on which to erect a building for a safe and convenient deposit of their apparatus used for rescuing persons from a watery grave.” The project was financed by stock subscriptions and solicitations. William S. Andrews, an architect and club member, drew up plans for the building, which were altered by city architect, J.C. Sidney, also a member. The building, completed in February 1861 at a cost of nearly forty­-nine hundred dollars, was described in detail by a city newspaper.

The structure is of brown falls stone, and of the Italian style of architecture, forty feet front by eighty deep. The interior arrange­ments are well adapted for the objects for which they were intended. The front saloon, overlooking the Schuylkill, is for the special use of ladies. From this point, an unobstruct­ed view for miles is obtained; Girard Avenue bridge, and beyond is Egglesfeld, Solitude, West Philadelphia Water Works, Mantua, Fairmount, the Wire Bridge and the southern portion of Philadelphia.

The left wing is used as a hospital, and is furnished with the necessary apparatus and restoratives in cases of suspended respiration. This department is under the control of a regularly-constituted board of surgeons belonging to the club . .. . The right wing is known as the members’ room, which is furnished with a tier of closets, where superfluous clothing or valuables can be left, while on the ice, for safe keeping.

The ground floor is used for boats and other heavy apparatus, and from which, by a slip, the ice is most easily gained.

It is contended that Philadelphians have been the first on this continent, and most probably in the world, to consider skating, combined with humanity, of sufficient importance to maintain an organization for over 12 years, and erect a building at so liberal a cost, dedicated to those objects.

With the waning of river skating’s popularity, coupled with the develop­ment of artificial ice, skaters intensified their search for an indoor rink. As early as 1897, a rink was built over the ice manufacturing plant of the York Ice Machinery Company, but this was used largely for ice hockey until a fire destroyed it in 1901. The enterprise did not collapse, however, and the ice­-making machinery was used to freeze an outdoor skating surface over which was erected a circus tent. The club was about to sign an agreement for the use of this rink when the tent collapsed under the weight of snow.

While the search for indoor rink continued, U1e question of the club’s perpetuity would take longer to answer. Symbolizing the emergence of a more modern organization was the dedication of a cup, named by Walther R. Thayer in memory of his late brother, John B. Thayer. The winner, twenty-five years old or younger and residing within twenty-five miles of Philadelphia, was to be able to cut the first seven ice figures of international style. Beginning in 1916, the club’s president, John F. Lewis, made several offers to secure a permanent location, which were rejected. Other circumstances short-circuited enthusiasm, including the outbreak of World War I, which aborted plans for a rink at Thirty­-Third and Walnut Streets. In 1919, negotiations began for the rental of time at the newly-constructed Philadelphia Ice Palace (or Arena) on Market Street. The club agreed initially to hold twenty sessions at the arena during the skating season. About one hundred and fifty people subscribed to the class, and each succeeding year the group met with increasing enthusiasm. The burgeoning interest led to the formation, in 1928, of the Figure Skating Club of Philadelphia.

The twenties marked a turning point in figure skating, not only in Philadel­phia, but also nationally with the formation of the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), of which the ska ting club is a charter member. Attitudes and enthusiasm had changed dramatically since 1863 when a little known American ballet master, Jackson Haines, adapted expressive movement to skating. Although declared the unofficial U.S. Champion, he received strong disapproval in America where a more rigid style was expected. Haines traveled to Vienna where he adapted waltzes and dances to ice. Europe immediately acclaimed this “free” style which spread to North America as a popular spectator sport with the help of Canadian skater Louis Rubinstein, a student of Haines.

In 1922, the USFSA launched a series of national championships. However, the year before, the Philadelphia club had already conducted its first large competition at the Philadelphia Arena, the International Figure Skating Championships of America. In 1924 and 1934, the USFSA championships were conducted under the auspices of the club at the arena, and in 1938 at the newly opened Ardmore facility.

Because many skaters held membership in both the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society and the Figure Skating Club of Philadelphia, it seemed sensible to combine the two. In February 1934, a committee of the Philadelphia Skating Club was appointed to confer with its counterpart representing the Figure Skating Club to explore formalizing a new membership category in the Philadelphia Skating Club. A few simple amendments made to the club’s bylaws in January 1935 created a class of associate members, and a skating committee to conduct private skating lessons.

The club’s interest in acquiring its own rink surfaced in 1933 when member William Penn-Gaskill Hall put forth a detailed plan. Hall’s plan, however, proved impractical during the depths of the Great Depression. Nonetheless, a committee actively looked into a number of sites, preferably in proximity to an artificial ice-making plant. In December 1936, the committee recommended a tract of land owned by Haverford College in Lower Merion Township. Although not situated close to an ice plant, the property did possess an essential resource – a small stream that ran adjacent to it. The rink was financed in part by the sale of bonds to members, their friends, and residents of Pennsylvania.

In March 1937, the club purchased from the college nearly eighteen hundred acres for eighty-eight hundred dollars, the assessed value of the parcel. A crisis arose in June when construction costs were projected to be one hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars, a figure much higher than originally budgeted. The plans were reviewed and all but the bare skating facilities were eliminated. The final cost to the club was near one hundred and forty-five thousand dollars. In order to offset expenses during the early years, the club rented rink time to private schools located along the Main Line, a string of affluent suburban communities that sprang up after 1880 when wealthy families relocated along the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line west from Philadelphia. Although the center of skating activities shifted to the indoor Ardmore rink, the Schuylkill River clubhouse is still well maintained and leased during part of the year to the Girls’ Rowing Club of Philadelphia.

Indoor ice carnivals played an important role in figure skating as a spectator sport, establishing a pattern still employed by professional touring shows. Begun in 1920, carnivals have been staged every year since, except for one or two years in the 1920s when the arena was not open, and during World War II. From the outset it was the practice to invite world-class skaters to participate so as to add to the interest and variety of the program. The carnivals in Philadelphia and other large cities became increasingly popular and, until professional shows became established, they drew packed houses.

In 1930, the World Championships in Figure Skating were held in New York, the first time they were held outside Europe, and many noted skaters came over from Europe for the event. Afterwards, these stars skated in the club carnival at Philadelphia. The program that year included Sonja Henie of Norway, the women’s champion for ten consecutive years, 1927 to 1936; Karl Schaefer of Austria, seven-time men’s champion, 1930 to 1936; and the Brunets of France, the pairs champions.

Many of the same skaters returned for the 1932 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. The visiting skaters were to again delight Philadelphia carnival audiences, but a steamship carrying the skaters from Europe was late, and last minute arrangements had to be made for a special tug and police escort to bring them to Philadelphia in time. The frantic efforts proved fruitless because the skaters decided their “sea legs” prevented them from skating that evening. A special performance was arranged for the following evening, which proved so popular that discarded admission ticket stubs sold as souvenirs.

The club carnivals in recent years have been held at the Ardmore rink before audiences composed mostly of friends and relatives. Even though world champions prefer the monetary benefit of touring extravaganzas, carnivals are still of great value to the club. They stimulate interest in skating, feature performances by expert visiting skaters, and give an opportunity for the entire membership to participate.

In 1941 and 1949, Ardmore hosted the North American championships, and between 1923 and 1945, club members held sixteen national titles. All skaters, whether competitive or recreational, continue to skate under banners, which hang from the ceiling and hail the accomplishments of former members, including Richard “Dick” Button, Jane Vaughn Sullivan, Arthur Vaughn, Scott Hamilton, and Todd Eldridge. Button and Hamilton are among those who credit the rink with the beginnings of their stellar careers. Button was U.S. Champion, 1946 to 1952, Olympic Champion in 1948 and 1952, and World Champion, 1948 to 1952. Hamilton, U.S. Champion, 1981 to 1984, captured Olympic gold in 1984.

The skating club continues to offer programs and entertainment for skaters of all ages and skills. An adult team, The Philadelphia Scribes, for example, offers an opportunity for competitive synchro­nized skating. E. Hendricks Funk Jr., a retired director of clinical research, who has skated for the last thirty years, is a member of the Scribes. “In pairs skating, the two lift and jump and go to opposite ends of the rink,” Funk says. “In dance, the two never leave each other. Precision has all the virtues of ‘teamism.’ That makes it a really different, fun thing. I think it’s the future of ice skating because it puts a lot of people on the ice at one time. Not to put down great individuals or couples, but precision is a more effective way of using all the ice.” Funk hopes that precision, and its team­-oriented focus, will attract more young men to skating.

It was as long ago as ten thousand years that humans first strapped on skates made from the leg or rib bones of large animals for transporta­tion and survival. While people are known to have skated for recreation on the canals of the Netherlands during the Middle Ages, for the Dutch, who were using wooden platform skates with iron runners as early as the fourteenth century, ice skates proved to be a brilliant military strategy in the defense of Amsterdam in 1572 during the Netherlands’ war of independence. Perhaps another revolu­tion of sorts also began in Philadelphia the year after E. V. Bushnell invented the first all steel clamp-on skate in 1848. Ice skating has a millennial timeline, but the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society has brought a Promethean advance to the sport in the past century and a half – in the saving of many lives and the pleasure of hundreds of thou­sands; in the historical heritage of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania; in the training of skaters, for fun or serious ambition; and in the artistic and athletic achievements witnessed on the world’s icy stages.

 

Readers interested in learning more about ice skating and the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society are encouraged to write: Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, 220 Holland Ave., Ardmore, PA 19003-1292; telephone (610) 642-8700; or visit the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society website.

 

For Further Reading

Boitano, Brian. Boitano’s Edge: Inside the Real World of Figure Skating. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Boo, Michael. The Story of Figure Skating. New York: Beech Tree, 1998.

Gutman, Dan. Ice Skating: An Inside Look at the Stars, the Sport, and the Specta­cle. New York: Puffin Books, 1995.

Hamilton, F. F., Jr. Ice Capades: Years of Entertainment. Wash­ington, D.C.: Penchant Publishing Co., 1974.

Helmer, Diana Star and Thomas S. Owens. The History of Figure Skating. New York: PowerKids Press, 2000.

Herner, Russell. Antique Ice Skates for the Collector. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2001.

Maier, William Morris. One Hundred Years of the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, 1949.

 

J. F. Pirro is a freelance writer who teaches journalism and advises a comprehensive scholastic newspaper program at Emmaus High School, Lehigh County. He received his bachelor of arts degree in English from Ursinus College, Collegeville, and his master’s degree in journalism from North­western University. His work has been published in Inside Sports, Runner’s World, Women’s Sports & Fitness, Referee, Careers & the Disabled, The Amicus Journal, Paddler, Home & Gym Fitness, and Scholastic Coach and Teacher. He has also written for USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, and The Milwaukee Journal, among others. His feature tracing the history of the United Bowmen of Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest society of archers, appeared in the Winter 1993 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.