The 19th-Century Mania for Ice Skating in the Summer
Europeans sought to recreate the luxury of wintering in the Alps with an indoor rink attraction
When France's first indoor ice-skating rink opened in May 1876, chaos broke out. Wealthy Parisians of all stripes flooded the building, eager to see how a large swath of ice could remain frozen so close to the summer.
Within minutes, "the place was crammed to suffocation, and yet thousands of ladies and gentlemen on foot and in carriages continued to arrive," according to one French journalist who wrote to the New York Times about the experience.
The scene he described was something out of a battle. With no way to enter through the doors, enterprising visitors began to climb the scaffolding outside the rink, then leapt in through the windows. Meanwhile, "crowds below persisted in besieging the doors," according to the journalist. "At times there was a fearful crush, and ladies were carried fainting out of the crowd. Many persons had their arms and legs injured."
The opening of the Paris rink capped off a half-century of experimentation with various freezing strategies—from synthetic "ice" actually made from materials like hog’s lard to real ice that was kept together through a complex metal cooling system—all in the name of an obscure dream: to make ice skating available year-round.
Although frenzy over a manufactured skating surface sounds odd in a modern era in which cities like Tampa Bay and Anaheim have professional hockey teams, the possibility in the 19th century was so foreign that being able to say you were on ice in the summer became its own status symbol.
The agitation for summer skating, which the American newspaper The Albion termed "rink mania," had its roots 30 years prior to the Paris opening. In December 1841, British inventor Henry Kirk announced that he had created the first-ever synthetic ice rink—and in doing so, he inadvertently kicked off an ice-making arms race.
Kirk's creation was not real ice. Instead, he tried to emulate the feeling of ice using a bizarre mix of materials. Included in the rink were salts, copper, aluminum, and hog’s lard, the last of which he insisted would "render [the rink] more slippery." When the first rink Kirk opened that winter failed to catch on, he tried again a year-and-a-half later, this time with a more daring marketing plan: He would time the launch for the height of summer.
On June 8, 1844, on Baker Street in London, Kirk opened the Glaciarium. At least in concept, the Glaciarium was a hit. Contemporary journalists like Spirit of the Times sportswriter Chas Knapp marveled that the artificial rink was "impossible to distinguish from natural ice." The newspaper Niles' National Register reported that England's Prince Albert visited the Glaciarium and was so taken with it that he had begun to inquire about purchasing one of his own. Capturing the mood of the country, it added, "it is not improbable that a 'frozen lake' will become as general to the mansions of the affluent, as an orchard or a fishpond."
Although the Glaciarium made an initial splash, its star faded quickly. Press reports on the Glaciarium dried up around 1850, and an 1893 article from James Digby, founder of the National Skating Association in England, explained that the initial design, although a global curiosity, did not make for effective skating. It "felt firm under the foot, cut up somewhat like ice under the skates, but overtaxed the energies of the most robust in the art of disporting themselves on it." That, and as Carroll Gantz noted in Refrigeration: A History, Kirk’s use of hog’s lard in his synthetic ice proved unappealing—even the most eager ice skaters "soon tired of the smelly ice substitute."
Despite the rise of "rink mania," ice skating was not new to much of the northern hemisphere. Ice skates themselves date back to the Netherlands in the 15th century, where they were used for transport in winter months. There, in northern areas, people of all classes could skate on frozen lakes and rivers near their homes. Yet in warmer climates where lakes did not freeze over for long periods of time, ice skating was a hobby of the wealthy. In late 18th-century England, according to historian Mary Louise Adams, "there were on average 18 skating days a year." Those who wished to perfect their skating movements needed the money to travel to places like the Swiss Alps.
While the Glaciarium offered the potential to democratize the sport in these warmer areas, its inventors instead doubled down on its high-status audience. When a veterinarian named John Gambee revived the Glaciarium in London in 1876—he used the same name seemingly without concern for copyright infringement—he designed the space to appeal to the same aristocrats who liked to travel to the Alps.
On the walls of his dome, Gambee painted a mural with glaciers and snow-covered mountain peaks to mimic "the sublime features of the Alpine mountains, covered with eternal snow," according to a contemporaneous story in The Observer. A viewing section was set up for those who couldn't afford a ticket to watch.
Instead of copper and hog's lard, however, Gambee decided to use real ice. He created a set of pipes containing coolant that kept the natural ice intact. "It was Gambee's 1870s approach that made all the difference and effectively began the development of real ice made by artificial means," Stephen Hardy, co-author of Hockey: A Global History, wrote in an email. "Ammonia was used as the refrigerant gas in the double-loop system that triggered a veritable boom in rinks, reliable ice, and (for us) hockey."
Rinks inspired by the 1876 Glaciarium popped up everywhere from Australia to Paris, where wealthy patrons met opening nights with such excitement that they quickly devolved into chaos. The Paris mania started with one of Gambee’s rinks.
The push for mechanically frozen ice rinks, however, was not a hit everywhere. Americans who had been raised on ice skating outdoors decried the effort as a pretentious European invention that not only cheapened the sport but was also itself contrary to American values. As Dwight's American Magazine put it in a January 1846 editorial, "If shut up within the enclosures of the Rotunda of London, where the artificial Skating Pond was originally formed, we should hardly expect a person to experience the same enjoyment which is found on one of our American rivers or lakes."
The Albion wrote in May 1876, "The latest London madness has infected the country and soon no provincial town will be without its rink." But ultimately even in America, land of natural ice skating, the push to artificially freeze ice won out. By the end of the 1800s, American newspapers were running front-page photos of New Yorkers flocking to artificially frozen ice rinks. "Rink mania" was a novelty no longer.