Ice Skating Etiquette in the 19th Century

Ice skating etiquette helped make this pastime popular by the mid-1800s. In fact, among Britain’s upper and middle classes skating was so popular that the first attempt at creating artificial ice skating rinks occurred in England in 1841, the same year that Marie Boivin, the French midwife, inventor, and obstetrics writer, died. The new rinks required using a mixture of hog’s lard and salts. But these artificial rinks were so smelly, they quickly fell out of fashion. Some thirty years later, in 1876, the first mechanically frozen ice rink appeared in London. Although it was a vast improvement over the smelly rinks of the 1840s, most people still relied on local frozen ponds, rivers, or streams.

ice skating etiquette 1820s

Skating in the 1820s. Courtesy of Wikipedia,

No matter where people skated, ice skating etiquette needed to be observed and it was clear that skaters were supposed to follow these rules. They applied both on and off the ice. For instance, people were advised to “not carry a stick, a muff, or anything that will impede the use of your arms while skating [and to] never throw stones onto the surface of a sheet of ice on which you are anyone else can possibly wish to skate.”[1]

ice skating etiquette - Puck

Puck cover with John Bull and Uncle Sam. Author’s collection.

New skaters were known to have plenty of excitement and enthusiasm, but they did not always understand that they were supposed to follow the rules of ice skating etiquette. One of the first ice skating etiquette rules was “learn to put on and to take off your own skates.”[2] Once your skates were on, if you accomplished it before your companion, you were advised to “always wait for him; for nothing is more disagreeable than being left behind on an occasion of this kind.”[3] Besides politely waiting for your companion, skaters needed to be thoughtful in other ways. For instance, one etiquette book warned gentlemen to “be ready at all times … to render assistance to any one, either lady or gentleman, who may require it.”[4] In fact, it was noted that “a gentleman may be distinguished at all times by the willingness with which he will give up his sport to render himself agreeable and kind to anyone in difficulty.”[5]

Politeness on the ice was another ice skating etiquette rule. It included helping any unfortunate soul that accidentally fell through the ice, and because people skated on ponds or lakes, this occurred somewhat regularly. People were advised regularly of the following:

“[B]e always prompt to assist in the extrication of any one who may break through the ice, but let your zeal be tempered by discretion, and always get a rope or ladder if possible, in preference to going near the hole; for there is great risk of your breaking through yourself, and endangering your own life without being able to assist the person already submerged.”[6]

If a rope or ladder was unavailable, gentlemen were advised to “lay flat on your breast on the ice, and push yourself cautiously along until you can touch the person’s hand, and then let him climb by it out of the hole.”[7]

English Skates, Public Domain

English skates. Public domain.

Skating was sometimes considered violent and there were occasional stories about accidents while on the ice. One such story appeared in 1892 in The Pall Mall Gazette:

“Lady Lawrence, wife of Mr. Justice Lawrance, met with an accident yesterday while skating on the Earl of Ancaster’s lake, in Grimsthorpe Park. In taking a turn she slipped and fell heavily on the ice, breaking her left arm just above the wrist. Dr. Gilpin, of Bourne, satisfactorily reduced the fracture at Grimsthrope Castle, and Lady Lawrance was subsequently driven home to Dunsby.”[8]

Another story about an ice skating accident was told by American humorist Mark Twain. According to him his future wife Olivia Langdon suffered a mysterious accident to her spine while ice skating. She was left incapacitated and found herself paralyzed and confined to her bed for two years until a Rhode Island magnetic faith healer by the name of James Roger Newton appeared. He supposedly commanded her to walk and she did! Although Olivia may truly have suffered some problem because of ice skating the rest of the story appears to nothing more than Twain’s hyperbole and desire to embellish a story.

ice skating etiquette - skaters

Skaters. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

One ice skating accident that proved fatal happened in 1887 and involved a young man named Quincy. According to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper he drowned in the following manner:

“A number of lads ventured on the canal, and [Quincy] soon went through. Two others, in endeavouring to rescue him, were also precipitated into the water, and but for the assistance of John Shilton all would have been drowned. This lad succeeded in rescuing two of his companions, but the third was drowned.”[9]

Because ice skating was often said to involve too “many hard knocks” for beginners, new skaters sometimes looked to conveyances to help them. One popular conveyance skaters used was something they could push. It was a skating sled or skating chair and afforded users a certain amount of support or stability as they learned. These popular conveyances also had other advantages. For example, they diminished a beginner’s chance of falling or suffering injury. They also allowed children, feeble people, or ladies to enjoy time on the ice in a safe and relaxing way as another skater could push them from behind. One gentleman’s etiquette book noted:

“[S]hould you have one of the skating-sleds so much used for taking ladies on the ice, and should your own ladies, if you are accompanied by any, not desire to use it, the most becoming thing you can do is to place it at the disposal of any other gentleman who has ladies with him, and who is not provided with such a conveyance.”[10]

Skating Chair, Public Domain

Skating chair. Public domain.

For all skaters, even those pushing skating sleds or skating chairs, it was an unspoken rule to keep to the right. If done religiously supposedly it reduced the number of “collisions and consequent contusions.”[11] The first successful humor magazine in the United States, known as Puck, offered some clever advice to gentlemen. They warned men that although you may cross hands with a woman, “it is unusual … to put your arms round [a woman’s waist] … It is generally found that this proceeding is equivalent to skating on very thin ice, and will lead to dangerous consequences.”[12] Gentlemen skaters were also told that attention to the opposite “sex is no where more appreciated than on the ice.”[13] This was because women skaters were alleged to be “comparatively helpless,” and because of their helplessness, gentlemen were advised to “always skate perfectly clear of the line in which a lady is advancing.”[14]

ice skating etiquette - sled

Skating sled. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Some people believed dangerous consequences, such as collisions, were more likely to occur to unskilled skaters, and that could then result in “the fall of one or both [skaters].”[15] One way to expeditiously avoid a crash or collision was “to raise the prows of the skates, at the same time bending the knees, and throwing the weight of the body on to the hinder part of the keel of the skates, which will dig into the surface, and produce friction enough to bring the skater to a standstill within a few yards.”[16] Puck gave some humorous advice to men if they found a crash with a woman inevitable:

“If she] steers straight into your arms, you should accept the situation in your best ball-room manner. Do not attempt to avoid a collision, as if you dodge suddenly, the lady on failing to meet your support, will probably sit down abruptly on the ice, or get entangled with a sweeper.”[17]

Skaters, Public Domain

Skaters. Public domain.

Puck also offered a humorous bent on a gentleman falling:

“There is great art in falling gracefully, and it is surprising … [the] number of interesting, complicated, and unlooked-for attitudes and figures [that] can be … developed. To ensure perfect confidence at the critical moment, it is as well to hire somebody, say a professional wrestler or prize fighter, to trip you up and knock you down in all the possible methods. A mattress may be used for beginners to fall on. The more improbable your manner of tumbling, the greater success will you achieve in the eyes of the on-lookers.”[18]

Puck did however give this ice skating etiquette warning:

“[Gentlemen if you] find yourself prostrated at a young lady’s feet, do not place your hand on your heart and say she is the only girl you ever loved. These little scenes are apt to collect a crowd.”[19]

ice skating etiquette - competing for a young woman

Competitors for a young woman’s heart while skating. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


  • [1] Heathcoate, J.M., etal., Skating, 1892, p. 44.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 43.
  • [3] Hartley, Cecil B., The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1873, p. 171.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 172.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] “Skating Accidents to Date,” in The Pall Mall Gazette, 31 December 1892, p. 5.
  • [9] “Casualties on the Ice,” in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 9 January 1887, p. 5.
  • [10] Hartley, Cecil B., p. 172.
  • [11] Heathcoate, J.M., etal., p. 43.
  • [12] Punch, Vol. 108-109, 1895, p. 73.
  • [13] Hartley, Cecil B., p. 172.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Heathcoate, J.M., etal., p. 43.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Punch, p. 37.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Ibid.

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