The recent Philly cold snap, with a rare freeze of the Schuylkill River, brings to mind the mid-19th century, when the river froze over most years and thousands of skaters would take to the ice. One of the oldest remaining buildings on Boathouse Row, completed in 1861, was home to the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society. The two organizations had merged in an effort to both encourage the sport of skating and to save those who fell through the ice. (It’s now home to Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club.)
Benjamin Eakins – a noted calligrapher and instructor of penmanship – was a founding member of the Skating Club in 1849. He passed on his love of skating to his son, Thomas Eakins, who would later become one of America’s greatest realist painters. After the Civil War, Thomas Eakins studied art in Paris and wrote letters home about skating in the Bois de Boulogne. His letters are at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Here are excerpts from the boastful letter the 22-year-old wrote home to his sister Fanny, dated Jan. 24, 1867. (See an entire chapter on Eakins and Boathouse Row in my book.)
After school, I walked out to the woods of Bologna. A double row of carriages extended as far as the eye could see….I have seen awkward skaters in my life but never yet did I see any as awkward & gawdy as the young English snobs there & the perfumed French dandies. I tell you I wished I had my skates. I looked at them for a while and concluded I’d go in anyhow….[He rents skates, which he calls a “no go,” and then goes back for a hopefully better pair.]
I got on the ice & was standing perfectly still and suddenly both feet slipped out in front & down I came. Then there was a laugh. I got up & thought well I’ll stop your laughing. I’ll go backwards. I guess you never saw that. I went to cut a ring but I leaned over so much that the confounded dull things wouldnt hold on the ice…and down I came again…. I made up my mind to go a little modestly at first & skated straight forward round & round till I became a little accustomed to the things. By remembering to keep skating always on the front part of the skates that is on my toes I found myself rapidly improving and in ten minutes I concluded there was no more danger of falling so I went back to the middle of the pond and showed them some touches I guess they’d never dreamed of.