During the seventeenth century, ice skating became a popular winter activity. The idea of gliding across ice had intrigued people for thousands of years, and ice skates had evolved from extremely primitive foot coverings into sleekly designed footwear.
Early skaters tied animal carcasses on their feet to chase oxen and horses across the ice. The oldest surviving ice skates, made of the leg bones of large animals and leather straps, were found in Switzerland and are believed to date from 3000 B.C.E. As one might expect, crude skates made for treacherous skating. In fact, the patron saint of ice skating, St. Lydwina, was a teenaged Dutch girl in 1396 when she was knocked down and fell onto the ice, leaving her an invalid for nearly twenty years. She and her Dutch contemporaries skated on wooden skates with flat iron bottoms, propelling themselves with poles. They developed what became known as the "Dutch roll" type of skating, pushing off of one foot and gliding with the other. French skaters wore wooden shoes with a strip of iron on the soles.
The first major innovation in ice skating occurred in Scotland in 1572, with the invention of thin iron blades for skates. Although the blades required frequent sharpening, these skates glided over the ice in a much more controllable way than earlier flat-bottomed skates. Increased production of skates in the seventeenth century helped facilitate ice skating and speed skating as safe and popular sports activities. All-steel blades, introduced in 1850, did away with the need to sharpen ice skates and further popularized the sport.
"Speed Skating History." CNN/Sports Illustrated. http://www.cnnsi.com/olympics/2002/sport_explainers/speedskating_history (accessed on August 6, 2003).
U.S. Figure Skating Association. Official Book of Figure Skating: History, Competition, Technique. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.