Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Errand Boy

Engraving from George Meagher's 1900 book "Lessons In Skating"

We have certainly looked at the popularity of "special figures" more than once on the blog before. The art of carving intricate designs on the ice was an integral part of the development of figure skating back in the 'fancy skating' days and guess what? Today, we are going to talk about it some more. 

Prior to the twentieth century in skating circles from Berlin to Boston, the mark of a good figure skater was to the eyes of many, his or her ability to not just trace numerals like three's and eight's but to carve out letters of the alphabet on the ice. In 1790, German skater Gerhard Ulrich Anton Vieth published his essay "Ueber das Schlittschulaufen" with detailed instructions for skating the letters of the alphabet in large curves and the popularity of this unique art spread like wildfire across the Continent and even overseas. Frank Swift and Marvin R. Clark's "The Skater's Text Book" spoke of American skater Charles Baudouine's talent for "cutting letters on the ice, which is done with the heel of the skate, he being able to cut the whole alphabet, shading each letter beautifully." Many skaters utilized this particular skill as a speciality to gain advantage in early competitions or to wow spectators on chilly ponds but today, we are going to look at one incredible tale from the home country of Lidwina, The Patron Saint Of Skating... a story where carving out the alphabet on the ice took on a far more practical purpose.

In 1850, the French periodical "Musée des familles - lecture du soir" recorded the unbelievable story of one errand boy with a special gift: "Our most agile French skaters would only seem clodhoppers compared with the heavier Dutchman. Skating is the poetry of that prosaic nation. Keeping to the ground by only the merest strip of steel, they fly on invisible wings, and glide between heaven and earth on an immense limpid mirror that gives slightly under their weight but scarcely retains the snowy trace of their passage. It is like a dream come to life. I have seen Dutchmen trace exquisite profile portraits, scenery and monuments, arabesques and the most complicated fancy designs on the ice, with one foot. An Amsterdam shopkeeper, with whom I lodged, had an errand boy who was dumb and made the tour of the port every day with the speed of an arrow. On his return to his master's door, he paused for a few moments and traced a thousand curious little lines on the ice. I approached with the shopkeeper and we read all the news of the day, written on the ice with his skate just as you write on paper with a pen. The only difference was in the size of the letter."

Well over a century later, we may regard Charlotte Oelschlägel carving out the word "SPIES" in the ice in the film "The Frozen Warning" as a novelty or show biz gimmick but I don't think anyone can argue that the story of this forgotten Dutch errand boy who couldn't speak but used his skates to communicate the news of the day is anything but impressive.

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