#Unearthed: An American Family In Frankfurt
When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time.
Skating is a terrible sport for the arrogant. The ice is slippery business and has a way of reminding us all - no matter how good we (think we) are - that we are fallible. Irish born American John Ross Browne wore many hats through his life, among them teacher, father, writer, government official, world traveller and - you guessed it - figure skater. In 1861, Browne, his wife Lucy and nine children moved to Germany for two years. His time spent in Frankfurt inspired his 1866 book "An American Family In Germany" and this wonderful primary source account of skating in the city at the time. Pour yourself a nice cup of tea and see how things played out for An American In Frankfurt:
EXCERPT FROM "AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN PARIS" (JOHN ROSS BROWNE)
The River Main was blocked up with ice, and skating was the popular amusement of the season. By paying few kreutzers - for what don't know, unless it might be to support the corporation - anybody that pleased could enjoy the privilege of the river. I went down one day to take look at the skaters, and certainly it was a very lively and amusing scene. Boys and girls, big and little, young men and old men, were flying over the crystal element in full glee. Smart buckish gentlemen were pushing before them ponderous old ladies who were seated in sledges or sliding-chairs. Pretty blooming damsels of vigorous form were flying hither and thither, laughing and joking with amazing zest. Whole schools of students were turned out to enjoy the exercise, with their teachers leading the way. The fathers of families were disporting themselves before their admiring Fraus, while their little responsibilities were clapping their hands and laughing merrily at the sport. Old apple women were selling apples, cakes, and nuts; old men were sweeping the ice or shovelling off the snow; grand officers in the military line of life were standing on the quays, looking on with remarkable condescension; policemen were watching about generally to preserve order, which nobody had the least idea of‘breaking; a buffoon dressed in an absurd costume, was navigating a whirling ship that flew round in a circle, while he called aloud upon all classes to take passage in the same for the regions of joy; strangers in motley groups were smoking their two-cent cigars or blowing their fingers to keep themselves warm; and, in short, every body was doing something very amusing to an American.
I saw a gentleman capsize a lady whom he was sliding in a chair before him. The lady turned all over on the ice, making convulsive efforts to keep down her hoops. What did the merry crowd of skaters do? Pick her up? By no means. About fifty rushed in to compliment the unfortunate hero of the disaster upon his skill, and laugh at the unfortunate lady.
I saw a stout gentleman pitch over and get the breath knocked completely out of his body. It was a capital joke; the crowd roared and cheered. It was such glorious fun to see fellow's breath knocked short off.
In fine, the whole scene was so inspiring that it unconsciously brought me back to the days of boyhood, when used to go skating on the Ohio River. Thinks I, by Jove, old boy, if you had pair of skates, couldn't you show these chaps how to cut the pigeon-wing? Couldn't you go the back flourish in a style that would open their eyes? Couldn't you charm the ladies with some novelties in the poetry of motion? Zounds! Couldn't you make those clumsy Dutchmen wish they had cultivated the science of skating in the United States of America? Pooh! pooh! What burlesque they make of it! They don't know how to skate - they don't comprehend the first principle of the art!
"Sir," said a polite gentleman with whom I had slight acquaintance, stepping up with a handsome pair
of skates swinging from his hand, "Would you like to try your skill? I have just been enjoying it; but perhaps you are not accustomed to skating?"
"Accustomed to skating!" I retorted, a little indignantly; "Why, lieber Herr, I was considered the best
skater in Louisville, Kentucky. True, have not practiced much in California, but you know skating, like swimming, can never be forgotten. So, by your leave, here goes."
Taking the skates, I went down upon the ice. A dozen boys rushed toward me and offered to put the skates on my feet for the trifling consideration of three kreutzers. "Gehen Sie fort!" said I, "Did you ever know Californian who couldn't put on his own skates?" The boys, when they heard themselves thus addressed in German, cried out, "Ein Englander! Ein Englander!" and about fifty miscellaneous skaters of both sexes rushed up to see the Englander put on his skates. I could fancy, as I buckled the straps on my boots, that every man, woman, and boy in the crowd enjoyed the most enthusiastic expectations in reference to my skill in this complex and difficult art. The weather was cold, and the straps were rather short; but I succeeded in getting the skates on at last, and an encouraging cheer arose as stood up and made few preparatory flourishes. It should be borne in mind that eighteen years had elapsed since my last excursion upon ice. Well, I don't intend to boast. It is not my way. I like modesty in all things; but I can say with perfect confidence and propriety, there was not skater upon that field of ice who attracted half so much attention as I did from the very first stride.
It was altogether different from swimming, this thing of sliding on the top of the water - frozen water, too, and very slippery at that: the hardest kind of water in case of sudden contact between the surface and the point of a man's nose. Very strange, wasn't it? - one leg actually tried to run away and cut a figure on its own account. The other started off in an opposite direction, and I made a strong effort to drag back the first leg and carry it forcibly along, thus exhibiting a very curious and unnatural rivalry between two members of the same family. I leaned over at first to try and get a little ahead of leg
number one, which was considerably in advance at the start; but the other, taking a sudden shoot out at right angles, enraged me to such degree that immediately I whirled and got after it, determined to make it bear the entire weight of my body; but somehow was utterly unable to gain upon it single inch. At this stage of affairs number of ladies came flourishing around me, with their merry laughing eyes shooting forth scintillations of electricity; and, being of very susceptible temperament, I think the sight must have disconcerted me little, for I began to look up in the sky quite accidentally, and my back was all doubled up trying to keep from noticing them. The little boys cheered and cried out, "Englander! Englander! Ho, ho! See the Englander!" The gentlemen roared "Bravo! bravo!" and
the ladies were absolutely convulsed with suppressed admiration. It was a new style of skating altogether. They had never seen such complicated figures executed by a foreigner or any body else.
These manifestations of applause gave me considerable confidence; and, after jumping three feet backward, two feet forward, and eighteen inches in the air, and doubling up several times before and behind, I stood perfectly still, merely to show that these remarkable feats of activity were not involuntary, and that I could stand still whenever thought proper to do so. The thunders of applause that greeted this achievement were truly gratifying to my national pride. Cries of Bravo! and Encore! resounded all over the ice. The ladies absolutely shed tears of delight, and saturated their handkerchiefs with the excess of their emotions; and the little boys shouted, in paroxysm of glee, "Englander! Englander! See the Englander!"
While was studying out what sort of figure to out next, a very respectable-looking old gentleman stepped up and observed in good English, "Sir, beg pardon - "Oh, don't mention it," said I; "there's not the least necessity." "Sir," continued the old gentleman, "I observe that you are an Englishman." "Precisely." said I; "born in the city of Lun'on seven-and-thirty years ago. There's where I learned to skate; but the weather is generally very foggy there, which accounts for the winding and circuitous figures I cut on the ice. "I thought so!" persisted the old gentleman; "in fact, I knew it; and having observed your motions for some time, it occurred to me to suggest, with due respect, that if you continue cutting the same figures much longer you’ll be very likely to strain yourself. I know of a man who was ruptured in that way." "The devil you do!" said I, indignantly; "that man certainly didn't understand how to skate. You will observe, sir, that with me the case is entirely different. I am going to cut some figures now that nobody ever saw or ever will see again in this part of the country."
The old gentleman begged that I would not attempt any new feats of dexterity; but, nettled at his unfounded insinuations, I boldly struck out. This time it was really miraculous the progress I made after eighteen years of inactivity. It is entirely out of my power to describe the galvanic jumps, the
sudden and incomprehensible whirling of each leg entirely on its own responsibility and without the slightest volition on my part; the wild, savage, and determined manner in which threw out my arms and grasped at imaginary objects in the distance; the final complication of flourishes which brought me up all twisted into compound and tangled knot; and the very singular and romantic adventure which occurred at this period of the affair. I flatter myself. Such an exhibition of skill has rarely been witnessed on the River Main; and I am the more confident in this opinion on account of the number
of ladies who gathered around to enjoy it.
You remember, perhaps, the old shawl I wore at Washoe? Well, that identical shawl dropped from my
shoulders just as I was brought up in the unexpected manner already described. Now comes the cream of the romance. A beautiful and blooming young lady came sweeping along on the ice as gracefully as any sylph could possibly be expected to travel on skates. She saw the shawl, darted at it, caught it up with amazing dexterity, and was about to hand it to me with s smile of malicious triumph, when I darted forward to receive it and to express my profound thanks and unbounded admiration.
What do you think happened? Positively the most remarkable and mortifying accident that ever occurred here or elsewhere, to the best of my knowledge. I undertook to make graceful obeisance to the beautiful creature as approached; but, being unable to stop my headway or regain my equilibrium on account of some radical defect in the skates, I actually batted her over! Yes, I confess it with profound humiliation - butted that bewitching creature clear over, hoops, shawl, muff, skates, and all, and, what is worse, became dangerously mingled up in her embraces upon the ice! It was a dreadful scene of misplaced politeness, and I could not but feel that she was forcibly struck by my manners - or rather my head. Upon my honor, I never was so mortified in my life. The whole crowd roared and cheered, and the little boys gathered round in paroxysm of delight, shouting at the top of their voices, "Englander! Englanderl Ho! See the Englander!"
Somebody disengaged the lady and lifted her up. "Lieber Gott!" said she, with some asperity, "Ich glaub Sie sind ein Englander!" "Ya, schön Fraulein!" looking up at her with an expression of profound humiliation; "Geborn in der Stadt London! Ich war never outside that city before in my life, schön Fraulein. Sorry to say, miss, the style of skating there is altogether different from the German style." "Nicht gut! Nicht gut!" cried the excited damsel, with a glance of disdain; and, giving a beautiful whirl on one leg that came miraculously near carrying off the end of my nose with the point of her skate, away she flew amid the cheers of the by-standers. After this, I picked myself up, so to speak, and concluded it would be better, on account of the severity of the police regulations, to pull off the skates, return them to the owner, and retire from the field, satisfied with the reputation I had already achieved.
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