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Roller Skating fad of the 1880’s

The invention of roller skates

Skates mounted to wooden rollers had been produced since the 1860’s (in Holland) but several innovative inventions during the late 1870’s and early 1880’s served to fuel the roller skating fad of the 1880’s. In 1876 a design for roller skates wheels was patented in England. In that same year the toe stop was invented allowing the skater to tip the skate onto the toe to stop. These innovations made roller skates practical for everyday use and set the stage for the roller skating fad that was about to come.

Roller skates existed at least as early as 1743. In that year, a stage performance in London featured actors wearing roller skates as props. In 1760, Jean Joseph Merlin invented inline skates with metal wheels. In 1863, James Plimpton invented the roller skates as we know them today. Two sets of parallel wooden wheels, on under the ball of the foot and the other set under the heel were mounted on rubber springs. The rubber mounts allowed the wheels to pivot providing a huge improvement in maneuverability. Sales were brisk but rollers skating sales did not explode until 1881.

Henley improves roller skates and set the stage for the 1880’s roller skating fad

Micajah C. Henley started the first roller skate factory, Henley Bicycle Works, in Richmond in 1881 in a barn at the rear of his home at 201 North 14th Street (ironically, the Wright Brothers lived five doors down at 211 N. 14th Street). The business gradually expanded in various locations until the company finally was installed in a large brick building at North 16th Street. By the end of the year, Henley was mass producing roller skates at his Indiana factory. The skates, known as the “Chicago Skate”, sold 15,000 units per week and Henley became known as “The Roller Skate King”.

Henley continued to improve his business and expanded beyond roller skates and bicycles. Under the leadership of Henley, the workers at Henley Bicycle Works manufactured bicycles; roller skates; scooters; lawn furniture and lawn swings; iron working machinery; tools; boring, milling and screw driving machines used in wood manufacturing; gas meters; fence machines and lawn mowers

Henley continued to improve the roller skate design during the 1880’s and each improved served to fuel another spurt in sales. Henley skates were the first skates to feature an adjustable tension via a screw, the ancestor of the kingbolt mechanism on modern skates. He switched to lighter, Turkish boxwood wheels that proved to be more durable than the previous wooden wheels. The wooden bottoms of the skates were replaced with a metal footplate and the straps were replaced with clamps fastened with a key (competitor products required a screwdriver to attach the skates). By 1884, roller bearings were introduced as a means to reduce friction on the turning wheels.

Henley’s skates became international best sellers. It is estimate that Henley sold millions or roller skates during the 1880’s heyday. Although rollers skates continued to sell, interest in them waned as improvements to bicycles were made and the automobile was introduced.