Journal

Nostalgia for the Quiet Season

02.24.2017

Antique sporting goods – snowshoes, skis, skates, sleds, canoe paddles, tennis rackets, lacrosse sticks and the like – are reliably attractive accessories for rustic rooms. Within each category, examples range from “cheap and cheerful” to museum quality. For those who pursue sporting collectibles beyond their decorative value, there is always a lot to learn.

antique figure skates

I recently came across this photo of a pair of antique ice skates that I deaccessioned from my collection several years ago (well, okay, that’s a pretty fancy word for selling a relatively inexpensive object from a relatively modest collection, but there you have it). These circa 1900 skates are missing the leather straps that would have secured the blades to sturdy boots, becoming the precursors of modern boot skates.

antique ice skates

(from classicauctions.net)

I am drawn to antique skates because of their pleasing sculptural forms, such as the swan-head, short-curl and high-curl skates pictured below.

swan headed skates

(from iceskatesmuseum.com)

(from etsy.com)

(from etsy.com)

(from maineantiquedigest.com)

(from maineantiquedigest.com)

I also love the contextual images they evoke of people skating in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the physical settings, social groupings, and what people wore and carried, such as muffs and lanterns.

"Winter - A Skating Scene" by Winslow Homer, 1868

“Winter – A Skating Scene” by Winslow Homer, 1868

The history and forms of antique ice skates, as well as their value as collectibles, are well documented in books (Antique Ice Skates for the Collector by Russell Herner, 2001), articles (“Antique Ice Skates in America” by Ann Bates, Maine Antique Digest, Feb. 1, 2010), and websites (e.g., antiqueiceskateclub.com).

skatesbook

Beyond their styles or values, the deepest appeal of antique ice skates for me is the emotion they evoke. Skating as a child in northern Maine was all about getting outside and having fun during an inhospitable season. Anyone who has ever skated on a lake or river knows the sense of freedom and even escapism it allows – there are probably few among us who have not related at times to Joni Mitchell’s lyric “Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…”

An 1895 photo of skating on a river that flows through my hometown (from mainememory.net)

An 1895 photo of people skating on a river that flows through my hometown (from mainememory.net)

While hanging a pair of my own hand-me-down childhood skates on the wall should suffice to conjure up those feelings, somehow it is the very early skates that elicit more nostalgia, particularly thoughts that all of us who are attracted to antiques share at one time or another – romanticizing about seemingly simpler times. Two memoirs about frozen seasons in the north country provide good nourishment for doing just that.

book by Jerry Apps

(published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013)

In his memoir of growing up on a Wisconsin Farm with no electricity or indoor plumbing in the 1930s-1940s, Jerry Apps credits winter with instilling character traits such as resilience (“There’s a resilience that comes with having a few northern Januaries under your belt.“), patience (“…I credit winter with teaching me the value of patience. It just takes longer to accomplish things in winter.“), humility (“There’s nothing like a blinding blizzard to remind us humans that we are not in charge, even though we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we are.“), family solidarity (“When the weather was especially snowy or bitterly cold, we gathered in…the only rooms in our farmhouse heated by woodstoves and played Monopoly, checkers, or card games…“), and community-orientation (“It was never more important than during winter that we look out for our neighbors, making sure that they were warm and had plenty to eat.“).

Apps’ book also has a heartfelt reflection on getting his first pair of skates and learning to skate along with his twin brothers. It all started with a midwinter thaw.

The woodpecker thaw and rain continued for three more days…The water accumulated on top of the frozen ground until the pond in the hollow was at least an acre in size, maybe larger. And then, as abruptly as it had arrived the woodpecker thaw disappeared and temperatures skidded below zero for three days in a row…the hollow pond had frozen to a slippery, shimmering sheet of ice.”

The upshot of the story is that while the boys were having little success staying upright on their skates, their father came down to the pond one day, strapped on a pair of their skates, and gracefully glided around the pond – showing them his hidden talent and free-spirited nature along with a glimpse into the long-ago childhood of their hard-working farmer father.

book by Henry Beston

(first published by Rinehart & Company, 1948)

Another northern farm memoir recalling the same era by the writer and naturalist Henry Beston chronicles a year of life at Chimney Farm in a house perched on a hill overlooking a lake in midcoast Maine, only several miles from where we now live.

The historic house at Chimney Farm as it appears today (from panoramio.com)

The historic house at Chimney Farm as it appears today (from panoramio.com)

Beston’s chapter on winter includes an ode to ice:

Last night, coming in from the barn, I stood awhile in the moonlight looking down towards the pond in winter solitude. Because this year winds have swept the surface clean of early snows, the light of the high and wintry moon glowed palely upwards again from a sombre, even a black fixity of ice. Nothing could have seemed more frozen to stone, more a part of universal silence.

Patterns in a frozen lake, Maine (keithv.com)

Patterns in a frozen lake, Maine (keithv.com)

After lingering for a moment, Beston realizes that the night was not in fact silent, but was alive with the “mysterious outcrying of the frozen pond.” Anyone who has ever stood near large, frozen lakes is familiar with their otherworldly groans, cracks and booms. “Just as I turned to go in,” Beston writes, “there came from below one curious and sinister crack which ran off into a sound like the whine of a giant whip of steel lashed through the moonlit air.” Skaters on ponds and lakes – country folk and city folk – past, present and future – shiver and thrill to those very sounds.

Skaters in Tuxedo Park, NY in 1900 (oldphotoarchive.com)

Skaters in Tuxedo Park, NY in 1900 (oldphotoarchive.com)

So when there is utter chaos in the world at large, or when the rigmarole of family ski trips hardly seems like an ideal way to commune with the quiet season, holding onto an idealized notion of times when the snow and ice of winter really did slow life down can be nourishing and restorative, helping replenish our energies as we head towards the lively awakening of spring.

Deer on a frozen lake (from hikinginmainewithkelley.blogspot.com)

Deer on a frozen lake (from hikinginmainewithkelley.blogspot.com)

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