From Genius of Place by Justin Martin (Recommended Reading)
Central Park, The Lake
Other brilliant touches were more rapid to reveal themselves. The Lake, for example, opened right on schedule. On December 11, 1858, Central Park welcomed its first official visitors, the ice skaters. Roughly 300 people showed up on that first Sunday. A week later 10,000 descended on the park. New York, suffering through the latest in a series of unseasonably cold winters, fell quickly into an ice-skating swoon.
Diocletian Lewis, one of America’s first physical fitness gurus, had created a recent stir, lecturing about the healthful benefits of outdoor activity. Here at last was an opportunity for cooped-up city dwellers to get outside during this harsh winter, visit the new park breathe in the crisp air.
Soon all kinds of makeshifts concessions sprang up to serve this ice-skating craze. Skates could be rented for 10 (cents) an hour with a $1 deposit. Enterprising little boys wandered the ice, helping people affix skates to their boots for a 3 (cent) fee. This service was aimed especially at women frequently decked out in so much finery that they had trouble bending over.
For those to skittish to skate, armchairs for sliding over the ice could be rented for 15 (cents) an hour. The ideal configuration for this activity was an eligible gentleman pushing a seated young lovely of the ice. Yes, a yen for physical fitness may have been the original purpose for visiting the park, but something more basic turned this into a full-on frenzy.
In Victorian New York, ice skating was one of the few activities where unmarried men and women could mingle without chaperones. It was even possible for a woman to get ever so slightly coquettish , perhaps showing a hint of ankle as she slided past. “Many a young fellow has lost his heart, and skated himself into matrimony, on the Central Park pond,” a guidebook would note some years a later.
For the demure, or for those who wished to skate in peace without constant male attention, there was a separate ladies’ section of the Lake.
As the winter drew on, sometimes as many as 100,000 people a day visited the park. Skating proved so popular that the park was kept open well into the night. The Lake’s icy surface reflected the glow of newly installed calcium lights. Vaux went skating. There is no record that Olmsted did.
Anytime the ice was thick enough for skating, a red ball was hoisted from the same tower used to signal that an explosion was imminent. The ball could be seen from quite a distance This little touch was meant to save someone who had come all the way uptown the further trouble of trekking in the parks if there was no skating to be done.
By the standards of nineteenth century New York, skating was an unusually egalitarian activity, available to many, though by no-means all, of the city’s residents.