Posted by: Andrew Pask | January 8, 2012

Field notes from Toronto, Part 2: Outdoor skating, squares,.. and separate spheres

Skating at Nathan Phillips Square

Skating at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto

Nathan Phillips Square, located at the forefront of Toronto’s iconic City Hall building, is a popular place for residents and visitors alike. It’s where the city’s recent New Year’s festivities took place and it also plays host to concerts and other civic activities throughout the year. There’s even a lovely (if often lonely) speaker’s corner located on the SW corner, inspired by the one in London’s Hyde Park, that was installed in the late 1980s.

But in winter time, the big draw is the outdoor skating rink. Kids have field trips to the place, office workers pop over for a few quick turns before work or on lunch break… and late at night it’s not uncommon for a game of shinny to break out.

The day after I landed in Toronto, my nine year-old godson and I felt that it was appropriate for him to take a day off school so we could check it out. Neither of us skate very well but it was great fun nonetheless, even if the really young kids were doing circles around us. We had a good run at things… and used the outing as an excuse for an unholy meal of hot chocolate and poutine afterwards.

Cities, skating and the wintertime of gendered space.

Later that night I was thinking about the popularity of the outdoor rinks at Nathan Phillips and home, in Vancouver, at Robson Square. Both these, and the many other outdoor rinks that you find in places where people entertain themselves with the coldness of winter, have been part of public consciousness for some time. Indeed, the rinks are important enough that they occupy some of our most central, most important public spaces of northern cities.

(In many respects the presence of ice skates also stands as part of our Canadian identity. Hockey may be our national game, but the primary tool of hockey – the skates that people whiz around on – allow the cultural component to travel even further.)

A few months ago I had the chance to hear Adam Gopnik deliver one of his five-part series of Massey lectures out at UBC. The theme of the quintet was winter (“Five windows on the season“) and Gopnik’s lectures focused in particular on the changing perceptions that people have had to ‘the bleak season.’ And, rather unexpectedly at the time, the UBC portion I attended zeroed in on the rise of winter sports such as skating.

Urban skating, according to Gopnik, came to the fore in the middle of the 19th century with the introduction of the one piece skate. (Prior to that, whenever you went skating you had to manually strap blade to boot). And with this change “skating became less laborious than it had ever been; more people skated.” But it was also, says Gopnik, “a social change.”

The mid-1800s, after all, saw markedly different gender roles for men and women – which often manifested themselves in the actual spaces that each were supposed to occupy. This ‘doctrine of separate spheres’ meant that certain components of the public realm were seen as more or less off limits to women of proper virtue, where conversely the private sphere (in particular the domestic space of the home) was seen as being more appropriately feminine.

Into this environment came ice-skating, which, says Gopnik “… was one of the few things urban people could do in public as an acceptable form of flirtation and sexual display.” It was recreation, but it immediately recognized – and accepted – as being much more than that.

Indeed, ice-skating seemed to be one of the things that confronted the notion of segregated spaces for men and women. It shifted the terrain and appears to actually mark a point of transition in how public space was used by people of both genders.

When Central Park was built by Olmsted and Vaux in 1861 there were two separate areas for skating – one in front of what’s now the Dairy and a ladies’ pond over on the west side, not too far from where the Dakota is now. The ladies’ pond was meant for ladies – it was in operation for about ten years and then was closed and later drained because not enough people wanted to skate there. The idea of there being a separate female pond was so against the purpose of skating that it was left virtually unused. The Great Rink, on the other hand, became a place where, hard as it is to believe, as many as thirty thousand people were said to come on a Saturday afternoon to skate or to watch.

I wondered if any of this dynamic was apparent in Vancouver… and for that matter, what the history of skating in this city looked like.

Skating in the new city.

Given Vancouver’s relative newness, it’s not surprising that the history of the sport is at least as old as the city itself. A skating rink was in operation in 1887, a year after the City was incorporated. And for much of the city’s history the winters would often get cold enough that people could skate on either Lost Lagoon or Trout Lake – something that hasn’t happened for some years.

But as for the gender aspect, it’s hard to tell. The oldest image of skating is likely this one – from the early 1890s. It shows a group of rather stately men skating and standing about on Trout Lake.

Men skating on Trout Lake, Cedar Cottage

Men Skating on Trout Lake, Cedar Cottage, 189–?, Item #M-3-11.3

There’s less than a handful of photographs from the 19th century, all of which predominantly (though not exclusively) feature men. Not a great sample to work with.  But then, nine years hence, a picture from 1900 shows this elegant couple arm in arm – also at Trout Lake:

Man and woman skating on Trout Lake

Man and Woman Skating on Trout Lake, 1900, Item #: SGN 870

Now, just for fun, a leap further into the 20th century. Fast forward four decades and you can see the marked change in fashions and frivolity. Here’s another shot from Trout Lake in 1929 taken for the Star newspaper (notice all the trees are gone!). A row of men and women, all holding hands, skates towards the camera.

Skaters on Trout Lake 1929

Skaters on Trout Lake, 1929, Item #:CVA 99-1900

And here’s a snap of four fashionable young ladies taken for the same paper. Perhaps it captures a bit of the essence of public display and flirtation that Gopnik writes about. If nothing else, I think the gentleman behind them is hoping to catch their eye.

Five skaters at Trout Lake 1929

Skaters at Trout Lake, 1929, Item #: CVA 99-1902

And here’s another picture from the same year down at Lost Lagoon. It may not be 30,000 people, but that’s quite the crowd skating about.

Skaters at Lost Lagoon 1929

Skating, Lost Lagoon, 1929, Item #: CVA 99-1976

My cursory research – if you can call it that – didn’t turn up anything conclusive on the question of separate spheres and skating in Vancouver… but it’s an interesting enough issue that I’ll do some more digging on my next trip to the Archives or Museum.

It did, however, raise another question. Is public recreational (and non-hockey-related) skating still as popular as it used to be? Gopnik’s essays speak to a decline in the sport, but in Vancouver it’s also hard to tell since it seems like many of the spaces that were once used for outdoor rinks aren’t anymore… if for no other reason than the fact that it’s not been cold enough.

What do you think? If you’ve got some skating stories from Vancouver (or elsewhere) please post them here.


  1. Very interesting post! I can only speak from my own experience in Toronto, but I think there’s a lot of interest still in public recreational skating. I created my Great Skate 2012 project as a way to make sure I get out and skate as much as I can this winter. One thing has struck me: I can’t think of another recreation activity that includes such a wide span of ages, and abilities, doing the same thing in the same space at the same time. It’s quite wonderful, really.

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