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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Ruth Livingston Mills: Graceful & Proficient on Ice

While researching Ruth Livingston Mills, one of the last things I expected to find, was a news article that extolled her skills as an ice skater! I have always had an impression of Ruth as very proper, a bit fragile health-wise, and rather cautious as well. Whenever she went outside in the summer she would be covered head to toe and wore a veil over her face to protect herself from the sun. So when I read that she was known as an excellent skater, I was a bit surprised. First of all, I could not picture her falling on ice in front of other people. And even if falls were rare and she was not doing anything risky, it is inevitable that a fall will happen once in a while. You might click your blades with another skater, or hit a rut…outdoor ice is nothing like the smooth ice in rinks today. And second, it takes a while to feel comfortable and confident on skates so that means she must have been doing it her whole life and she must have put in some time on the ice. Her involvement with skating also showcases how fashionable skating had become. It was an enjoyable winter hobby for the masses and the elite!

Skating in Central Park

NY Herald - 1/15/1893
According to the newspaper, Ruth started skating with her twin sister Elisabeth when they were girls.  That would have been during the 1860s, which was a time when skating was becoming very popular in the United States.  Beginning with the debut of the skating pond in Central Park, the sport became more popular with New Yorkers after it had been largely forgotten when other ponds in lower Manhattan had been built over. Skating was a social activity and ponds had buildings to serve food, rent skates, or relax by a fire. During prime skating season they would be open from 7am until midnight. In the past, ponds were often segregated by sex, but this was no longer the case and skating became one of the few things that men and women could do together unchaperoned.  By the 1860s when men and women were skating together on the same ponds, the press was even supportive of women skating, extolling the health benefits. Figure skating was the first sport where women participated for the pure joy of it and their participation was widely accepted. 

Ruth & Elizabeth Livingston, circa 1870s

Skating was so popular that there was an estimated crowd of 100,000 at Central Park on Christmas Day 1860. Men, women, young, old, rich, and poor, they all came to the skating pond. Skates were inexpensive once they could be mass produced and in 1860 a pair could be bought for less than $1.  However, the upper classes soon opened their own pond and started selective and elite clubs for skating so they did not have to share the ice with the masses.

Ice Skates, circa 1860s

One of the clubs that formed in the city to cater to the upper classes was the St. Nicholas Club.  Ruth and Ogden Mills were members and patrons.  The skating club started on a pond in New York City, but then built a new rink.  When skating depended on a pond or river to freeze, skaters were at the whim of mother nature (sometimes they would just have a good 15-20 days a season to skate), but after the creation of indoor ice surfaces, the skating season would extend much longer.  The ice was mechanically frozen by a refrigeration system under the ice.  Building the new rink was an investment of $300,000 which was contributed principally by members. However, contributing that amount of money was not a problem for members who included Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mr. & Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mr. & Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, Robert Goelet, and Mrs. Ogden Mills among others. The St. Nicholas Rink opened in 1896, and was located on West 66th street, just 3.5 blocks away from the Millses home in NYC. The newspapers referred to Ruth as a patroness of the rink and said she that skated nearly every morning. It was popular for many years, and once the rink ceased functioning as an ice arena, it was used for boxing until it closed in 1962 and was torn down in the 1980s. 

St. Nicholas Rink, 1901

Returning to the original article that led me to research Ruth's relationship with skating, it is clear that she had a talent for skating.  Several articles from the 1890s mention her graceful skating skills.

New York Herald - January 6, 1895
Although you would never see skaters doing a grapevine in competition today, grapevines were a common move during this era and there were many different variations.  It is also difficult to find historic videos of this move, but this modern video gives some idea of what a grapevine looks like.  Most were done in a straight line on two feet and are very different than the jumps and spins that dominate the skating scene today.

Agnes and Bill Blair, Staatsburgh Cove, 1916

One wonders where Mrs. Mills learned to skate, but I imagine that she did some skating right here on the Hudson River. Since she grew up here with her twin sister, she was likely skating both here and New York during the winter months. We do know that the river was a very popular place to skate and we have a photo of the estate superintendent’s kids skating in 1916.  This is Agnes and Bill Blair who grew up here living in the gardener’s house with their parents, their father James Blair was the estate superintendent here for about 30 years. The cove area near the powerhouse was a popular place for local village residents to skate.  Ruth had likely hung up her skates by 1916, but she certainly could have honed some of her skating skills on this very same patch of ice.

Bill Blair, Staatsburgh Cove, 1916

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