What's In A Name?

Penmanship is a dying art. It is facing the same steady demise a nineteenth century art faced in the early twentieth century. In schools, they are no longer teaching cursive handwriting... and on frozen ponds you won't find many skaters carving their names out on beautiful black ice anymore.

From Belgium and Holland to North America, tales of nineteenth century skaters devoting considerable time and effort to devising methods of carving out their names or initials on the ice pepper skating history. However, in his 1897 book, T. Maxwell Witham of The Skating Club in London extensively attempted to debunk these many accounts thusly: "Who has not heard from many old skaters, or rather from those who class themselves as such, but more particularly from non-skaters of either sex, of a generation that is fast fading away, how some famous skater of their day cut out his name, and who has not brought down their ire if the possibility of the feat was doubted? Strange, too, in 'The Times' for January, 1864, may be read an account of a little girl of eleven years of age who cut out her name. I, too, have heard small boys declare they saw a skater cutting out his name; nay, even more, an old skater once told Mr. Vandervell he thought it was the operation that he was then engaged in! And all this at a period when continuous skating was unknown. When a boy, Mr. Vandervell used often to be in the company of the best skater of the locality in which he resided in the country, and this gentleman had attained this singular reputation: 'He could cut out his name.' On being asked, if it were true, if he would be kind enough to permit the inquirer to witness the feat, he ridiculed the idea of such a thing being possible. This gentleman was a very fair and powerful skater, but his capabilities did not dual even extend to the double 3; and as for the serpentine line and Q, such things were utterly unknown in the country, as was every movement relating to combined skating. This myth, Phoenix-like, rises from its ashes; you may, even at the present day, hear people talk about it. Have the skaters of the present day degenerated? Certainly not; the art has never been so highly developed as at the present time... With our present knowledge... such combinations are now quite accomplished facts. We may torture the combinations into the semblance of a name, but that our ancestors were able to 'cut out their names' is wholly mythical, as without continuous skating, which was not known till 1869 or 1870, the combining of figures representing letters was wholly impossible." Witham's argument centered around not around his belief that carving out one's name on the ice was impossible, but ironically the introduction of new figures and turns at his own club in the decades that followed would have helped skaters achieve the feat.

In Douglas Adams' 1892 book "Skating", Lily Cheetham of Southport gave a detailed description of how she carved out her first name thusly: "Right outside back loop, change, inside back loop, change, back 3, forward inside loop, change, change, forward inside rocking turn, back inside loop... The difficulty lies in making the letters the correct size relatively, and the dot of the 'i', of course, is wanting." Canada's George Meagher also included diagrams depicting the alphabet of skating in his 1895 book "Figure And Fancy Skating", although his illustrated table provided little guidance as to how to  actually execute of the figures. That said, the sheer volume of accounts of skaters writing their names on the ice in North American and Scandinavian newspapers of the era put a hole in Witham's argument.

Twenty years ago, if someone said we'd be seeing programs with five quadruple jumps, many of us would have responded with the same suspicion as Witham did to the skating alphabet. Proclaiming that anything is impossible when it comes to skating is never a good idea. With impeccable technique, an artist's ingenuity, problem solving skills and a healthy dose of determination anyone has the power to carve out history.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.