The Beissbarth Brothers

Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-2769 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

Figure skater, lawyer, author and socialite Irving Brokaw has long been credited as the person who first introduced the Continental or International Style from Europe to New York City after travelling to the skating mecca of Switzerland and falling in love with the art. The role the well-connected Brokaw played in introducing and popularizing the style in North America was certainly instrumental, but it wasn't the first such attempt. Close to a decade before Brokaw made Continental cool among New York City's elite, two German brothers tried to do the exact same thing... and they weren't exactly well-received.

Identical twins Hermann and Henry Beissbarth hailed from the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. They arrived at Ellis Island on August 3, 1895, travelling from Hamburg via Southampton aboard the Augusta Victoria. They had initially planned to move to Hoboken, New Jersey and take up skating on the beautiful, mirror black ice there but instead moved to Brooklyn, where they rose before dawn every morning to practice at the Ice Palace while everyone else was still snug in their beds with visions of grapevines and three-turns dancing in their heads.

Brooklyn's skating community quickly took notice of the Beissbarth brothers and their passion for figure skating. "The Brooklyn Eagle" noted, "Each carries books on the sport about with him and they are the authors of many beautiful figures. They are never seen apart and skate together. Their skates are marvels of fine work and repose in buckskin bags. The brothers can be seen at the rink almost any day discussing in their broken English the skating topics. They do some fine skating together."

Yet, when Hermann and Henry attended a meeting of the great minds in late nineteenth century figure skating at the Claremont Rink on January 1897, no one really wanted to hear what they had to say about the 'way things were done in Europe'. "The Brooklyn Eagle" reported that at this meeting the Beissbarth's "stood up for the rule of large figures in skating which the Europeans follow in all their contests" and schooled the attendees, including champion skater Frank Swift (William H. Bishop), on the way European skating competitions were conducted, judged and which figures were skated. The reporter went on to note, "The Beissbarth's, to better illustrate their arguments had from time from time produced different books on the art and finally they fell to telling the manner and rules of holding the annual continental contests for the world's championships." Canadian skater George Meagher, who too had travelled to Europe, defended the German brothers but "the Americans loyally stood up for their own style." Whatever this new-fangled Continental skating was, the exponents of 'fancy' skating in America weren't interested at the time.

Hermann Beissbarth didn't give up that easily. He entered the 1897 Championships Of America at the St. Nicholas Rink, and lost badly - finishing seventh behind speedster George Dawson Phillips. Hermann wasn't alone in his defeat. Phillips also bested a Bostonian named Thomas Vinson at that event... the father of American skating legend Maribel Vinson Owen.

Competitors and judges at the 1897 Championships Of America

At an exhibition at the Claremont Rink, the Beissbarth brothers were pretty much booed off the stage. The May 1944 issue of "Skating" magazine recalled that the brothers "skated in such an exaggerated style... that the gallery yelled in derision." I highly doubt that an angry mob of skaters ran them out of town after this performance, but that's sadly where the Beissbarth brothers disappear from the historical record. Whether they simply gave up their efforts or returned to Nuremberg with their tails between their legs, we don't know. Sometimes people are just ahead of their time and people aren't ready for it yet.

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