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The Rise And Fall Of The Red Ball

"At last came a hard frost: up went the red ball, so did the price of skates." - "The Sunbury American", 1862

In the years leading up to the Civil War in the United States, figure skating (or 'fancy' skating as it was then commonly termed) acquired a unique symbol - the red ball. The origins of the red ball be traced back to the late 1850's, when horse cars ran from downtown New York City to Central Park. The horse car drivers were constantly asked if the ice was good on the Park's skating ponds. In those days, the park keeper would put up a white flag on a pole on a mound in the Park's north end. This flag was supposed to signal that the ice was good for skating, but it apparently couldn't be easily seen from downtown because it blended in with the snow. The President of the horse car company came up with the idea of putting white flags on the sides of his carts, to symbolize that 'the ice would bear' and entice patrons to use his services. The white flags quickly became filthy from all the muck and manure in the streets, so he replaced them with a flag with a big red ball in the middle. The park keepers copied the idea, and replaced their white flag with a two giant red cloth discs with a hole in the center that came together to form a red ball at the top of a pole by the bell tower near of the old reservoir on 79th Street.

"Central Park In Winter" by Thomas Nast, 1864. Photo courtesy Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College.

Back in those days, the task of raising the red ball in Central Park fell upon the park attendants. After spending hours removing snow with scrapers, shovels, brooms and horses and carts, they would measure the ice's thickness and put the red ball up. The symbol caught on like wildfire in cities and towns across America within less than a decade - its popularity spread through newspapers, word of mouth and even an appearance in one of Mary Mapes Dodge's books. 

In many cities and towns, the determination as to whether or not the red ball would be raised fell on the local coppers, who would make the call and then telegraph local station houses to inform them the symbol - or symbols in areas with more than one popular skating pond - could go up. 

In most areas, a flag with a red ball in the center was used instead of the red ball first devised in New York. In the 1946 "National Skating Guide", M.L. Gorby recalled, "'The Ball Is Up' was the cry all over Brooklyn whenever there was skating in Prospect Park. As a youngster, I well remember the boys borrowing their father's or uncle's telescopes so that might go out in the middle of Vanderbilt Avenue from which, miles away, the big red 'ball' could be seen - if they were lucky. The horse cars on Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues carried on their dashboards, both front and rear, big square pasteboard cards with a red ball printed on them. The Vanderbilt Avenue horse cars charged three cents fare and were entered from a step in the back end. Then you walked through to the driver's place and deposited your three cents. How many of us managed to get out to the skating pond without loss of the three cents I wouldn't dare to say! Three cents would also buy a 'Bolivar', an enormous hard gingerbread cookie about eight inches in diameter and an inch thick - sufficient to sustain a fellow for an all-day session if he remembered to haul off another notch in his belt. Ah, me, those were the happy days!" 

As is often the case whenever anyone has a good idea, people tried to make a buck off of it. Skate makers, sporting equipment and hardware stores and textile merchants started putting up signs with the red ball on them to try to grow their businesses. If the ice was good, they figured, a new pair of skates or a smart new skating dress, hat and gloves were in order. Others were less scrupulous. In 1865, the "New York Sportsman" stated, "It has been reported that sometimes the trolley car companies would put signs on the trolleys saying the red ball was up when the ice was still dangerous in order to sell more tickets."

The red ball took on a double meaning in figure skating circles. At the famous Swiss skating resorts, tourists were encouraged to go to bazaars and purchase a small red rubber ball to use as their 'marker' for combined figures. The orange commonly used for this purpose in England was, after all, an out of season luxury that was sometimes hard to come by.

In the late roaring twenties, the red ball slowly started to fall out of favour in some parts of the United States, when superintendents of county parks began putting up signs that said 'Skating Today' or 'No Skating Today' instead. A notice in the January 9, 1926 issue of the "Scarsdale Inquirer" noted, "Instead of the red ball... this method has been resorted to for safety and because it is impossible to keep guards and patrolmen at all the skating places." 

The red ball lived on in New York. In 1934, the old Iceland rink was renamed The Red Ball Rink. In New Jersey, where a young Dick Button patiently waited for the flag with the red ball to go up by Crystal Lake.

The red ball's death knell came in 1942, one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor when World War II anti-Japanese sentiments were fervent. The problem, as M.L. Gorby saw it, was that "a good many [resented] seeing the flag of Japan as the emblem of their pet sport." The January 9, 1942 issue of "The New York Times" reported, "A crisis developed with four inches of ice yesterday, when park officials automatically got the flag out of their lockers. They saw it in a new and patriotic light. In hurried telephone conversations in New York City, Westchester and New Jersey, it was recognized that 'that can't be hoisted here.' The New York City Park Department put the flags back into their lockers and decided to depend on radio and newspaper announcements and principally on what the department described as eye-and-mouth advertising." Other areas decided to get creative with the red ball problem. In Westchester County, a woman volunteered to dye the flag blue with ultramarine. The blue dye turned the red ball black. The local newspaper quipped, "New flags indicating that ice is safe for skating are not meant to indicate what may happen to the person of the skater - they are black and blue merely for the sake of patriotism and economy. The red ball on a white flag looked a little too much like a Japanese flag to the county park commission, but the flags were still perfectly good." In Mountain Lakes, New Jersey it was proposed that the red ball be replaced with a flag with a 'V' for Victory. Ultimately, a piece of blue flannel was sewn over the red ball. No one knew what the new flag meant and the local police were inundated with telephone calls.

As figure skating moved indoors, the memory of the red ball faded... but its rise and fall and unique place in the sport's folklore remains a fascinating footnote. The fact that Japan became a figure skating 'super power' in the decades after the red ball was retired is an ironic coincidence.

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":