An Idler at a New York Ice Carnival: 1864

A skating dress of the 1860s. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute.

A skating dress of the 1860s. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute.

The Idler About Town

There are all kinds of institutions in New York, institutions ranging from the highest intellectual points down to the most vulgar and debased, and there are all classes of persons to honor and patronise them by their presence. But the most curious of our modern institutions is the “Ice Carnival,” a sort of general fancy-dress party and masquerade! The idea is new to these latitudes, although it is common in northern Europe, but we think that with perseverance and judicious supervision it will be adopted by our people and become popular. Several of these quaint entertainments have been given in the far-off regions of Hoboken and Brooklyn, but as we should have required several handbooks and a band of trusty explorers to discover their locality, we did not venture on the journey, and have not, consequently, seen them. But we had an “Ice Carnival” of our own last week on the Fifth avenue skating pond, which was lively and spirited, indeed— first-rate as far as it went—but was considerably interfered with by the mild weather and the consequent mushy, cut up state of the ice. The fact is, there had been such a carnival on the pond all day—over 2,500 people having skated there—that the glassy surface was as badly scored as a Polish prisoner’s back after the application of the Russian knout. [One draws one’s breath in sharply at this dreadful imagery used to describe a popular entertainment.] Still the night carnival was rather a jolly affair. 

The moon shone as bright as day, so that you could see the faces of the skaters without the aid of the glaring lights which surrounded the pond on all sides. On we dashed towards the ice ballroom behind our spanking grays; we should have heard the band discoursing the most exquisite music, but the wind being unfavorable somebody else heard it instead. However, we were saluted by showers of very brilliant rockets, which being fired against the wind, insured the return of the sticks as near to the assembled crowd as possible. We narrowly escaped receiving three in our hat, and perchance our head, and the thud they made plunging into the ground close to us made us thankful that they did not favor us direct.

The scene on the pond was very animated. A hundred glow-worm-like lanterns were glancing along its surface with arrowy swiftness, lighting up here and there the dazzling dresses of gold, velvet and laces. There were quite a number of fancy costumes. Ladies in the Highland kirtles, and the still more becoming and seasonable Russian dress, short tunics trimmed with fur; cavaliers of all periods and no periods; then there were sultanas on ice, and, oh, eternal fitness of things, bears on ice! and, oh, anomaly of anomalies, excruciatingly refreshing, devils on ice ! An iced devil is not seen every day, and we are grateful to the ice carnival for having afforded us the sight. Every one seemed to be in a blaze of enjoyment. Of course we took the prettiest and sweetest girl of our acquaintance with us. We always do— for we are sensitively organized, and cannot endure proximity with anything short of the beautiful. We assisted remarkably dexterously in putting skates upon the smallest and prettiest feet in New York, and started off with fleetness of a Mercury and the grace of an Apollo. We are not absolute master of skating; our teeth have a strong sympathy with the outside “edge,” only our teeth accomplish more in that way than our feet, but we were decidedly more accomplished in the art than our companion.

So we skated and skated, and skated away, until the warm blood tingled in every vein and we both grew excited. Every now and then we indulged our companion in a little show off, doing something backwards, gliding half a yard on one skate while shaking the other in the air as a balance; and once we indulged in our chef d’œuvre , the spread eagle, with, we confess it, our toes a little turned in, for our figure is not favorable for exhibiting the royal brio in the necessary right angle-toed position Still she admired us vastly, and as we dashed off in that graceful, swaying, unisonous motion, we felt emboldened by that admiration, and exclaimed with fervor, “Dearest Ariadne, the propitious moment has arrived.” here we swayed off on the right foot, “when the passion of my life must find words,” here were swayed off on the left foot; “let me, beloved, lay this heart at your feet;” here a confounded rut caught our heel, and brought us down with a thud on the ice that would have broken a thinner man into pieces. Ariadne, too, the false as fair, sailed off at lightning speed, leaving behind her a little cutting laugh, which hurt us more than the fall. We were wet, very wet, shaken in our person and in our affections, and on after reflection we believe that we merited the endearing epithet of “bear” bestowed upon us by our gentle companion, as we took our surly ride homewards We called and apologised the next day, but that night on the ice is between us, and the wine of affection has had a cooler that forever forbids all genial reopening.  Frank Leslies Weekly, [New York, NY] 6 February 1864

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Ice-skating is said to be a healthful excercise, well-calculated to bring roses to the cheeks. The Americans went mad for it in the ’60s, when it became something of a national sport. One imagines that the American Civil War dampened some of the nation’s ardour for the pasttime, although it remained a popular winter recreation through the turn of the century and even beyond. 

Mrs Daffodil is writing this before a toasty fire with a cup of hot cocoa on the writing-desk. Muffins are warming on the grate. Mrs Daffodil does not skate. She has read far too many accounts of skating parties lost when they plunged through the ice and of young persons whose feet had to be amputated after lacing their skates too tightly. One has only to read the following to believe that staying indoors is the best policy, particularly in the current weather conditions.


(From Hall’s Journal of Health.)

1. Avoid skates which are strapped on the feet, as they prevent the circulation, and the foot becomes frozen before the skater is aware of it, because the tight strapping benumbs the foot and deprives it of feeling. A young lady at Boston lost a foot in this way; another in New York her life, by endeavoring to thaw her feet in warm water after taking off her skates. The safest kind are those which receive the forepart of the foot in a kind of toe, and stout leather around the heel, buckling in front of the ankle only, thus keeping the heel in place without spikes or screws, and aiding greatly in supporting the ankle. 2. It is not the object so much to skate fast, as to skate gracefully; and this is sooner and more easily learned by skating with deliberation; while it prevents overheating, and diminishes the chances of taking cold by cooling off too soon afterward. 3. If the wind is blowing, a veil should be worn over the face, at least of ladies and children; otherwise fatal inflammation of the lungs, “pneumonia,” may take place. 4. Do not sit down to rest a single half minute; nor stand still, if there is any wind; nor stop a moment after the skates are taken off; but walk about, so as to restore the circulation about the feet and toes, and to prevent being chilled. 5. It is safer to walk home than to ride; the latter is almost certain to give a cold. 6. It would be a safe rule for no child or lady to be on skates longer than an hour at a time. 7. The grace, exercise, and healthfulness of skating on the ice can be had, without any of its dangers, by the use of skates with rollers attached, on common floors; better, if covered with oil-cloth. Godey’s Lady’s Book [Philadelphia, PA] February, 1864

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


2 thoughts on “An Idler at a New York Ice Carnival: 1864

  1. Pingback: A Naughty Story on Ice: 1865 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  2. Pingback: A Swell Party on Ice: 1881 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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