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Roller Derby’s Victorian Prehistory

2013 September 17

By Susan Cook (Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, NH)
Roller derby was not a Victorian sport. But it should have been.

Newspaper Image of Nineteenth-Century Roller Skaters

"The Roller Skating Craze"

Today roller skating is typically thought of as a twentieth-century fad, but historians trace its origins back to the eighteenth century. Although the Dutch began using roller skates in the early 1700s, the Belgian inventor Joseph Merlin made the most memorable early impression on the new sport by skating into a masquerade party in 1760 whilst playing the violin. Unfortunately, he was unable to stop and crashed into a mirror. In Paris in 1819, Monsieur Petitbled patented an inline skate. The first quad skate—or skate with four wheels in pairs side by side—was invented in 1863 by James Plimpton from Massachusetts. [i]

Throughout the nineteenth century, roller skating developed as a public recreation, a component of more formal sports and exhibitions, and a transportation technology. In the 1850s, the Strand and Floral Hall opened the first public roller skating rinks. Several operas and ballets throughout the century began to capitalize on this trend, and incorporated roller skating into their productions. [ii] The sport of roller polo, a kind of hockey game, emerged in Rhode Island in the 1880s, and other organized events such as dance skating competitions and speed contests developed around the same time. [iii] At the end of the century, London businessmen and even ladies might be seen roller skating to work as part of a new transportation fad. [iv]

Roller derby traces its history back to endurance roller skating races of the 1880s, some of which became rowdy with contestants tripping and pushing one another. The sport evolved throughout the twentieth century from a skating race to a theatrical team sport. Today’s manifestation of roller derby developed in Texas in 2001 as an all-female, skater-owned, DIY, grassroots, full-contact team sport. Roller derby is played with two teams of five skating around an oval track. One person from each team is the Jammer, or person who scores points, and she does so by successfully skating past the rest of the skaters in the pack. According to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), as of 2010 there were more than 450 flat track roller derby leagues worldwide. Today derby is predominantly all-female, though there are an increasing number of male and co-ed teams. [v]

Derby maintains a bit of its early-century theatricality, with playful and often crass “derby names” and colorful clothing including the occasional tutu or fishnet. However, some skaters are leaving their derby names behind in an effort to highlight the sport’s athleticism and change the dominant public perception of derby as staged. Others feel the names are part of derby’s unique identity and should not be abandoned, despite derby’s increasing legitimacy as a full-contact competitive sport. [vi]

I am going to go out on a bit interpretive limb here and suggest this very tension—between derby as a legitimate sport and as a semi-theatrical display—harkens back to the multiple uses of roller skating in the nineteenth century. As it developed, roller skating was a sport, a theatrical device, a recreation, and a practical means of transportation. Derby draws from three of these uses: sport, theatricality, and recreation.

My purpose here is less to resolve the conundrum of derby’s name dilemma than to expose what I take to be a Victorian imaginary underlying this twenty-first century sport. In my mind, contemporary derby is not merely connected to the Victorians by way of the roller skate—it is a sport that enables a feminist re-vision of Victorian athletics.

Victorians Roller Skating

Victorian Roller Skating Scene

Let me explain what I mean. To begin with, many derby names are inspired by or puns on nineteenth-century history, people, and literary texts. Names such as Allison Wonderslam, Draculaura, Florence Knockngale, Jane Awesome, Jane EyreRaid, Miss Havislam, Tart of Darkness, The Mad Hattress, Jackie Reaper, and Lady Hyde are but a few. [vii] Now, it’s true that there are a lot of derby names out there, and those relating to the nineteenth century likely constitute a relatively small percentage. It’s also true that many of these names come from literary texts, indicating perhaps more of a connection between skater and work of fiction than derby and the nineteenth century at large.

Yet derby names in general, as stage names, are tied to the Victorian period. The OED dates the phrase “stage name” to 1847 [viii] and the theatre research guide at the V&A explains that it was common for music hall and variety performers to change their names, particularly “where a comical or catchy name could be an advantage.” [ix] Derby names participate in this tradition.

Derby’s roots in Victorian roller skating trends and stage name conventions suggest more of a transhistorical connection than is generally acknowledged. By combining a Victorian theatricality with legitimate full-contact athleticism, roller derby can be interpreted as a twenty-first century feminist reimagining of the role of Victorian women in both the theater and sports. Derby expresses a Victorian alternate history of sorts: a history in which women shed their corsets and engage with one another in new ways, a history of full-contact competition rather than more traditionally gendered propriety, a history of a sport of their own. Derby is a hypothetical Victorian speculative fiction, realized.

[i] For one of several online histories of roller skating, see “History of Roller Skating in the United States” on POW: Planet on Wheels.
[ii] David A. Fryxell, “History Matters: High Rollers,” Family Tree Magazine (16 December 2009).
[iii] “Roller Skating History of the United States.”
[iv] “Unveiled: World’s Oldest Pair of Roller Skates–As Worn by the Big Wheels of Victorian Business,” Mail Online (23 April 2010).
[v] “History of Roller Derby,” WFTDA.
[vi] For an overview of some of the issues involved in this debate, see Tuesday Shanice’s post, “The Roller Derby Debate: Real Names vs. Pseudo Names” on the blog Zombie Outbreak.
[vii] Most roller derby names are registered on the International Rollergirls’ Master Roster.
[viii] “stage name,” The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989).
[ix]“Researching Theatre and Performance,” Victoria and Albert Museum.

Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature. When she is not collecting Victorian things or writing about Victorian literature and visual culture, she bench manages a local roller derby team and skates as The Tartlet Dodger. Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.

Related JVC Articles:
Cora Kaplan’s Fingersmith‘s Coda: Feminism and Victorian Studies.” JVC 13.1 (2008)
J. Carter Wood’s “A Useful Savagery: The Invention of Violence in Nineteenth-Century England.” JVC 9.1 (2004)
Related Posts:
Matthew L. McDowell’s “Victorian Football: Real and Imagined”
Serena Trowbridge’s “Reading and Reacting: The Heir of Redclyffe”

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt Newsom permalink
    September 25, 2013


    This is really interesting for me to read. I’m a cultural anthropologist working on my PhD, and I wrote my Master’s thesis on gender in roller derby. After my two years of involvement as a ref and volunteer (and anthropologist), I have to say, while I consider derby to express the “alternate history” that you conclude with, I am really uncomfortable with the association of derby’s current wave with anything Victorian. The derby names, as you recognize in your article (and must understand as a skater yourself), represent a minor fraction of those in existence. It is likely that those women have personal connections to Victorian authors and history; however, a broader cultural/historical connection between what we see happening on today’s flat track and nineteenth century feels like way to much of a stretch. As it is, you mention roller polo’s start in 1880, but that was limited to male participation (not to mention the citation for that fact comes from a skating rink–an entity likely to avoid any discussion of the historical gender politics of their business). I’m concerned that associating the current wave of derby with other early skating events like roller polo takes away from what the sport/movement/(sub)culture means today. After decades of successive roller derby versions were instituted in effort to capitalize on the spectacle of women in scripted, pro-wrestling-esque performances, today’s derby skaters are taking the reins for themselves and creating something much more powerful. This, I think, is what you mean by an “alternate history,” and I fully agree. But the association with Victorian history seems so tenuous. If anything, roller derby as we see (and love) it today is anti-Victorian. More importantly, though, I think WFTDA represents the antithesis to those versions of derby from its start (my historical sources peg this during the early 1930s) up through the televised version of the 1990s. This 80-year history features derby at its worst: scripted violence (“cat fighting”) for the sake of spectacle, dramatized/emphasized gender stereotypes, etc. Save for the skating inspiration from women like Ma Bogash and Ann Calvello, there is little to appreciate about these early years, and that’s what makes current skaters so awesome.

  2. cooks permalink
    November 27, 2013

    Hi Matt,

    Thank you for your response! I actually think we agree on many things–in particular, on the significance of derby’s most recent incarnation, and its increasing separation from the theatrics of the mid-20th century. Certainly WFTDA derby today is pushing for more and more legitimacy in the sports world, and well it should. This movement towards legitimacy has led to (among other things) a decline in the use of fishnets and costumes and a movement away from derby names–particularly among Division 1 skaters.

    At the same time, however, there is a link (however tenuous it has grown in recent years) between the more theatric derby of yesteryear and derby today. This is reflected in the fact that many skaters still do use derby names and some–particularly at lower levels of play–still wear costumes. We are on a continuum, in other words–we have not complete broken from the past.

    My evocation of the Victorians was, as I said in my concluding line, hypothetical and speculative. I was not trying to say that derby was a Victorian sport or that Victorian women played roller derby, but rather that I see in derby a strain of feminism that I would trace to the Victorians, and I see a strain of theatricality alive and well in some derby today that may be traced to Victorian theatrical practices. This connection may be a bit too tenuous and speculative for the comfort of some Victorianists, but I am actually pretty uncomfortable with the idea that derby today is anti-Victorian, because such an opposition would, I fear, hinge on stereotypes about the Victorians I am interested in troubling–particularly stereotypes about repression and the role of women.

    I would also like to say, regarding roller derby, that it saddens me, this utter turn away from derby’s roots. We have these conversations on my league all the time, and I think it is unfortunate that we cannot proudly maintain our connection to our own past while simultaneously moving forward. Even though WFTDA derby moves dramatically away from the staged derby of the past, it originated out of that tradition and remains connected to it, if only by way of opposition. While it is important not to collapse past into present, we ought not disavow our connection to the past wholesale.


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