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Coasting into winter 2021

On these gloomy days beset with pandemic isolation, let’s reconsider our relationship with a season that once was a ‘communal release valve’ for Bostonians.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

How will we endure this long, dark winter? It is the New Englander’s perennial question. And this year, it has particular resonance, coming as it does amid a generalized sense of uncertainty and an isolating pandemic. But what if our collective conundrum is an opportunity to reconsider our relationship with this season, and with one another? For a guide to how we might do so, consider our 19th-century forebears, who elevated winter play to a cherished pastime and found in it a communal release valve.

Bostonians were notably good at it, indulging in days of ice skating, sledding — which was then called coasting — ice sailing, and ice fishing. Winter frolic fills the novels, accounts, and recollections of many 19th-century writers. In Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” Jo March pines to talk with boys about ice skating — “one of the joys of her life.” The March sisters skated with enthusiasm, and with a sense of risk and exploration.

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Skating in particular became an opportunity to experience the world in new ways and at exhilarating speeds. “The skater has wings, talaria, to his feet,” wrote Alcott’s teacher Henry David Thoreau, who skated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne on the Concord River. Sophia Hawthorne observed them, noting in a letter to a Mrs. Caleb Foote that Thoreau moved in “dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps” that were “very remarkable, but very ugly.” She described her cloak-wrapped husband, Nathaniel, as moving “like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately and grave.” And Emerson, in her estimation, wandered wearily, pitched forward and “half lying on the air.”

The view from the pond or the river gave skaters new perspectives on their world. “We see all things from a new and wilder side,” Thoreau wrote of the experience.

In Boston, skating enthusiasts claimed the Common and Public Garden as centers of social winter recreation. The Frog Pond froze early in the season and became a place to gather at a time when the Charles remained brackish, open to the harbor, and not always safe for braving on a pair of skates.

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A crowd of skaters on Jamaica Pond.
A crowd of skaters on Jamaica Pond.Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

The most fashionable skating venue in Boston, however, was Jamaica Pond, where thousands turned out on good skating days — some belonging to clubs and sporting fancy dress. Gliding around the frozen expanse of the 68-acre pond became a fixture of 19th-century courtship: safe in its public visibility but full of risqué possibilities — a sudden collision might yield thrilling, if fleeting, physical contact.

Those who could not skate enjoyed watching and socializing along the shore. Others were pushed along in chairs or sleighs. Boys assembled large, impromptu games of hockey — ice polo, as it was sometimes called — with tens of players on each team. Games could get rowdy.

The Common and Beacon Hill were also destinations for coasting, another novel way to enjoy speed in a day when time moved more slowly than it does now.

The late historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who grew up on Beacon Hill in the late 1800s, recalled that the most ambitious Boston coasters started at the corner of the Common nearest Beacon Hill (where the Shaw Memorial now stands) and, with the right conditions, could reach Charles Street in a single run. The hill was steeper then, “before fill from the first subway was dumped on its slopes,” Morison wrote.

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Other coasting runs crossed the Common from Joy Street to Boylston and were sometimes sprinkled with water to create a fast, icy surface.

A group of children coasted on Boston Common.
A group of children coasted on Boston Common.Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

Perhaps inevitably, coasting became part of never-ending debates over the proper uses of the Common. Or, put another way, proper users of the Common; class tensions were rife. In the mid-1800s, the city maintained slides for the pastime, but by the latter part of the century, officials removed the slides and designated particular streets for coasting — an effort, perhaps, to keep certain classes of children in their respective neighborhoods.

It was to little avail. “The city authorities may generously designate certain streets on which the small boy can coast,” wrote one observer in The Boston Daily Globe in 1893, “but no amount of municipal generosity will coax young America from the Common.”

Across the region, other cities and towns designated streets for coasting and flooded fields and ponds for skating. Often, municipalities made use of public resources, including police officers to direct traffic away from children on speeding sleds.

A winter scene on Boston Common.
A winter scene on Boston Common.Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

But it was not all rose-colored cheeks. Nineteenth-century winter sports contained countless dangers. Newspapers reported coasting injuries and deaths. “Three May Lose Lives: Victims Hurt in Coasting” shouted one Globe headline in 1904. Sleds were made with metal runners and solid wood, and children played without what we now call parental supervision.

Skating had its dangers, too. “There was a saying that no Boston boy was a real boy until he had fallen into the Frog or the Garden pond,” Morison wrote. The experience was not limited to boys, as Alcott reminds us in “Little Women,” when Amy March falls through thin ice and emerges “shivering, dripping, and crying.”

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Today, hazards remain, but sleds are safer, and some skaters wear helmets. Apparel is lighter, warmer, and waterproof. The everyday lives of children have evolved, too. They don’t throw themselves down city streets on sleds — though it’s a matter of debate whether or not the free-range children of the past had it better. Our winters have changed, too. Climate change has shortened the skating season, and ponds and rivers freeze later and thaw earlier.

But for all of the differences, winter play offers a connection with the past, as well as lessons to draw from it. In the wake of the devastating flu pandemic of 1918, for example, an article titled “Winter Plagues” in the Boston Daily Globe extolled the benefits of fresh air and urged the city’s denizens to get outside in order to maintain “vibrant” health.

Take heed from the wisdom of the ones who came before us. Mask up. Keep a safe distance. And seek your own fun out in the brisk, invigorating air.

Andrew Robichaud is assistant professor of history at Boston University. He is working on a book about ice in 19th-century America.