“A Very Pretty Canadian Winter Scene”: Ice Skating in Turn-of-the-Century Small-Town Ontario

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This is the sixth post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.

In January 1903 in the small, southwestern Ontario town of Tillsonburg, 500 skaters and spectators (almost a quarter of the town’s population) gathered for an ice-skating carnival at a private rink. The Tillsonburg Observer newspaper noted that a “very large number” of the female performers wore “fancy costumes,” the best of which received a prize. Even the plainest costumes “looked charming” owing to the falling snow, which made “a very pretty Canadian winter scene.” The ice was in “splendid condition” and music from the local Independent Order of Odd Fellows band “add[ed] greatly to the enjoyment.” Rink owners W.E. and F.J. Barkey promised that there would be “two more carnivals soon if the weather permits.”1

At the turn of the twentieth century, it was rare to find a community that did not have an ice surface where skaters congregated on chilly winter days. Small-town Ontarians, and women especially, demonstrated a distinct fondness for skating due to the presence of accessible waterways, opportunities for socializing, and the prestige that became attached to participation. The growth of skating was part of a broader leisure culture that developed starting in the 1860s, benefiting from new technologies, new labour processes, and ideas about “rational recreation.” It was an activity that did not have to be costly, but elements of it became distinguished by class lines. Over time, as interest in skating grew, more privileged small-town Ontarians used private rinks and fancy-dress carnivals to cultivate an exclusive social world where they demonstrated their affluence. In doing so, they reinforced that small towns, like big cities, also contained distinct class groupings and were very socially stratified places.

Skating’s origins can be traced to Indigenous people and northern Europeans who used it initially for transportation and then leisure. Through immigration, interest in skating spread, and by the mid-nineteenth century settlers in Canada were donning rudimentary skates to navigate lakes, rivers, and ponds. Considered a hybrid of walking and classical dance, skating was (mostly) considered a positive and socially appropriate means of exercise.2 Late-nineteenth century periodicals and etiquette guides stressed the benefits of taking up the hobby. According to the Farmer’s Advocate in 1884, “In winter skates and sleds should not be denied; they are good for both boys and girls.”3 While much of the advice spoke to men’s and children’s amusements, women’s interests were eventually acknowledged. In 1890, author and Methodist minister Benjamin Fish Austin reasoned that if women took up skating, there would be “a much smaller number of delicate, nervous, and over-fat women.”4

Group of women skating in Tillsonburg, early 1900s. Source: Annandale National Historic Site, Photograph Collection.

Popular claims that Canadians were more robust because they could withstand the “bracing climate” influenced greater numbers of men and women to head outdoors in the late nineteenth century.5 Skating was the ideal antidote to the winter doldrums and anyone who could capably glide across the ice in brisk conditions embodied a distinctly White Canadian identity of hardiness and fortitude that was shaped by climate and geography. The Advocate stressed that a requisite trait of the “loyal Canadian” was a willingness to bundle up and enjoy a winter activity.6 The skater who “dash[ed] along like lightning” could “laugh at winter’s rigor” while fulfilling her obligation to the nation.7

The variability of winter weather patterns added to skating’s appeal. During milder winters, intermittent thaws restricted opportunities to skate and increased the dangers of doing so. Local newspapers often noted when citizens were “treated to an involuntary cold bath” or rescued from a “watery grave.”8 Conversely, during harsher winters, significant snowfall affected citizens’ ability to access local rinks or ponds. In 1914, thirty-one-year-old Euphie Clark from Elora in Wellington County wrote in a letter to her sister Muriel that though there was a “dandy rink” in town that season, the poor road conditions kept her from getting there as often as she would have liked.9

A pair of children’s black leather skates with attached metal blades worn by Helen Small of Fergus, Ontario, ca. 1895-1905. Source: Wellington County Museum and Archives, 1992.21.1.02.

Around small towns, apart from private mill ponds, waterways were mostly public spaces and were used freely. Doing so, however, involved removing accumulated snow and ensuring the ice was sound. Local businessmen, realizing the potential to make “a small fortune,” began constructing private rinks in the 1870s that were advertised as safe and low maintenance.10 Likely, rink owners hired local labourers to keep the surface groomed. In many towns, several rinks were constructed, and their owners competed for patrons’ business by offering amenities such as warming stations, electric lights, coffee, and better-quality ice. When the open-air Victoria Skating Rink, owned by Messrs. Barnard and Burn, opened in Tillsonburg in 1880, it was advertised as “far ahead of any covered rink” in town due to its “keener ice.”11

Despite such promises, rink owners were at the whim of temperature fluctuations, so uneven and soft surfaces were common until artificial ice became available in the early twentieth century. In 1911, the Observer noted that a planned carnival at a private rink almost did not take place because earlier that day the ice “looked very unfavourable […] on account of the thaw.”12 A covered or partially enclosed rink might be constructed over a natural waterway or flooded field to protect the ice surface, but one late nineteenth-century commentator advised that “skating is […] best practiced out-of-doors. Rinks are too often damp and not well ventilated.”13

Private rinks were typically used for recreational skating, hockey games, travelling performers, and carnivals. Prices varied town to town and rink to rink, but in communities like Tillsonburg and Elora, annual membership fees could be $3.00-$4.00 per family and $2.00-$2.50 per person. A single admission was typically ten or fifteen cents.14 These costs likely prevented many working-class people from participating, so their presence was confined to the occasional skate or attendance at a show.15 Otherwise, they could take their chances with ungroomed and unsupervised public waterways.

A man and woman skating near Tillsonburg, 1913. Source: Annandale National Historic Site, Photograph Collection.

When private rinks began hosting masquerades and carnivals, the social exclusivity attached to membership was on full display as the middle- and upper-class members performed their privilege in masks and fancy dress. These scenarios allowed the more affluent to move “from the ballroom onto the ice.”16 In the town of Beeton in Simcoe County, Kate Aitken was amazed by the “many hours [that] went into manufacturing those [carnival] costumes.” In some cases, they were elaborate cloth pieces while others were made of “crepe paper […] and decorated with feathers, veiling, paper hearts, [or] just anything.”17

Private rinks often hosted carnivals monthly or even weekly if there was enough interest. The number of participants and attendees varied from a few dozen to a few hundred. Costumes tended to be themed, ranging from historical characters and fairytale motifs to ethnographic displays of “exotic” people. Akin to the way travel clubs, historical pageants, and other leisure activities allowed White, small-town Ontarians to act in ways they considered sophisticated and worldly, the carnival performers could engage in “mockery” and replicate racist stereotypes through their play-acting and costumes.18 At one Elora skating carnival in 1905, some of the categories included “Best Indian Chief,” “Best Three of a Kind (Irishman, Dutchman and Jew),” and the best representation of a Black person.19 At the large Tillsonburg carnival in 1903, local citizens dressed in racialized garb to impersonate, among others, a “Japanese lady,” “Pocahontas,” and a “colored lady.”20 While trying to appear cosmopolitan, the performers affirmed both their affluence and their racial privilege. In small towns, hierarchies of difference applied both on and off the ice.

“Fancy Dress Skating Carnival party at Montreal,” May 1881-June 1882. Created by Arthur Elliot. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-218, Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

Over time, and especially in the postwar period, the content and scope of skating carnivals shifted from adults displaying their wealth to young figure skaters demonstrating their skills. Today, carnivals remain an important social and fundraising function for small-town skating clubs lucky enough to still have a functioning arena. While backyard rinks, frozen ponds, and the occasional “free skate” at a local arena remain affordable options, the significant cost of joining a figure skating club reinforces that class still restricts access and plays a role in how one pursues the activity.  


1 “The Carnival,” Tillsonburg Observer, 29 January 1903, 4.

2 Mary Louise Adams, “The Manly History of a ‘Girls’ Sport: Gender, Class and the Development of Nineteenth-Century Figure Skating,” International Journal of the History of Sport 24, no. 7 (2007): 877.

3 “Home Amusements,” Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine 19, no. 226 (October 1884): 311.

4 Benjamin Fish Austin, Woman, her character, culture and calling […] with chapters on all departments of woman’s training and culture, her claims to the higher education, and the best methods to be pursued therein (Brantford, ON: Book & Bible House, 1890), 225.

5 Dave Brown, “The Northern Character Theme and Sport in Nineteenth-Century Canada,” Canadian Journal of History of Sport 20, no. 1 (1989): 47-48.

6 Ada Wood, “Winter Evening Occupation,” Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine 25, No. 289 (January 1890): 22.

7 These quotes were part of a poem titled “The Song of the Skater,” and spoke to the experiences of female ice skaters. See Minnie Mae, “The Song of the Skater,” Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine 14, no. 1 (January 1879): 19.

8 Elora Express, 2 December 1903, 8; Dresden Times, 19 February 1891, 5.

9 Wellington County Museum and Archives, A2004.91 MU 513, File 3, Muriel Clark, Elora, letters, 1914.

10 Tillsonburg Observer, 12 December 1890, 1.

11 “Victoria Skating Rink,” Tillsonburg Observer, 3 December 1880, 1.

12 “The Carnival,” Tillsonburg Observer, 1 January 1911, 1.

13 Austin, 224.

14 The various costs of the annual fees were found in “Lorne Skating and Curling Rink,” Tillsonburg Observer, 15 December 1882, 1; Elora Express, 1 February 1905, 8; and Lynne Marks, Revivals and Roller Rinks: Religion, Leisure, and Identity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Small-Town Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 128.

15 M. Ann Hall, The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2002), 24.

16 David Young, The Golden Age of Canadian Figure Skating (Toronto: Summerhill Press, 1984), 24.

17 Kate Aitken, Never a Day So Bright (New York: Longmans, 1957), 78.

18 See Marks, Revivals and Roller Rinks, 128. For more on small-town entertainments that incorporated the “foreign” theme, see Rebecca Beausaert, “‘Foreigners in Town’: Leisure, Consumption, and Cosmopolitanism in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century Tillsonburg, ON,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 23, no. 1 (2012): 215–47.

19 Elora Express, 15 February 1905, 8.

20 “The Carnival,” Tillsonburg Observer, 29 January 1903, 4; Annandale National Historic Site, Documentary Artifact Collection, Marguerite Sinclair Scrapbook.

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Rebecca Beausaert

Rebecca Beausaert is an adjunct professor in the Department of History at the University of Guelph and a contract teaching faculty member at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Pursuing Play: Women's Leisure in Small-Town Ontario, 1870-1914, with University of Manitoba Press (September 2024). Her current research interests include food, gender, sport, leisure, agriculture, and the First World War in rural and small-town Ontario.

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