The History of Roller Derby

Watch Roller derby from the 1950s

The history of roller derby traces the evolution of roller skating races into a unique sport, which has undergone several boom-and-bust cycles throughout most of the 20th century. Although it was a form of sports entertainment for much of its existence, a grassroots, early 21st century revival spearheaded by women has restored an emphasis on athleticism.


Endurance races

The growing popularity of roller skating in the United States led to the formation of organized endurance races as early as 1884, when skater Victor W. Clough skated 100 miles over the course of nearly ten hours in Geneseo, Illinois.[1] In 1885, a six-day “go-as-you-please” competition was staged at Madison Square Garden in New York City, with 36 skaters competing for $500 in prize money.[2][3] Two deaths resulted from the six-day race: both the winner, William Donovan, and skater Joseph Cohen died shortly after the race was completed.[4][5] Though the inquest that resulted from Cohen’s death led to a recommendation for a law prohibiting roller skating activities exceeding four hours in length, a second six-day race was announced in May 1885.[6][7]

The popularity of roller skate racing, including endurance events, continued in the early 20th century. Races routinely featured amateur skaters as well as professionals, some of whom toured as troupes.[8] Due to rowdiness at some events, including tripping and pushing, speed roller skating acquired a reputation for being something less than a legitimate sport.[8] The International Skating Union of America, a competitor of the International Skating Union, formed in 1907 partly in response.[8] This network of regional associations lasted 20 years, organized championship races, and established rules that prohibited rough play.[8][9]

Although tripping and pushing may not have been allowed at certain events, popular speed and endurance races continued to be held on both flat and banked tracks in the century’s first three decades. Among these races was an 8.5-mile roller marathon organized in 1908 by a group of Chicago, Illinois rink owners,[10][11] a 24-hour endurance championship held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1913,[8][12] and a 24-hour banked track race held at Madison Square Garden in 1914.[13][14][15] The New York Times noted that the crowd at Madison Square Garden enjoyed the sudden sprints and spills during the event’s preliminary races.

The term derby, meaning a race or multi-race event, appeared in the press as early as 1922, when the Chicago Tribune announced and reported on the results of two “roller derby” events held that year. These were multi-day events during which various roller skating races were held on a flat track at Chicago’s Broadway Armory.[16][17][18]

Read More…

1 ^ “Remarkable roller-skating feat.”. Chicago Daily Tribune: p. 10. 1884-04-13.

2 ^ “A six-day roller skate race.”. Chicago Daily Tribune: p. 10. 1885-03-02.

3 ^ “On rollers for six days: beginning the race at the Madison-Square Garden. Thirty-six entries, including Frank Hart and several champions–cheering the start.”. New York Times: p. 10. 1885-03-02.

4 ^ “Victim of roller skates: death of Donovan, winner of the last tournament. Weakened by his exertions and disease—his backer says the boy’s father overworked him.”. New York Times: p. 5. 1885-04-11.

5 ^ “Killed by roller skating: death of one of the contestants in the Madison-Square race.”. New York Times: p. 5. 1885-03-18.

6 ^ “Roller skating rinks: the jury in the inquest of Cohen’s case protest against six-day races.”. New York Times: p. 8. 1885-04-15.

7 ^ “The six-day race. Refusing the entries of all except skilled roller skaters.”. New York Times: p. 8. 1885-04-30.

8 ^ a b c d e “Speed skating before 1937″. Banked Track News 6 (1). February 2003.

9 ^ “USARS – About Us”. Retrieved 2008-11-30.

10 ^ “Roller marathon thrills and jars: 100 boys meet with adventures and tumbles in West Side Boulevard race. Dodge cars and autos. But records are smashed by contestants in red tights, overalls, etc.”. Chicago Daily Tribune: p. 5. 1908-11-27.

11 ^ “Skating rink men organize. Meeting is held and temporary committees are appointed—talk of roller marathon is started.”. Chicago Daily Tribune: p. 10. 1908-11-06.

12 ^ “Local skaters in long grind. Woodworth and Moore enter 24-hour championship race in Milwaukee.”. The Washington Post: p. S3. 1913-03-23.

13 ^ “Skaters whirling around big track: several spills mark early hours of 24-hour race at the Garden”. New York Times: p. 11. 1914-12-18.

14 ^ “Roller skating on banked track: old-time sport is revived with speed contests at the Garden”. New York Times: p. 11. 1922-12-17.

15 ^ “24-hour roller race: Ollie Moore will be teamed with Willie Blackburn at Garden”. New York Times: p. S2. 1914-12-17.

16 ^ “Roller derby on tomorrow”. Chicago Daily Tribune: p. 20. 1922-04-24. “Roland Cloni of Akron, world’s champion roller skater, who yesterday tried out the track in the Broadway armory, where the national roller skating derby will be held this week, asserted new world’s records can be established for flat tracks. The derby will open tomorrow and run until Saturday.”

17^ “Ed Krahn and Launey share roller firsts”. Chicago Daily Tribune: p. 13. 1922-04-29.

18 ^ “Von Hof first in ten mile roller derby”. Chicago Daily Tribune: p. 21. 1922-12-01.

Leave a Comment