The Early Days of U.S. Skating

A new acquisition sheds light on the prehistory of U.S. Figure Skating.

By Ryan Stevens

Forty years ago, June Clark, a longtime U.S. Figure Skating coach from Darien, Connecticut, purchased some important antique skating memorabilia. Among the treasures were a cloth-bound book for $75 with the curiously misspelled title Amature Skating Association Of The U.S.A. and a signed copy of the constitution and bylaws of one of several organizations that served as precursors to U.S. Figure Skating.

A sepia colored photo of George Henry Browne with white hair wearing a 1920s era suit.
George Henry Browne

The backstory of how U.S. Figure Skating came to be is a complex one involving a succession of intertwined organizations, each with its own interests and problems.

In February of 1868, the Scottish Canadian Hervey brothers organized the first American Skating Congress (ASC) during an event at their rink in Pittsburgh. The short-lived ASC established one of the first schedules of figures for competition in America and organized a series of speed races and “fancy skating” contests for serious prize money. These early precursors to professional competitions were dodgy affairs. There were accounts of skaters stacking panels by bringing in their own judges, penning nasty letters to the hometown newspapers of their fellow competitors and, even in the case of Callie C. Curtis in Buffalo in 1869, men disguising themselves as women to win prizes intended for women.

In 1886, skaters from New York and New Jersey formed the National Amateur Skating Association (NASA) of the United States. The NASA aimed to promote the “speed, art and science of skating,” but initially struggled to have enough members present to reach a quorum at its meetings. As support increased, NASA ultimately collaborated with the Amateur Skating Association of Canada to organize the successful speed races and the Championships Of America in “fancy skating.” Unlike the ASC, the NASA took amateur status very seriously.

In 1903, a new organization called the National Skating Association or International Skating Union Of America (ISUA) was formed under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Association of the United States (AAU). Two years later, the NASA dissolved. The ISUA, led by Montreal alderman Louis Rubenstein, was a conglomerate of former NASA officials and representatives of the Amateur Skating Association Of Canada (ASAC) and Western Skating Association Of Chicago (WSAC). In the ISUA’s infancy, it had a rocky relationship with the AAU which governed many other American sports. After a mail-in vote in late 1907, an agreement was signed whereby both organizations agreed to accept each other’s rulings, suspensions and right to govern.

Irving Brokaw in a black and white photo sitting down in a 1920s era black suit.
Irving Brokaw

Though America was one of few countries with a more liberal view on allowing women to take up membership at skating clubs in the early 20th century, the old boy’s club at the AAU was far from progressive.

In 1906 — the same year Madge Syers of Great Britain won the first official International Skating Union (ISU) championship for ladies (the ISU as its known today formed in July 1892)  — Chicago’s Isabella Butler made history as the first woman to submit an application to compete in the Championships Of America. This “privilege” was flatly denied. It’s worth noting that James Edward Sullivan, who was a former secretary of the ISUA and the president of the AAU at the time of Butler’s application, was the man behind barring American women from competing in the diving and swimming events at the 1912 Summer Olympics. The Championships Of America had fallen under the AAU’s jurisdiction at the time of Butler's application.

Sullivan’s stance was that “competition for girls should be ... in private, without an admission fee and without the sensation-seeking crowd that would have absolutely no interest in the health of the girl and be on hand only from motives of curiosity ... Girls should be kept in their own group and not be permitted to take part in public sports ... There is no necessity for seeking competition beyond the school building or yard.” 

Sullivan died in 1914, the same year American women were granted the “privilege” of entering a figure skating competition organized by the ISUA. Theresa Weld was the winner of the women’s competition at the ISUA’s international event in 1914 in New Haven, Connecticut, which is regarded today as the first U.S. Championships.

Though progress was being made, the ISUA’s stronghold over figure skating in America wasn’t without its hiccups. In 1913, a rival association called the Amateur Skating Association of the United States of America (ASAUSA) was formed by George Henry Browne, the founder and headmaster of the Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On Feb. 5, 1914, this organization submitted an application for membership to the Internationale Eislauf-Vereinigung (IEV/ISU).

The senior men's score sheet from the 1923 U.S. Championships on blue paper with gold writing.
The senior men's score sheet from the 1923 U.S. Championships.

The ASAUSA’s application to the ISU was initially opposed by Irving Brokaw (a member of the ISUA), a wealthy socialite who was the first American figure skater to compete at the (Summer) Olympics in 1908. Brokaw’s opposition stemmed from the fact the ISUA was planning to apply for membership as well.

Browne and Brokaw were the two of the foremost figure skating authors of the time, and both played major roles in popularizing the Continental (International) style of skating in America. Interestingly, Browne was from the Boston area; Brokaw from New York — two of the biggest skating hubs in the country at the time. 

This short-lived power struggle ultimately became a moot point. Handwritten minutes reveal that Brokaw was elected as a council member of the ASAUSA. The ISU also ceased operations during much of World War I, during which time the European and World Championships were canceled.

In December of 1921, Articles of Alliance were adopted between the newly formed United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) and the ISUA recognizing the USFSA as “the sole governing body of all matters pertaining to amateur figure skating throughout the United States, with full power.” In March of 1922, USFSA Secretary George Henry Browne once again submitted a letter of application to the ISU for membership. This time the application was successful.

An original copy of Browne’s typed and hand-signed letter is among the collection of primary source material that June Clark has so graciously donated to the World Figure Skating Museum. 

Editor’s note: June Clark’s donation to the World Figure Skating Museum & Hall of Fame includes four score sheets from the 1923 U.S. Championships as well as other important documents from the Amateur Skating Association of the United States of America.