The East Village is renowned as a place of great cultural innovation over the years. But two of the least well-known great leaps forward with roots in the neighborhood — which amazingly are rooted in the same building which still stands today — are the invention of the modern roller skate, and the beginning of men formally organizing to fight for women’s suffrage. Their connection to the same building says a lot about the East Villager’s eclectic history; the fact that it remains unlandmarked to this day says a lot about the lack of recognition and appreciation for that unconventional history.
In 1863, James L. Plimpton (b. April 14th, 1828) changed the skating world forever when he patented the forerunner of the modern roller skate. Safer and easier to use than existing versions, which were little more than wheels attached to rigid boards, his “rocker skate” allowed skaters to steer simply by leaning left or right. Credited with opening the first roller rink in New York City, and one of the first in the country, his invention transformed life throughout the industrialized world, and had two surprising intersections with the Women’s Suffrage movement which was growing at the same time.
The invention of roller skates has traditionally been credited to a Belgian Joseph Merlin in the 1760s, although there are many reports of wheels attached to ice skates and shoes in the early years of that century. The first models were derived from the ice skate and typically had an “in-line” arrangement of wheels (the wheels formed a single straight line along the bottom of the skate). In 1819, M. Petibled of Paris received the first patent for a roller skate. Like previous models, Petibled’s skate had an in-line wheel arrangement, using three wooden or metal wheels. The wheels were connected to a block that in turn could be strapped to a boot. These early roller skates enjoyed limited popularity. The ride was rough, and stopping and turning were nearly impossible.
In 1844 at the age of 16, Plimpton, left his family’s farm in Massachusetts for New Hampshire, intending to learn a trade. By 18, he had become the manager of a factory, where his fascination with a engineering and design blossomed. In the 1850s, Plimpton was running a furniture shop which operated at 30 Stuyvesant Street at 9th Street (staying busy by inventing the Plimpton Cabinet Bed) when he was told by his physician that he should take up ice skating to keep himself in shape. Because ice skating was not available year-round during this time, he set out to improve the roller skate, making it easier to turn for someone with self-described “weak ankles.”
Plimpton broke away from the traditional and flawed design of the roller skate, intending to create a design that would allow for smoother maneuvering and the capability to brake. Using two parallel pairs of wheels, instead of a single inline row, he set one near the heel of the boot and the other near the front. He attached the wheel pairs to the boot using springy carriages known as trucks (which also play a major role in skateboarding). This construction was first known as the “rocker” or “rocking” skate (and is now known as a “quad”) because it allowed the skater to easily shift on the skates in order to smoothly navigate turns and perform other tricks. Little did he know, in 1863, that this model would reign as the most popular for nearly 80 years.
In the early 1860s, roller-skating had unexpectedly bloomed in popularity. Plimpton seized upon the craze and set up a skate factory to produce his new invention. He is also credited with opening America’s first roller-skating rinks in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island, where he leased skates to customers. The New York Roller-Skating Association—the first of its kind—and other clubs held speed and distance competitions in cities across the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, rinks constructed in the Chicago Coliseum and New York City’s Madison Square Garden attracted thousands of customers on their opening nights. The quad style of skate reigned as the most popular skate for the next 80 years.
Plimpton’s skating rink was set up in what had been the showroom of his furniture factory at 30 Stuyvesant Street, at the corner of 9th Street, and attracted the cream of the crop of New York Society, to whom his new roller skate was quite successfully marketed.
Even Plimpton’s son, Henry, took up his father’s innovative streak, pioneering the use of ball and roller bearings in many applications, including horse-drawn carriages, and, our course, roller skates. His design for a “silent wheel” skate incorporated three sets of ball bearings inside the wheel. In today’s inline roller blades, this technique is still being used!
However, with the Panic of 1873 and the mass production of roller skates by others, Plimpton’s fortunes faded and the roller rink was no longer so profitable. It appears Plimpton converted his former furniture showroom/roller rink into a hall for hire, which were common in the area (Webster Hall is a nearby surviving example).
And that brings us to the women’s suffrage movement. As we’ve pointed out, a remarkable number of people and places in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo played important roles in the move towards women’s suffrage. Not surprising, as these neighborhoods were long centers of political ferment and progressive social change. The Women’s Suffrage Movement in many ways began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, but interestingly formal women’s suffrage organizations didn’t really form in this country until after the Civil War with the founding in 1868-69 of several women’s suffrage groups. Following relatively quickly upon the heels of those organizations, consisting of both men and (predominantly) women was the founding in 1874 of the Young Men’s Woman Suffrage League, which by most accounts appears to the very first organization in the United States founded by and for men to support and secure women’s suffrage. The League met more than 80 times between 1874 and 1875 at their headquarters in the Plimpton Building, meeting in its ground floor hall. At those meetings the League hosted pro-suffrage speakers from its membership, including physicians, attorneys, and professors. According to reports in the New York Times, League speakers argued that as women were just as much citizens of the nation and community as men, they deserved an equal say in its government. And that just as ideas of the inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were taken for granted since the founding of the American republic, but were considered heresy before, so too they argued would the notion of granting women equal access to the vote soon shift from being seen as preposterous to a given in our society.
Alas the Young Men’s League was short-lived, as it appeared to go out of existence after 1875, though it’s founder and leader James K. Hamilton Wilcox continued his work for both women’s and African American suffrage throughout his lifetime. It wasn’t until 1909 that another prominent men’s group would appear in New York City to advocate for the same cause — the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, led by Max Eastman.
Of course the Young Men’s League wasn’t Plimpton’s roller skates only brush with the women’s suffrage movement. His invention was on full display when the Silent Sentinels of Maryland picketed the White House in 1917 for women’s suffrage, rolling smoothly along the sidewalk in their rocking skates. It should be noted that Plimpton passed away in 1911, and while our research uncovered this fascinating connection between the inventor and the women’s suffrage movement he intersected with in such colorful ways, we were enable to find any indication of his having an opinion on the topic one way or the other. The Young Men’s Woman Suffrage League’s use of Plimpton’s former first-of-its-kind roller rink may have been on a purely hall-for-hire basis, with Plimpton having no more of an opinion about the halls use than his skates at the White House picket decades later.
As murky as Plimpton’s connection to women’s suffrage appears to be, so too in some ways is the connection between the historic Plimpton Hall and the building on the site today, which now houses NYU’s Barney Hall. We know around 1910 the building became the home of the Hebrew Technical Union, a charitable trade school, which remained here and in neighboring buildings for decades. While some records indicate the current structure was built for the Hebrew Technical Union, and clearly it’s exterior details date to that period, other evidence seems to indicate the building was merely altered at that time from Plimpton Hall for its new purpose. A comparison of Plimpton Hall and the current buildings shows structures of almost the exact same dimensions, the same number of floors and seemingly identical floor heights, all of which would indicate the current building is likely a merely cosmetically altered version of Plimpton Hall.
Village Preservation is seeking landmark designation of this and other historic buildings in the East Village — if you’d like to support that effort, send a letter here.
In honor of the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, Village Preservation has created a StoryMap that chronicles the impact our neighborhoods and locations here, like Plimpton Hall, had on winning the right to vote for women.