From Skisport to Skiing: One Hundred Years of an American Sport, 1840-1940

From Skisport to Skiing: One Hundred Years of an American Sport, 1840-1940

From Skisport to Skiing: One Hundred Years of an American Sport, 1840-1940

From Skisport to Skiing: One Hundred Years of an American Sport, 1840-1940


The first full-length study of skiing in the United States, this book traces the history of the sport from its utilitarian origins to its advent as a purely recreational and competitive activity. During the mid-1800s, inhabitants of frontier mining communities in the Sierra and Rocky mountains used skis for many practical reasons, including mail and supply delivery, hunting, and railroad repair. In some towns skis were so common that, according to one California newspaper, "the ladies do nearly all their shopping and visiting on them". But it was Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest, clinging to their homeland traditions, who first organized the skisport. Through the founding of local clubs and the National Ski Association, this ethnic group dominated American skiing until the 1930s. At this time, a wave of German immigrants infused America with the ethos of what we today call Alpine skiing. This type of skiing became increasingly popular, especially in the East among wealthy collegians committed to the romantic pursuit of the "strenuous life". Ski clubs proliferated in towns and on college campuses and specialized resorts cropped up from New England to California. At the same time, skiing became mechanized with tows and lifts, and the blossoming equipment and fashion industries made a business of the sport. On the eve of World War II, as the book concludes its story, all the elements were in place for the explosion in recreational and competitive skiing that erupted after 1945.


The history of the ski would be a wonderful record of events could it be fully told.
-- Taylm Falls [Wisconsin] Journal, 1888

My academic life took a new direction on 10 February 1976. I was four chapters along in a manuscript I was writing on Renaissance diplomacy when I saw a small exhibit of old skiing prints in Innsbruck. On the instant, I decided to become a collector, but four-hundred-year-old woodcuts are far too difficult to find and out of the reach of an academic salary. I settled for an old postcard or two and some ski manuals from the 1930s. Two players ski diagonally towards one another until they collied, I read in a 1938 booklet, Games to Play on Skis, the player with the least falls wins. Here was a vastly different skiing world from my own, yet one that was still within reach, and I wondered if I could find anyone who had played "Collision." This fascination with the 1930s was only the beginning; what skiing was like before that and how it took shape on the North American continent lured me into serious research. A number of years have gone by since that exhibition, and here is a social history of American skiing.

I do not claim that this is a story "fully told." That it can be told at all is due to the nearly two hundred people with whom I have talked. I cannot list everyone who has reminisced with me, so let me mention the two oldest (now departed) as representatives of all who have helped me understand skiing's past: Otto Mason was on skis in 1905 and Dorothy Clay, in 1910. Their oral testimony has brought a human aspect to archival research.

Ski material (even the precious stuff of archives) is stashed away in closet, attic, and barn across the country -- the Nansen Club Constitution and Minutes were rescued from the rafters above a commercial garage -- and in many small museums. I should like to thank the curators of the Bodie, Bridgeport, Downieville, Eureka Park, Kentucky Mine, and Plumas . . .

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