Today we have a rather unusual pair of three-wheeled roller skates from the early 20th century.  They are made of metal, with hard-rubber treads on the wheels; each skate is 16 inches long, and weighs three pounds.

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These babies were donated to us in rough shape; they were found in a Rockville basement during a building demolition (more on that in a bit).  The metal is rusted; the orange and black paint, what’s left, is flaking off; the rubber treads are deteriorated, dented and flattened.  Any original marks or labels are long gone.  One skate is missing its adjustable toe-cap, and the cap that remains is bent out of shape and useless.  Presumably there was some kind of strap at the rear, now gone, for the wearer’s ankles.
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Without a maker’s mark, their general history is proving elusive.  The only other example I’ve found is this skate, in rather better condition – contrast the curled-down toe-cap, and the shinier paint job, with our pair – but still without a name.  My 1902, 1908 and 1927 Sears catalog reprints only advertise ‘regular’ strap-on quad skates (invented in 1863; earlier skates were in-line); no three-wheeled jobs to be had.  However, a patent search revealed a number of three-wheeled skate designs – similar to ours with one in front, two in back – all from the 1910s.  None are an exact match to our pair, but the concept (which never took off, I guess; this style, at least, appears rather cumbersome) seems to date to that decade.

A flat tire

The specific history of the skates is a little easier to trace.  Our catalog records indicate that they were donated by the Rockville Urban Renewal Project in the early 1970s, after being found in the basement of “Stein’s Store” during demolition.  The problem is that there wasn’t a “Stein’s Store.”  Presumably our cataloger meant either Stern’s Modern Furniture or Steinberg’s Department Store.  I’m inclined toward the latter, because Morris Stern opened his first store in 1926, perhaps a little late for our skates, whereas Steinberg’s opened in 1908.

Let’s say Steinberg’s, then, for now.  Lithuanian immigrant David Steinberg opened his grocery store in 1908, quickly adding clothing and accessories to his stock; the name was changed to Steinberg’s Department Store around 1930.  The building, which included the store on the ground floor and the family’s apartment above, was on East Montgomery Avenue in downtown Rockville. David and Bertha Steinberg raised three sons in their home over the shop: William, born 1910; Isadore, born 1913; and Joseph, born 1916.  The family (including son Joseph) ran the Department Store and several other shops until the 1960s, when Urban Renewal came and the old downtown shopping district was torn down to make way for a mall (now demolished in its turn). Steinberg’s was one of the last old buildings to go; it was razed in 1972.

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Steinberg’s Department Store, the three-story brick building in the foreground, shortly before it was demolished in 1972. The building under construction is the Americana Centre. MCHS Library collections.

Though a lot of the skates’ poor condition can be attributed to basement-living for 50-odd years, the fact that there are pieces missing leads me to believe that they weren’t just forgotten store merchandise – these were used.  The proposed date of the skates, and the ages of the Steinberg sons, are a nice match; I think these were enjoyed by one or more boys, tooling around the sidewalks of Rockville.

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These simple, if slightly mysterious, roller skates could serve as the jumping-off point to a wide variety of stories:  The history of roller skating.  Patents and inventions. The effects of time on metal and rubber.  Urban Renewal’s impact on the City of Rockville.  The life of the Steinberg family, the first Jewish family in Rockville.  The problems caused by a simple typo or mis-transcription (“Stein’s Store”) when researching the past.  So many directions to go in!  I charge you, blog readers, to look at objects both familiar and unfamiliar and think about the many stories, big or small, they can tell.

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