Time to dive a bit into the history of skateboarding and learn about the rise of skateboarding and the legends that made skateboarding what it is today. Many believe surfers invented skateboarding but even though they contributed to the skateboard culture, the answer is a bit more complex.
The history of skateboarding arguably goes back to the 1920s and 1930s. From 1930, devices such as the Scooter Skate were invented. Skateboarding (sidewalk surfing) was popularized by surfers in California. Skateboarding really took off when Frank Nasworthy introduced polyurethane wheels in the early 70s.
The questions surrounding the origin of the very first skateboard are still largely unanswered. Some say it was initially a kind of scooter, with rollerskate wheels attached to a 2×4 birch plank and milk crate standing on top to serve as a handle. Eventually, kids ripped off the crates and changed the design. Cruising neighborhoods on their self-made ‘skateboards’.
Others say the first skateboard was invented by surfers who needed a way to surf when the waves were flat. back then, Skateboarding was called “sidewalk surfing”, and surfers wanted a way to emulated surfing when waves were lacking. Let’s dive into one hundred years of skateboarding history.
1920: Cross Country Device Converted to Skateboard
A hundred years ago the first known object that had some resemblance to a skateboard was introduced. In these early years, a metal device was invented to practice cross country skiing on the road. It consisted of three wheels, an adjustable toe and heel cup, and wheels from a pedal car.
It was sold in pairs with a set of poles and lacked any means of steering. Kids got creative and grabbed one of them to ride, which could be, with some imagination, considered skateboarding.
1930: The Scooter Skate
Now here’s something that might wake you up at night screaming. Make sure you’re ready for this, take a deep breath, and relax. Put away your coffee/drink before you spill it all over your screen.
So here it goes:
The other device often referenced as one of the earliest forms of skateboarding is called a “Scooter Skate”. It is a three-wheeled device and can be considered a hybrid between a scooter and a skateboard. Its classic sci-fi like rocket-ship shape included a handle that could be taken off. The steel wheels must have been very uncomfortable and the lack of trucks and bushings didn’t allow for steering.
In all seriousness, it’s a longshot to say skateboards evolved from scooters, but you can’t deny the resemblance here. Scooters (mainly scooter kids and parents) and skateboarders don’t go well together. But that’s a different story I covered before.
1940: The Skeeter Skate
Around 1945 a device called the “skeeter skate” was introduced. It was made from aluminum and had four pedal-car wheels, a removable handle, and axles that allowed it to steer. This was one of the first innovations and basically, trucks made their first appearance. Prior to the skeeter skate, steering wasn’t an option.
1950: First Mass-produced Skateboard
At the end of the 50s, the first commercial skateboards hit the stores. In 1959 the first “Roller Derby” skateboard was introduced, it was the first mass-produced skateboard.
The connection between skateboards and the surfing community was obvious, and surfers found it a great way to practice their skills when the surf was low. It’s still hard to say if surfers really invented skateboarding, they did, however, contribute a lot to the culture and made it more mainstream.
1960: The Rise & Fall of Skateboarding
The first surf shop to sell skateboard was the ‘Val Suf’ in Hollywood in 1962. Val Surf produced self-made skateboards with a surfboard-like shape and trucks from rollerskates. In the same year, another company named “Patterson Forbs” produced complete skateboards with improved trucks. In 1963 popularity rose to new heights and peaked.
Eventually, a number of surfing manufacturers, such as Jacks, Hobie and Makaha, started building plastic skateboards that resembled small surfboards. Larry Stevenson (Makaha) invented the kicktail in 1963 and is credited for producing the first high-quality skateboard.
This led to the first competition consisting of downhill slalom and freestyle. Legends like Torger Johnson, Danny Berer, and Woody Woodward made a name for themselves and paved the way for future skateboarders. Teams traveled across the US, and by 1965, the first skateboard magazine called “The Quarterly Skateboarder” which eventually only issued four magazines.
Skateboarding went mainstream and in 1965 the international championships were broadcast on national television. Production grew to over 50 million boards were produced, all to be sold within 3 years.
Makaha’s sales figures quoted $4 million in board sales between 1963 and 1965. No small number considering the time period we’re talking about. By 1966, sales had dropped significantly. Skateboarding wasn’t popular anymore and The Quarterly Skateboarder stopped publishing after only issuing four magazines.
The First Death of Skateboarding
The downfall had to do with the low-quality parts and excessive inventory. Companies focused on mass production, not on improving wheels, boards, and trucks. No investment went to R&D, it would take over a decade before a huge improvement boosted the popularity again.
The biggest problem at that time was the quality of skateboard wheels. You can imagine how uncomfortable riding wheels of clay or steel is. Not only uncomfortable, but the wheels could also break easily, making it a dangerous activity.
The inferior quality resulted in accidents and a few nasty falls. Cities everywhere were banning skateboarding due to health and safety concerns. Manufacturers lost huge amounts of money as skateboarding was nearly forced out of existence.
By Christmas of 1966 (the same year Vans was established), skateboarding virtually disappeared from public view. Just a year prior (1965), the first skatepark, Surf City opened in Tucson, Arizona). Shortly after that, skateboarding died. Only a few truly dedicated skateboarders refused to give up and kept the sport alive. They crafted their own boards and fine-tuned them over time.
1970: The First Resurrection of Skateboarding
After the first death of skateboarding, a new era arrived. There is one man that we should thank for this in particular. The 70s brought new breakthroughs to the world of skateboarding. A recent new material, polyurethane, was discovered by a company named Creative Urethane and further developed and repurposed by a man named Frank Nasworthy.
Even though he didn’t invent the material, he asked a company named Creative Urethane to make him a few sets of wheels. Creative Urethane previously failed to market this to rollerskaters as they loved their clay wheels. Nasworthy tested the wheels himself and was impressed with the speed, control, and smoothness.
Quite a difference from steel and clay wheels, he decided to market them to skateboarders and started his own company, Cadillac Wheels Company.
The improved and by far superior wheels made skateboarding popular again, and finally, companies started to invest in research and development. Skateboarding was back and Surfer Magazine resurrected “The Quarterly Skateboarder” which was now renamed to just “Skateboarder” in the early ’70s.
Polyurethane wheels gave skateboarding the technological breakthrough it so desperately needed. It made the sport safer and suddenly, the industry was awash with all sorts of new ideas to improve skateboard components. Skateboarding became popular once again, and soon it was saturated with new manufacturers hoping to cash in on skateboarding’s newfound popularity.
Finally in 1975 skateboarding got the boost it so desperately needed. During a freestyle and slalom in Del Mar, California the Z-Boys (Zephyr team at the time) demonstrated what skateboarding is and could be. They inspired spectators with their smooth style and cool tricks. The Zephyr Boys are true legends, Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, Jay Adams, and Allen Sarlo to name a few made skateboard history.
With the introduction of urethane wheels, many parks saw the day of light leading to a skatepark boom. From this point on, skateboarding would never be the same.
New Companies, New Designs
Gradually, more companies began to produce and develop other parts for skateboards, directly designed for the current tricks and design of the boards themselves. This fueled further growth. As tricks evolved, more board control became necessary, therefore, boards got wider, sometimes exceeding 10 inches in width, and other parts, such as trucks, were designed with new specifications in mind.
Concave wasn’t a thing for another 10 years, but slowly board design improved. Some companies experimented with composites like fiberglass and aluminum. None of these new materials seemed to work better than good ol’ maple plywood. The funny thing is this is still the case today. If you make a board too rigid the energy transfer isn’t right, the resonance is off, maple gives just the right spring, flexibility, and crispness of a skateboard.
All these new developments allowed skateboarders to take advantage of their newly designed boards, and soon they invented new tricks. This brings us to the summer of ’76. The Zephyr boys (Z-boys) started to skate the vertical walls of swimming pools. Due to the California drought of 1974, many pools were left empty.
This started the vertical trend in skateboarding. The urethane wheels gave skaters more control which led to new tricks like slash grinds, airs, and many other old school tricks. Tricks were and still are perceived as dangerous, and liability concerns increased the insurance costs to skatepark owners.
A New Golden Age and the Inevitable Decline
The late 1970s was a great time for skateboarding, a new golden age. The sport became popular, hundreds of skateparks were built and the new generation of skateboards fueled the industry to great heights. Legal action was the last thing on a skateboarder’s minds when skating the many parks available. They enjoyed the new challenges offered by these parks designed specifically with them in mind.
Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, insurance rates had grown so much that most skateparks couldn’t afford to stay in business. Bulldozers were brought in and demolished parks, it was the second death of skateboarding. Even though skateparks disappeared, hardcore skaters built their own backyard ramps and continued to push the sport and culture that they loved so much.
The first halfpipe was built by Tom Stewart built the first halfpipe (The Rampage, 1977) in Encinitas and Alan Gelfand invented the first ollie in 1978 that completely revolutionized skateboarding. At that time skateboarding took on a strong anti-establishment, the rogue sentiment is still present to this day.
1980: Skateboarding Just Won’t Stay Dead
You can’t kill skateboarding completely but once again skateboarding was in a slump at the beginning of the eighties. Despite that, “Thrasher Magazine” was founded in 1981 and soon after in 1983 “Transworld Skateboarding Magazine”.
By the mid to late ’80s, skateboarding made a comeback. The patience of the few who pushed to keep the sport alive was rewarded. New skateboarding publications got off the ground, new manufacturers started producing products, and street skateboarding gave the sport a new dimension.
The renewed skateboard revolution was a lucrative time for a few selected professional skateboarders, sometimes pulling in 10,000$ a month. Popularity skyrocketed, as the National Skateboarding Association was holding contests across North America, and eventually, throughout the world.
The 80s skateboarding generation was really the turning point of skateboarding, marked by new board technology and tricks that would pave the way for everything skateboarding was to become. Board design became standardized and Tim Piumarta introduced decks with concave which opened new doors to even more advanced and technical tricks.
Mid- to Late ’80s: Skateboarding Evolved
All boards (with the exception of a few companies still trying out new designs), were made from 7-ply, pressed maple laminate, and reached a design that would change little in the future.
Skateboard companies were also increasingly being started and owned by the skateboarders of the 70s, most notably Tony Alva, Stacey Peralta, and George Powell. This gave their companies additional trust with skateboarders, allowing for even further growth.
VHS opened new opportunities for distributing videos around the world, and with that creating a subculture. Stacey Peralta and George Powell assembled a team of skateboarders called the Bones Brigade. They shot the legendary skate video ‘The Bones Brigade Video Show’ in 1984.
More videos followed like Future Primitive (1985) and Animal Chin (1987). The Bones Brigade team consisted of Tony Hawk, Stacy Peralta, Mike McGill, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Rodney Mullen and more.
The Shift: Street Skating
The 80s skateboarding focus shifted to U-shaped ramps also referred to as halfpipes, and tricks shifted to aerial maneuvers which made the sport even more appealing for spectators.
Not everybody had access to halfpipes and most of the skaters focused on street skating, at this point (the late ’80s) street skating emerged with pioneers such as Mike Vallely, Rodney Mullen, Mark Gonzales, and many more legends defined skateboarding for decades to come.
Street skateboarders adopted vert tricks and brought it to the streets. Ollies, grabs, kickflips and various other tricks were quickly adapted to the flat surfaces of the streets. Small jump ramps became popular as they were easy to move around.
It was the birth of freestyle skateboarding which focused on flat ground and made a huge impact on the future of street skating.
Street style would eventually combine its adaptation of aerial maneuvers with the flat ground tricks of freestyle.
Street skating was performed on what we now call old school skateboards and were designed for vert skating. Something needed to change.
Street skateboarding contributed largely to the next evolution of skateboard design and the first modern skateboards came to see the day of light. Longer noses, shorter tails, and decreased width. The evolution of the modern skateboard was taking shape due to the popularity of street skateboarding. By the end of the 1980s, Powell Peralta, Vision, and Santa Cruz dominated the skateboard market.
Despite the popularity of skateboarding in the 80s and the push of new skateboard tech, skateboarding began a short decline in the early 90s. A few reasons, such as the limited availability of skateparks and increased scrutiny of skateboarders by law enforcement due to skateboarders skating the streets.
Skateboarding began to receive a negative image, a stigma that is still present to this day. Other reasons such as the media framing skateboarders as felons because Mark Rogowski decided to murder his former girlfriend.
The year 1991 also brought in a worldwide recession that hit skateboarding hard. Many skateboarding companies suffered financial losses and went belly up. Around 1992 skateboarding popularity was once again in decline, only technical street skating was still a thing and vert skating took a dive.
Skaters inspire new skaters, the cool factor and image play a huge part to inspire new generations. Once the mainstream appeal died, there were fewer skaters to inspire a new generation. Despite these setbacks, skateboarding didn’t die another death but something needed to be done. Skateboarding needed to reinvent itself once more.
The Mid-’90s: Another Golden Age
In the mid-1990s, skateboarding emerged again, it was also the time I got my first professional skateboard and the hype was real. Through satellite TV, and events such as the Extreme Games (X-games), skateboarding reached an audience in almost every country. Skateboarding was officially rad, public skateparks were resurrected and new ones got built.
In October of 1997, a law was amended that cities in California cannot be held responsible for injuries to anyone skating in a public skatepark. Previously insurance and liability were one of the reasons skateparks got demolished.
The offspring of boomers were hitting their teens. This, combined with their ability to buy gear and increased spending power, helped bring skateboarding rise to new levels. Up until the end of the century, skateboarding popularity skyrocketed again. It became an international activity more than just an activity done in the US.
New talent and professionals infiltrated the California-centric skateboarding complex. Skateboarding companies emerged in Brazil, England, Germany and made a name for themselves in the US.
Skateboarding in the 2000s
The new millennium brought the world audience to skateboarding. The success of the X-games was carried through to the 21st Century. The videogame Tony hawk pro skater was a huge success and not only accelerated Tony Hawk’s career, but it also brought skateboarding to a new audience.
Skateboarding lost some of its stigma and the public perception began to change. Skateboarding was less perceived as a rogue sport and unlawful. Because many cities banned skateboarding from public areas, new skate parks were built to provide street skaters. A new generation of skateparks designed for street skaters were built all over the world.
This trend continues to this day, the Tony Hawk Foundation, for example, has built over 600 skateparks alone. Almost every city has a skatepark. Laredo (Texas) has the most skateparks, data from 2019 shows this town has 4.1 skate parks per 100.000 residents. The biggest skatepark can be found in China (of all places). The GMP Skatepark in Guangzhou is 16,900 square meters (or 182,000 square feet).
One of the most recent developments in skatepark design has come to be known as the “skate plaza”, which is, in theory, a skatepark but to the passerby might look the same as any public park (the Courthouse for example). This is due to the fact that, since skateboarders often searched out skate spots in public places, skatepark designers decided to build skateparks that blend in.
Admittedly, most public skateparks look like boring grey concrete structures. Indoor parks are often made of wood but some say skateparks don’t really replicate the real street skating experience.
Older skate styles resurfaced, bowl skating became very popular and bombing hills and slalom became popular again. Not soon after around 2005, skateboarding popularity declined. History seems repeats itself even in skateboarding, and the rise of scooter kids might have contributed to the new dip.
Others say skateboarding became too technical and new skaters quickly became demotivated. Once a kickflip turned you pro, nowadays it’s a basic trick.
From 2010 and Now
Skateboarding was in a bad place again for some time, but this time it didn’t die. Some blame social media and claim kids are more occupied with their followers than outdoor activities. Others argue kids need instant gratification these days and give up quickly. Whatever it is, skateboarding always had its ups and downs so these arguments seem a bit far fetched.
In 2010 a new and controversial professional competition was introduced, Street League. Skateboarding is considered a subculture by skateboarders and Streat League is criticized as an attempt to corporatize skateboarding and churn out profits.
Big companies like Adidas and Nike jumped skateboarding making it difficult for core skateboard companies to compete. Skaters often blame these corporate brands not contributing anything to skateboarding. Joining a Nike pro team results in lots of hate from the skateboard community.
In 2016 skateboarding was announced as an Olympic sport deeply dividing the skateboard community. Some say skateboarding is an art, not a sport that can be judged. Others say it will help to make skateboarding appealing again, inspiring for a whole new generation.
Coincidence or not, skateboarding is on the rise again. There is a notable upward trend and market predictions show a growth of 2.1% for the next 5 years.
2020 and beyond
It’s hard to say what the coming years will bring but the market data shows growth. Will we see another golden age of skateboarding? Will the Olympics boost popularity even though it’s postponed? No one knows for sure but the future looks bright. New companies emerge and even now new skateboard technologies are emerging.
Update: Skateboarding exploded and is more popular than ever!
Coincidence or not, I just finished one of the most fascinating podcasts from the Nine Club, and Paul Schmitt (PS Stix) had some interesting ideas about the first skateboard and why skateboarding went through so many ups and downs, here’s what he had to say.
Let me quote his exact words:
The scooter they’d brake the handels off, when you look how long it took… the roller skates was patented in 1856 by a furniture guy in New York City. The roller skate that got broken down to make it a skateboard and then it took a rollerskate company “rollersports” which is still in business in Illinois, not in California, to make the worlds first commercial skateboard because people were taking apart their rollerskates right?
So skateboarding started from innovation from the start. Break a rollerskate, make a crate out of it, the crate falls off… I made a reproduction board last year and I’ve been searching and always hard a hard time to find the right crate. One day I was at a place and I found a tall crate and I was like, can I swap this crate for that one? and she was like yea, sure no problem!
I took it back to my shop, took it apart, nailed it glued it, straighten out the straighten out the nail, fix the head to make it look era accurate right? Took some old pallet wood from behing my shop that been in the sun for 5 years and made the board and the t handle for it.
And then I was riding it at the Vans skatepark and I go to turn for the fist time… and I got cratebite! so before wheelbase it was cratebite! So the skateboard got created, the story is that the crate got busted off but I didn’t know it was because of cratebite until I experienced cratebite.
So Paul’s words give a slightly different perspective on how the first skateboard came about. I thought it was a great way to finish this post, Paul Schmitt is an absolute legend!
And what about the ups and downs of skateboarding, what was the bigger picture? Paul also has a very unique view on why skateboarding died many times but just couldn’t stay dead. We’re entering the realm of socioeconomics here and it’s not my cup of tea, but it’s fascinating.
What it really is is that the first half of the last century people were born based on wars and recessions. You had these huge generation swings and then a family would have 3 to 6 kids and they would have them in their twenties okay?
And in the modern world now is like they’ll have one to three kids, and they’ll have them in their mid late 30s right? When they’re prepared and got income for toys.
The cycle is keeping on evening itself out, when we came out of the 80s we felt a slight bit of it in the start of the nineties, but not much. And then it just even out all the more ever since right, its been very constant from the nineties on.
Because of the generation cycles, the booms and busts, the people being born and economics and wars and all that type of stuff, it stopped affecting what was happening. Thats what really got skateboarding to be established. Now as we are going into Olympic mode its gonna be a whole new thing …
…You gotta realise in the 60s , skateboarding was generally related costal. But a roller skateboarding company in Illinois made it and other people made it as well, Chicago Trucks were out there but in the 70s it really got around everywhere and then in the 80s it really was everywhere, Up until the 80s you could live and not even know skateboarding existed.
Thanks, Professor Schmitt! Just check out the rest of this podcast and subscribe to the Nine Club, this episode is a true gem.
I’ll be back to check this post for mistakes but for now, I need to write another post but something less complex. It’s been quite the ride and to anyone who even bothers to come this far, thank you so much for reading my post!