Back in the days before protective padding and fibreglass helmets were ever dreamt of, the first skateboarding craze took off. Grazed knees, concussion and splintered bones were just part of the experience as children and teenagers took to the streets on their flimsy wooden boards.
In Dana Point, California, Bill and Mark Richards invented the first skateboard in 1958 by attaching wheels from roller skates to a square wooden board.
The Richards’ sold the boards at their Val Surf Shop for $8.00 apiece. “sidewalk surfing” was regarded as an inferior substitute for wave riding, but the two cultures have always enjoyed many shared characteristics and icons.
The first commercial product, the Roller Derby Skateboard, went on sale in 1959, and an estimated 50 million boards were sold by 1965. These primitive skateboards were often around an inch thick, with narrow trucks and hard clay or rubber wheels making for a rough ride.
The years following saw Jan & Dean release a single called Sidewalk Surfing, the first skate contests, and a picture of a skateboarder right there on the cover of Life magazine. And back then, when you made the cover of Life, you were a part of pop culture Americana – instantly!.
Cult brands, such as Hobie Skateboards, established in 1964 by surfing legend Hobie Alter, were a hallmark of skateboarding culture from the very start. Urethane wheels and fibreglass boards were introduced in 1973, enabling skaters to enjoy a faster, smoother, safer ride.
Around this time, riders left the sidewalks and made their first forays into empty swimming pools. On the US East Coast, incidentally, the only time the in-ground pools were empty was in the winter, so hardcore riders there endured freezing temperatures while they refined their vertical skating skills.
Then, in response to a skateboarding fatality and countless injuries (clay wheels were never known for good traction) skateboarding’s popularity de-railed, as it would do a few more times in its up-and-down history. Since cities started to ban street riding, devoted skaters had to go “underground” if they wanted to ride.
But with the invention of urethane wheels in the early 1970s, skateboarding was promptly revived. These new wheels allowed better pool riding and paved the way for downhill slaloms, pipes and ramps. In addition to new wheels, boards acquired kicktails, bigger trucks, and increased board widths.
Thanks to these design innovations, the 70s were very good to skateboarding. Vertical skating was in its heyday, skate contests were more frequent and better attended, and the first skate parks opened.
Instead of just mellow surf moves like hanging ten, carving and walking the nose, skateboarders added showy tricks to their repertoires: ollies (a no-hands aerial), grinders, fakies and rock & rolls among them – vertical movements that were made from horizontal land.
For these acrobatics, wide boards and the better-gripping wheels were crucial, and manufacturers also started to put wild graphics under their boards.
The first skateboarding movie was Skaterdater, written and directed by Noel Black in 1965. Probably the most famous of a bad lot was the 1978 skateboard exploitation flick simply called Skateboard starring Leif Garrett.
Yet another round of highly publicised injuries ensued in the early 80s, and along with it, a civic distaste for the new generation of street skaters who were congregating wherever there were good steps and ramps (which often times meant fancy buildings like libraries and banks).
As the pressure rose, skateboarding’s popularity waned again. Because of the high cost of liability insurance, skate parks shut down en masse and so the skaters had to go underground once again.
This time, they built launch ramps and half-pipes in their backyards and congregated in secret spots out of the public eye – and in these places, no one could tell them to skate away.
And as a final nose-thumbing at public authority, skaters everywhere began plastering “Skateboarding Is Not a Crime” stickers anywhere the statement needed to be made.
The sport, in these more private domains, weathered the public’s disapproval. Wheels got smaller and lighter, and the shapes of the boards diversified to include longboards and smaller street shapes.
The recession in the early 90s didn’t help the sport any, but by mid-decade, it had regained its stride.
The new “Extreme Sports” trend spotlighted it constantly, and board companies (and skateboard-related merchandise too, like Vans shoe wear) were doing brisk business once again. Pro skaters began to develop their own board lines and by the end of the 90s, longboarding had made a full-fledged comeback.
These days, skateboarding is an international sport. In America, where skateboarding is the sixth-largest participatory sport, cities swarm with upwards of six million riders.
The skateboarding champs don’t win those ubiquitous 70s-era engraved trophies anymore – they win buckets of money. They tour constantly, they’re hungrily sponsored by big corporations, and they pitch their own products – and not just boards either, but clothes, computer games, and toys.
So from humble two-by-four and roller skate wheel roots comes this tenacious, ever-evolving sport that, despite uptight opponents with their no-skate laws, just won’t go away.
It’s gone from hobby to cult sport to pro sport to lifestyle, and now it packs its own rap/punk style, its own heroes, and of course, its own built-in, never-say-die dogma.