Growing up in the past 40 years, it's hard to imagine a world without skateboarding. However, that was very much the case before a few Southern California surfers began looking for something to keep them busy while the waves were flat. Fast forward a few decades to today and there are millions of skateboarders the world over, not to mention an entire industry, culture, and lifestyle based around the simple concept of a wooden plank with four wheels. To celebrate how far the sport has come, we take a look back on the history of skateboarding, and how its origins and early adopters shaped the sport into what it is today. Read on for the first part of an ongoing series.
Like many things in pop culture, the origins of skateboarding are cloudy. No one knows for sure who developed the first skateboard, but all signs seem to point to the late '40s and early '50s when California's surfers wanted something to surf while the waves were flat. One early account involves a young man named Jack who noticed kids in La Jolla using a Flexi Flyer, a wooden sled equipped with wheels, in creative ways. These kids would lie on their stomachs and perform corkscrew-like tricks down Mount Soledad's drainage pipes before flying out onto the beach below. Jack and his peers, taking this idea a step further, decided to ride the board with their feet birthing a primitive version of the skateboard we all know and love today.
However, since the concept was as fresh as can be, skateboarding’s earliest form hardly resembles what it looks like today. Its earliest adopters went barefoot as they were trying to emulate their surfing exploits, while early maneuvers were done on banked driveways and sloped pavement. The developing sport soon became known as “sidewalk surfing,” an extension of the water sport its earliest innovators sought to recreate on land. Not long after, kids began to take the sport further, adding slanted wedges of wood to the end of the board and performing kickturns by adding weight to the end of the board and turning with the front wheels off the ground. Once these types of changes started to occur, skateboarding began to shed its novelty and started to develop a certain vocabulary of its own.
Companies like Sterling and Native Custom took note of this growing phenomenon and began producing decks made of pressed layers of wood, while trucks made specifically for skateboards were manufactured by companies such as Chicago, Sure Grip, and Leesure Line. With the right equipment in place and a growing population of skaters, pioneers took the sport beyond “sidewalk surfing” and began pulling off tricks like handstands, nose and tail wheelies, and 360s. The Southern California shops at the forefront of this new movement took notice and started holding competitions, among the first of which was sponsored by Makaha's founder, Larry Stevenson, in 1963 and held at the Pier Avenue Junior High School in Hermosa Beach. Just a year later, the inaugural issue of The Quarterly Skateboarder hit newsstands and featured the sport's rising stars. In 1965, the first broadcast of a skateboarding competition, which took place in Anaheim, was aired on ABC's Wide World of Sports, further broadening awareness of the sport. During the competition, only two categories were judged: flatland freestyle and slalom downhill racing.
Around the same time, skaters began dropping in to empty swimming pools and using centrifugal force to create a new “medium within the medium.” As a result, skateboarding was no longer constricted to the natural flow of the landscape around it; it could create its own environment in which to manifest itself, an important development considering present-day skateboarding's knack for exploring and exploiting any and every thing around.
Skateboarding continued to grow at a record speed with people like Patti McGee, one of the sport's first sponsored athletes, traveling the country for skateboarding exhibitions, followed by a Life magazine cover and features on many popular television shows. However, the same magazine that had just featured McGee, Life, published an article titled “Skateboard Mania – A Teeter-Totter on Wheels is a New Fad and Menace.” The perception of skateboarding slowly began to change, and both the culture and industry suffered as a result. Makaha, for instance, sold $4 million worth of boards between 1963 and 1965, but by the following year, sales dropped drastically. Publication of The Quarterly Skateboarder came to a halt and shops became reluctant to sell what in many peoples' eyes was a contraption designed solely for causing injuries.
Bad publicity wasn't the only cause for skateboarding's crash, however. The technological breakthroughs that once allowed skaters to explore their creative side were now far and few between. This, in combination with the bad publicity and a growing number of injuries, caused skateboards to sit on store shelves or in garages gathering dust. By the mid-1960s, it seemed the sport was doomed to fade away into obscurity like any run-of-the-mill trend. After all, the youth of America were notorious for hopping on one bandwagon after another and favoring quantity and hype over substance and subtlety. Thankfully, the most devoted among skateboarding's quickly diminishing population stuck to it and led the sport into the next era. Stay tuned for the next installment in our ongoing series “A Brief History of Skateboarding.”