The history of skateboarding spans several decades. Though the earliest origins of skateboards and skateboarding are not exactly precise, their popularity in the present day is undoubted. Since skateboarding’s mass inception in the 1950s, it has become a popular pastime, a professional sport, a cultural phenomenon, and was even scheduled to debut at the 2020 Olympics. But what exactly is the history of an activity that by all accounts appears to have originated from nothing more than a few rollerskating wheels attached to a board? Well, let’s get rolling. Here is a detailed breakdown of the history of skateboarding.
A skateboard, in its modern form, consists of four wheels, two trucks (the skateboarding equivalent of axles), and one deck. This was not always the case at the start of the history of skateboarding when early skateboard-like equivalents could arguably be found in children’s toys. The Kne-Koster (patented 1925) was a wooden board with four wheels designed for downhill rides, while the Flexy Racer was a somewhat larger 1930s four-wheeled board with steering handles on the front. Despite their outward appearances, however, both of these boards lacked the characteristic trucks of skateboards (as well as being generally larger in size). They also were designed to have their riders either sit or lie down on their stomachs – not exactly the classic standing stance of a skateboarder.
As the 1940s came around, wheeled boards took the form of kick scooters. In 1945 a scooter named the Skeeter Skate boasted four large wheels, an aluminum board, a removable scooter handle, and actual trucks that allowed riders to turn. The Skeeter Skate, along with its 1930s predecessor the Scooter Skate, were examples of convertible kick scooters that could achieve skateboard-like forms. Manufactured kick scooters, however, were not the only boards that approached what would look like modern skateboards. By the late 1940s, children were fashioning orange crate scooters out of wooden boards and roller skate (or perhaps caster) wheels. These creations resembled skateboards – and paralleled the creation of early 1950s roller skate/ wooden boards, ones popularly associated with skateboarding’s more recognized lineage. It was definitely in the post-war period when Hawaiian and Pacific culture (including surfing) took root in the American consciousness. Returning World War II veterans brought back Hawaiian and Polynesian cultural traditions to states like California, and soon after, Malibu became a surfing hub. It was in this Southern California culture that surfers were believed to use “rollerskate boards” to pass the time while surf waves were low. Indeed, an early term referring to skateboarding was “sidewalk surfing.” According to some sources, in 1958 a man named Bill Richards began selling wooden boards fastened with roller skates in his Dana Point, California surf shop. Richards then had a business arrangement with the Chicago Roller Skate Company to produce clay-wheeled skateboards. Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s (this is disputed), the Roller Derby Skate Corporation released the first mass-produced “Roller Derby” skateboard – a simple board, with a slightly pointed head and roller skate wheels.
The early 1960s saw companies like Jack’s Surf Shop, Hobie, Humco, and Mahaka mass-produce and sell skateboards on a national scale. Larry Stevenson, the founder of Makaha, also eventually patented the skateboard kicktail. This was the upwardly-slanted end of the skateboard that allowed flips and tricks to be performed. With magazines (like the Quarterly Skateboarder, published by John Severson), television spots (like on a 1964 episode of “Surf’s Up”) and popular songs (like 1964’s “Sidewalk Surfin” by Jan and Dean) skateboarding reached new heights of popularity. Skateboarding also started to take hold as a sport: in 1965, the American Skateboarding Championship was broadcast nationally from Anaheim, California. The skateboarding explosion would start to wane by 1966. Because of poor construction (with wheels made of clay or steel), skateboards would often fall apart easily. Related injuries would become prevalent and cities also banned skateboarding on sidewalks and public places.
By the early 1970s, skateboarding seemed like an extinct fad. But its technology would be revived by one Frank Nasworthy, who in 1970 was allowed to experiment with recently rejected urethane roller skating wheels from a Virginia plastics factory named Creative Urethanes. Along with his friend Bill Harward, Nasworthy replaced his Hobie board wheels with the new plastics and tested them out in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter, Nasworthy and Harward traveled to Southern California for a surfing trip and ended up residing in the San Diego-adjacent town of Encinitas. Nasworthy designed and ordered more plastic wheels from Creative Urethanes, and in 1973, his Cadillac Wheels arrived. By 1974, the wheels had taken off locally, and skateboarders would soon be able to skate in concrete ditches, empty pools, on pipes, and places beyond the sidewalks and streets. Thus the second wave of skateboarding (1973 – 1980) would begin. The Zephyr Boys were an extremely influential skateboarding team from Venice Beach and Santa Monica, California, colloquially referred to as “Dogtown.” Comprised of legendary skaters like Nathan Pratt, Stacey Peralta, Allen Sarlo, Chris Cahill, Jay Adams, Peggy Oki, and Tony Alva, to name a few, the Z-Boys represented the Jeff Ho and Zephyr Surfboard Productions surfing shop. Some of the team were former competitive surfers; and the Z-Boys would show their surfing-inspired skateboarding skills at the 1975 Del Mar Nationals. This was the first large-scale skateboarding competition since the 1960s, and the Z-Boys didn’t disappoint. Skateboarder magazine (formerly Quarterly Skateboarder) relaunched in 1975 and featured the Z-Boys in “Dogtown Articles.” The popularity and fame of the Z-Boys contributed to the existing team’s dissolution, with many members moving on to other ventures.
The early 1980s saw a second decline in skateboarding. Since the late 1970s, commercial skate parks and half-pipes were being demolished due to economic slowdowns and the ever-increasing cost of insurance. However, skateboarding publications like Thrasher Magazine, Transworld, and R.A.D. (in the UK) would continue to publicize skateboarding and skater culture. The once-uncommon freestyle, long jump, slalom, and vertical (or vert) skating techniques — the latter of which involves performing tricks in mid-air — were something the early 1980s slowdown could not contain. Professional skaters like Rodney Mullen, Mark Gonzales, Mike Vallely, and Christian Hosoi would innovate and develop tricks like the flat-ground ollie, the Christ Air, the heel-flip, the Darkslide, the kick-flip, the Rocket Air, and the 360-flip throughout the 80s, inspiring professional and amateur skaters worldwide.
The 1990s saw the rise of street skateboarding – an urban-centered form of skateboarding that took professional tricks and applied them to curbs, stair railings, gutters, and garbage cans. This style of skating was pioneered by former professionals Rodney Mullen and Steve Rocco, who built a successful company around it. Technology-wise, the 1990s solidified the 7-ply maple wood deck construction and popsicle deck shape. Professional skaters like Tony Hawk and Danny Way continued to innovate, the former landing a 900 (a 2-and-one-half time turn up a vertical halfpipe) in 1999 and the latter winning “High Air” gold at ESPN’s inaugural X Games in 1995.
By the 2000s the rough paths blazed by figures like Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk – in both street skating and professional areas – were worn once again by skaters like Daewon Song, Bob Burnquist, Elissa Steamer, and Paul Rodriguez Jr. This time, competition between older skaters and the new generation was clear, as evidenced by Daewon Song’s and Rodney Mullen’s intense (but friendly ) series of competition videos in the early 2000s. In addition to this, Danny Way jumped the Great Wall of China in 2005. The X Games in themselves were indicative of professional skateboarding’s place in popular culture, debuting in 1995 and expanding in popularity over the next fifteen years. This was also the time of a highly-rated popular Tony Hawk video game and a large-budget Hollywood movie based on the Z-Boys. Skateboarding was now a business bigger than its most innovative skaters, of whose culture, in some ways, was built around anti-establishment attitudes.
The 2010s brought a new skateboard design called the Penny Board to prominence, especially in countries with warmer climates. The Penny Board is a short, lightweight plastic vinyl board designed primarily for transportation. It is also often used while barefoot. Like innovative skateboarding technologies before it, the Penny Board reflected a need for greater ease and casual use among skaters. In professional skateboarding, Nyjah Huston has dominated World Skating Championships and Summer X Games. Other notable professional skaters of this era include Sean Malto, Pedro Barros, and Leticia Bufoni.
Skateboarding was scheduled to debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with competitions in street and park skateboarding categories. Although some professionals have expressed support, they also have expressed some uncertainty towards structured competition at the Olympic level.