“National Pastime” or “Flash-in-the-Pan”: Snow Skiing in the United States

In a 2014 double issue of The International Journal of the History of Sport, sport historians illustrated ways that various sports in the United States have been, are, and could be considered “national pastimes.” Baseball, American football, basketball, boxing, hunting, and horse racing all received scholarly scrutiny as to the sports’ potential status as national pastimes. As historian Mark Dyreson details, national pastimes are sports that generate money, but they also “play central roles in the construction of identities, local, regional, and global, but particularly national.” Moreover, “modern nations have used pastimes to animate patriotism and define the duties of citizenship,” while “participation in or resistance to national pastimes reveals the gender, racial, ethnic, and class dynamics of modern societies.” National pastimes both “reinforce and . . . remake social and political boundaries” and, in the United States, they “have even invaded the constitutional debates over the rights of labour and the power of ownership, as well as in questions of the rights of equal access to pastimes regardless of gender, race, previous condition of servitude, or national origin.”[1] Because of the cultural, economic, and legal dominance of these sports, many consider them to be national pastimes in U.S. society.

Many other sports—including ice yachting, ultimate Frisbee, air racing, field hockey, lacrosse—have not made it to the top of the American sport hierarchy, instead considered “fads” or “flashes-in-the-pans,” or they are constrained by region.[2] Snow skiing in the United States represents one of these activities.

Outdoor winter sports present a conundrum for the definition of a national pastime. Limited by climate and geography, high-quality outdoor winter sports are only available to certain areas of the United States. Many winter sports have also long been middle- to upper-class social activities—a pattern that continues as equipment prices escalate and resort fees skyrocket.  As a spectator sport, skiing has never approached national pastime status in the United States.  While alpine ski racing might be the national pastime of Austria, and Nordic ski racing might be the national pastime of Norway and Sweden, American audiences rarely pay attention to any form of ski racing outside Olympic skiing.  Nevertheless, recreational snow skiing represents a popular activity for citizens in the Northeast, the Rocky Mountain West, and the Pacific Coast, as well as for affluent tourists traveling on ski vacations. Nevertheless, ski industry promoters have voiced aspirations on numerous occasions throughout the twentieth century to move their business toward national pastime status.

Skiing can be traced back millennia. As the historian of skiing E. John B. Allen describes, in his book The Culture and Sport of Skiing: From Antiquity to World War II:

Skiing as we know it today has utilitarian origins dating back six thousand years, which gives it one of the longest histories of any sport. Prehistoric rock carvings in northern Norway and Russia depict skis as necessary for survival in lands that were covered for much of the year in snow.[3]

Skiing’s North American origins—as many other sports and recreational activities—rest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Skiing first appeared on the continent when, according to skiing historian John Fry, in his book The Story of Modern Skiing, Siberian fur traders used skis to “cover their Alaskan trap lines.”[4] Skiing evolved in the second half of the nineteenth century when Nordic immigrants, working as postal workers, delivered mail across the cold Sierra Nevada Mountains and into California mining settlements.[5] Also called “Norwegian snowshoeing,” skiing spread rapidly in the Colorado region following the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush that brought many Scandinavian Midwesterners to the area.[6] In its earliest years, skiing developed into an integral aspect of the Rocky Mountain economy.

However, the importance of skiing to the U.S. marketplace quickly declined with advancements of railroad technology and the stock market crash of 1893, leaving the activity to grow mainly as a recreational sport.[7] Skiing became popular as local residents of old mining towns—both men and women—formed ski groups during the Rocky Mountain winters.

Skiers at Snoqualmie Pass, Washington (1938). Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives (Wikimedia Commons).

Skiers at Snoqualmie Pass, Washington (1938). Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives (Wikimedia Commons).

Colorado ski historian Annie Gilbert Coleman, in her book Ski Style: Sport and Culture in Rockies, explains that by the 1920s, “Coloradoans had organized myriad local clubs, competitions, and spectacular events designed to draw skiers to the sport and to their communities.”[8] Skiing also expanded across the country. Ski clubs opened in Midwestern states such as Michigan and Minnesota. By the 1930s, skiing developed into a commercial industry as “ski resorts,” modeled off of famous European ski areas, emerged in New Hampshire and Vermont as well as in the Rocky Mountain region.[9]

During the 1930s and 1940s, the sport faded in and out of national pastime status. While writing about a national ski exhibition at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, a New York Times correspondent explained in 1936 that skiing had “arrived” and that it would “doubtlessly . . . continue as the national pastime in the snow zone.”[10] Three years later, the arrival of the famous St. Anton (a ski resort in Austria) ski instructor Hannes Schneider in the United States persuaded a New York Times journalist to declare that the “prospects for a new national pastime are bright.”[11] The sport had clearly blossomed not just as a popular winter activity, but as a prosperous entrepreneurial industry. The Chicago Tribune reported in 1939 that the business of skis and snowshoes “swelled from a $417,155 business in 1936 to a $1,236,585 enterprise in 1937.”[12] The reporter for the New York Times declared in 1940 that “[i]t was not so long ago that the word ski was foreign to the American ear”. He continued that “[t]oday it is a national pastime.”[13]

Sugar Bowl Ski Lodge, Sierra Nevada Mountains (1939). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sugar Bowl Ski Lodge, Sierra Nevada Mountains (1939). Courtesy of Sugar Bowl Lodge (Wikimedia Commons).

Geographic limitations, however, continued to limit the “national-ness” of this pastime. Skiing remained a Northeast or Rocky Mountain leisurely pursuit and a majority of resort tourists remained local residents. The peak of skiing’s slow trek to national pastime status developed after World War Two when new and more efficient ways to travel—such as the interstate highway system and faster air travel—allowed skiers to go on resort vacations more frequently. The era of “modern skiing” developed from 1950 to 1972 as new technology enhanced ski equipment, significant international competitions were held in the United States, and hundreds of new ski resorts were established in the postwar era.[14]

Chairlift Near Resort Condos. Aspen, Colorado,  (1974). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Chairlift Near Resort Condos. Aspen, Colorado, (1974). Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Photographer: Ron Hoffman (Wikiemedia Commons).

Yet, social class, gender, sexuality, and racial dynamics constricted the national pastime aspirations of the ski industry. Coleman explains that although ski resorts attracted local residents across all classes, unlike other sports, “outdoor recreation appealed largely to wealthy urbanites who had the time and money to acquire expertise, purchase equipment, travel to the mountains, and practice.”[15] The average skier in 1966, according to the New York Times, was “decidedly above average in education and income. He [sic] is about 30 years old, skis often and constantly enlarges his [sic] wardrobe and ski equipment. In most cases, he [sic] wants quality goods and he [sic] does not care about the cost.”[16] The average skier the industry attracted, according to the paper, was generally male, white, and affluent.

Accordingly, Coleman explains that the “whiteness, wealth, and sex, that characterized skiing’s consumer culture and resort landscape” illuminated the constraints of the sport.[17] Though women had skied consistently throughout the twentieth century, their appearance on the slopes consisted of conventional and generalized notions of white femininity. Women skiers of mid-century were relegated to roles as sex symbols and those that exhibited athletic ability on the slopes were in constant fear of “appearing too masculine for society’s taste.”[18]

Skiiers at Pico Mountain, Vermont (1938). Courtesy of Forest History Society. Photographer: Bluford W. Muir (Wikimedia Commons).

Skiiers at Pico Mountain, Vermont (1938). Courtesy of Forest History Society. Photographer: Bluford W. Muir (Wikimedia Commons).

Furthermore, in the 1970s and 1980s, organizations such as the National Brotherhood of Skiers attempted to bring more minority skiers to the slopes. The group explained that many black Americans wanted to ski, but nearly all skiing advertisement only included white skiers.[19] Moreover, “[g]ay and lesbian skiers,” according to Coleman, “critiqued resort culture’s heterosexual assumptions,” such as having ads that only promoted wives and husbands as skiing couples. In response, skiiers established Gay Ski Week at Aspen, Colorado, in 1977, and the event continued throughout the remainder of the century.[20]

These exclusionary patterns of skiing relate to a larger problem identifying national pastimes. Many pastimes throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were constricted by race, class, sexuality, sex, and gender. As Major League Baseball held out black players until the mid-1900s and nearly all professional sport opportunities for women were stymied throughout the twentieth century, skiing too was a pastime for only the privileged in U.S. culture.

Skiiers boarding chair lift at Aspen, Colorado (1974). Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (Wikimedia Commons).

Skiiers boarding chair lift at Aspen, Colorado (1974). Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Photographer: Ron Hoffman (Wikiemedia Commons).

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, participation dipped as a result of the sport’s growing cost. “Middle-class skiers dropped by the wayside as the cost of lift tickets and the trappings of destination resort culture grew beyond their means,” explains Coleman.[21] Furthermore, other outdoor winter activities lured some skiers to change sports. Cross-country skiing, backpacking, and hiking became a less expensive hobby for those who could not afford alpine skiing’s upper-class mentality. Some ski enthusiasts became weary of the environmental damage done by large ski resorts.[22] A brand new rival, snowboarding, created “a whole new set of mountain and gear consumers.” According to Coleman, some snowboarders believed their new sport was an “explicit rejection of the ski industry.”[23]

Participatory decline, the rise of alternate opportunities in the “snow zone,” and a continuing socioeconomic class divide on the slopes has turned skiing from once a possible “national pastime” to a secondary sport in the United States. All of these factors led to an overall decline in ski participation by the end of the century.[24] In response, ski resort owners have had to change their market-approach in order to remain profitable. For example, ski resorts opened new luxury hotels, new family entertainment centers, and built extravagant condos and homes around the edges of the ski terrain.[25] Some resorts also began to accommodate snowboarders in order to attract a wider audience.[26] No longer do the entrepreneurs of the mountain resorts expound their aspirations of being a “national pastime.”

A New York Times writer explained in 2007 that people in Austria “take their ski racing as seriously as Americans take their baseball.”[27] Americans take skiing seriously; but only Americans who are wealthy, mainly white, local residents in the Northeast or Rocky Mountain West, or affluent holidaymakers.  And even those Americans invested in skiing only take it seriously as a recreational activity and not as a spectator sport. Skiing in the United States represents an American ethos, but only a certain outdoorsy upper-class, and socialite identity participates in the “imagined community” of this culture. Its aspirations as a national pastime—clearly visible in mid-century U.S. society—deteriorated by the turn-of-the twenty-first century into a comfortable vision of niche sport and a popular vacationers’ pastime.

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. Currently, he is the Student Member-at-Large on the Executive Board of the North American Society for Sport History. He can be reached at adl5182@psu.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.


[1] Mark Dyreson, “American National Pastimes: The Genealogy of an Idea,” The International Journal of the History of Sport 31, nos. 1-2 (January 2014): 6-28.

[2] Jaime Schultz,  Dunja Antunovic, Adam Berg, Justine Kaempfer, Andrew D. Linden, Thomas Rorke, Colleen English, and Mark Dyreson, “A Brief Taxonomy of Sports that Were Not Quite American National Pastimes: Fads and Flashes-in-the-Pan, Nationwide and Regional Pastimes, the Pastimes of Other Nations, and Pan-National Pastimes,” The International Journal of the History of Sport 31, nos. 1-2 (January-February 2014): 250-272.

[3] E. John B. Allen, The Culture and Sport of Skiing: From Antiquity to World War II (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 1.

[4] John Fry, The Story of Modern Skiing (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2006), 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Annie Gilbert Coleman, Ski Style: Sport and Culture in the Rockies (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 18.

[7] Ibid., 15, 26. The stock market crash of 1893 and the waning mining industry overhauled the need for skiing in the economy. Coleman explains that there was a “reported 337 business failures and 435 mines closed within a month” in the state.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Blake Harrison, “Tracks across Vermont: Vermont Life and the Landscape of Downhill Skiing, 1946-1970,” Journal of Sport History 28, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 253-270. Harrison explains, for example, that Stowe was “Vermont’s best-known ski destination in the 1930s, and even into the 1950s.”

[10] Frank Elkins, “Major Proportions Attained by Skiing as a Winter Sport,” New York Times, December 18, 1936, p. 36.

[11] “The Ski-Meister,” New York Times, February 16, 1939, Sec. L, p. 16.

[12] “Fair Inference,” Chicago Tribune, January 7, 1939, p. 8.

[13] “Americans on Skis,” New York Times, December, 8 1940, Se. 8E, p. 96.

[14] Fry, The Story of Modern Skiing, ix.

[15] Coleman, Ski Style, 51.

[16] “No Business Like the Snow Business,” New York Times, October 16, 1966, Sec. 12, p. 6.

[17] Coleman, Ski Style, 202.

[18] Ibid. 62-68. Coleman explains that women skiers were portrayed as passive objects of desire. There were, however, many women skiers with great ability. “Resort culture was so focused on fashion, socializing, and romance that women who skied fast and hard during the day could reaffirm their femininity and sexuality in the evenings.” Quotation from page 68.

[19] Ibid. 202.

[20] Ibid. 203.

[21] Ibid. 192.

[22] Ibid. 194. Coleman states that the “environmental consequences of mountain development became an issue for the U.S. Forest Service, ski area companies, and local conversation groups. With new development, it grew more difficult to convince people that they were skiing in a pristine, natural, wild setting, and skiers expressed conflicting desires to be both more adventurous and protected from danger.”

[23] Ibid. 204, 206.

[24] Ibid. 206-207. Coleman states “[t]he average annual increase in skier-visits to Colorado areas in the 1960s was an amazing 20 percent. Growth during the 1970s and 1980s remained significant, though it calmed down after the boom years of pervious decades. During the 1970s, the average growth fell to 14 percent, and for the 1980s, it slowed to 3 percent.”

[25] Meg Lukens Noonan, “Not Just Skiing Anymore,” New York Times, November 16, 1997, sec. TR, p. 13.

[26] Coleman, Ski Style, 212. During the 2000-2001 ski season, Aspen finally allowed snowboarders to ride on its slopes.

[27] Nathaniel Vinton, “Mixing a Spirit of Adventure into World Cup Competition,” New York Times, December 24, 2007, sec. D, p. 4.

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