Young roller skater in Calcutta

If only we knew her story!  Alas, she isn’t identified.  Her carte-de-visite was made by John Bowles Newman, whose studio was at 5, Old Court House Street, Calcutta (Kolkata).  The only information I found online about Mr. Newman was that he filed a petition of insolvency in 1879.  It always makes me sad to read about early photographers who couldn’t make a go of it.  At least his petition tells us that the photo was taken no later than 1879.

Roller skater in Calcutta 3


Our young skater’s pose conveys confidence.  And she’s dressed for speed!  Her outfit actually looks comfortable and relatively unrestrictive, at least compared to the long skirts that adult women would probably have had to wear.  I should note that her face has some marks on it which I removed digitally (the first time I’ve tried to do such a thing).  You can see the marks on her chin in the scan below.

Roller skater in Calcutta 2



57 thoughts on “Young roller skater in Calcutta

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    1. She does look fast! Maybe it’s the fancy boots. 🙂

      I found one other reference to a J.B. Newman in Madras in the 1880s, so he may have started over there. According to a baptismal record on Ancestry, he was born in England in 1843, but I didn’t find any record of him ever returning.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. An interesting photo.

    You wonder why, if she is in Calcutta, her coat is trimmed with fur and has a collar fit for the cold of a temperate climate. And is her coat made of leather? That soft suede leather? In Calcutta?

    And the roller skates. Didn’t they evolve originally for skating on ice? Still today on ice.

    It makes you think that this is the daughter of a family which was living in the city for trade or diplomacy; but was from a temperate part of the world. England perhaps, of course. But equally perhaps Russia etc. because Calcutta was a great entrepot throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries of everybody and everybody.

    Perhaps this photo was taken to mark the occasion of a birthday or to send home, wherever in the icy world that was?

    It could have been a theatrical get-up, also. Snow White. Played for an expatriate audience in Calcutta.

    It is mysterious, for sure! Sarah

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You make excellent points, Sarah. Maybe roller skating was a winter activity in Calcutta? Still, that wouldn’t explain why her outfit is so fancy. It really looks like a costume, but for what? Theater on skates? I’ll have to look into that! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The answer is complicated. For the past year or two I’ve been buying more photos from the UK than anywhere else. That may simply reflect my interests, or it may also reflect the quirks of the eBay market. For instance, many photo dealers in the US have thousands of photos for sale. I don’t look at them because it would take too long, and I might find one photo in 500 that I’d want to buy. Most UK dealers, with a few exceptions, list no more than 100-150 at a time, which is more manageable. But that doesn’t tell you why I find them more interesting. That’s harder to explain!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps Mr Newman would have been more successful had he brought more interest to his pictures by posing his clients in front of something more colorful then what looks like a painters tarp.:)


    1. Plain backdrops were common in the early days (1860s and earlier). After that they don’t show up as much, so you’re right that it’s unusual to see one in the late 1870s. I think it was intentional here, because the girl’s outfit is so fancy. I think Newman didn’t want to distract from it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. She also looks a little defiant. She may have been making a statement about dress codes and choice of entertainment. Roller skating went in and out of fashion depending on whether more conservative values prevailed. The jacket may have been velvet and therefore somewhat cooler. She could have been a dancing skater! Her skates themselves are interesting, being the strap on kind as opposed to the one piece. That might be a clue. The hat and jacket suggest perhaps a specific ethnicity? I can’t pinpoint it however, not that it matters; it would be interesting to know all the countries represented as ambassadors, etc. Always intriguing photos!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A dancing skater makes a lot of sense! That would explain her costume. I read that roller skating took off in the US in the 1880s. It must have caught on around the world. Besides cultural values, waves of popularity tended to correspond with improvements in skate design. It’s an interesting subject because it was an athletic activity which women could participate in equally with men (or without them!).

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  4. I love her air of insouciance! And she knows how to stand on skates. It’s interesting that they’re clamp on. That’s the kind I had, and I still have the key. Speaking of which, I can’t believe no one posted this. I have a feeling that your mysterious girl would enjoy skating to it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This photo is very interesting! The girl has a figure and posture of a gymnast, ballerina or dancer. I see the eyebrows drawn in pencil. Was it fashionable at the time? The wheels of the rollers are made of rubber or wood? So many questios)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree completely about her figure! Regarding her eyebrows: good observation! Newman must have thought they needed to be darker. Photographers often made small “additions” or corrections (in their opinion), usually adding hair on the head or pupils in the eyes. I usually dislike these additions, but in this case the eyebrow mark doesn’t bother me.

      Good question about the wheels! I really don’t know the answer.


  6. She’s wonderful! Full of confidence and determination, ready to face the world :). I could be very wrong, but her lovely frock seems far too thin to me to be of any use in truly cold weather. As she is in Calcutta, I imagine it could be a lovely red silk with the white edges being more charming than warming. And those lovely white ruffled petticoats peeking out from underneath….I can just see them blowing in the wind she herself creates by her skating. They would catch the breeze and cool her and create a stunning effect to watch! I only wish I could see her dancing about on wheels! A young woman who’s going places…and fast! 😊🌟

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s a wonderful photo. If it was taken in India then it’s possible it was a souvenir to be sent home, to Britain (or another country). My thought is it was for Christmas – to be used as a Christmas card, but that’s just a guess.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful! I’ve just found a box of childhood pics and mementos, taking me back to my teenage years when roller skating was a big part of my self-independence. We moved from the beach in Malibu to West Los Angeles when I was in the 6th grade, where we lived through my high school years. And being close to Westwood Village and UCLA, I would don my skates a fly up that way frequently. I’m sure there are still memories from those who saw my youthful form float past their work places, or dodging hand-holding couples on their date nights out . . . Great stuff for an active kid to do :)) Dawn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those memories of youthful freedom sound truly lovely, Dawn. While reading your lyrical post earlier today, I noticed that you mentioned roller skating! You write beautifully about your experiences, and the references to Puff the Magic Dragon were touching. I never roller skated, but I found freedom and adventure by exploring the woods and fields around the family home in rural Virginia. High school is sort of a blur of angst and school work, but the middle school years seem kind of idyllic in retrospect. I hope you’ll share more memories on your blog! 💜 Brad

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great, Brad. I so enjoy your collection of old photos — good on you for posting and sharing them with us all :)) I’m sure you got up close and personal with Nature in all her forms during your childhood explorations, which helped develop your hobby of appreciating what’s gone before. So many wonders exist just outside our door! On roller skating, in about 5th grade, I remember skating from my childhood friend’s dad’s flat all the way to the beach in Santa Monica — four miles along the sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard! We were so exhausted afterwards, we “wimped out” and took the bus back :)) :)) Take good care! Dawn

        Liked by 1 person

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