The 1500’s: an early woodcut heralds ski cartooning

The 1500’s: an early woodcut heralds ski cartooning

Authored by Morten Lund

The history of ski cartooning shows it pointedly reflecting the skiing spirit of its time. Often it remains as the only graphic record available of the ordinary skier’s experience—the frustration at the difficulties, anxiety at the risk and delight in the speed.

This Skiing Heritage Special demonstrates that point. It is a selection of ski cartoons drawn from the paintings, prints and illustrations from the world’s largest resource of its kind, the Beekley Collection of International Skiing Art and Skiing Literature.
The collection is housed at SkiAerie, a library and art gallery in New Hartford, Connecticut, at the home of Mason Beekley, the president of the International Skiing History Association. 

Briefly, the utilitarian kind of skiing—transport, military and hunting—goes back at least to 2000 BC. The first known hint of ski humor comes centuries later, in 1500 AD, a time when skiing was still stuck in its own dark ages, carried on by far northern tribes, the only people using skis at all. In an old woodcut illustrating war between these tribes comes the first hint of ski cartooning. 
The woodcut shows “glacial war” and appears in the first edition of Olaus Magnus’ famous travel book, “Historia,” first published in 1555 in Latin. It was followed by three more editions: one in Latin, one in Italian, and one in English. This last was published in 1658, a full century after the first—SkiAerie’s library is unique in that it has all four. The woodcut shows nobles riding in a sled (large figures) from one of those remote northern tribes known generically as Finns. The sled is drawn by a reindeer. Two allied foot-soldiers (small figures at right) have short, broad skis and spears that double as ski poles. They thrust the pole between their legs to propel themselves, and dig the sharp end into the snow to brake. 

The third foot-soldier (center) is using his pole-spear to threaten the first two. The fourth soldier (right) is shown bowled over by the reindeer. One ski has been knocked off, and the other is waving in the air. This is the first skiing fall in the historical record, a tumbling figure guaranteed to elicit a smile that qualifies the woodcut as a forerunner of ski cartoons to come