Sports History: Croquet, Archery and lawn tennis

Croquet had in the meantime performed the miracle of getting both men and women out-of-doors for an activity they could enjoy together. The first of the post-war games to be introduced from England, it reached an even broader public than baseball. Croquet was more than a game; it was a social function. Contemporary writers were soon pointing out what an unmixed blessing it was for the American damsel, and warning bachelors to beware.

" 'Charming' is the universal exclamation of all who play or who watch the playing of Croquet . . . ," an early rules book stated. "Hitherto, while men and boys have had their healthy means of recreation in the open air, the women and girls have been restricted to the less exhilarating sports of indoor life. . . . Grace in holding and using the mallet, easy and pleasing attitudes in playing, promptness in taking your turn, and gentlemanly and ladylike manners generally throughout the game, are points which it is unnecessary for us to enlarge on. . . . Young ladies are proverbially fond of cheating at this game; but they only do so because they think that men like it."

George Makepeace Towle had an idyllic picture of people playing croquet: "The sunshine glimmering through the branches -- the soft velvety grass -- the cool, pure country air -- the quiet broken only by the twittering of the birds, and now and then a passing footstep." Only occasionally did some controversial issue arise to mar the sweet felicity of the croquet court. There was the problem of "spooning." This was not a mode of behavior, but the practice of hitting the croquet-ball by what is now called the pendulum stroke. Obviously women in hooped-skirts were at a disadvantage. The Nation gave its considered opinion: "We agree that spooning is perfectly fair in a match of gentlemen, but it is decidedly ungenerous when played with ladies, unless those ladies are bloomers."

Croquet was by no means confined to the fashionable lawns of the effete East, however. It went west with the homesteaders. Many accounts tell of its popularity in the small towns of the prairie states. So great was the vogue in the 1870's that manufacturers put out playing sets with candle-sockets on the wickets for night playing.

Archery and lawn tennis, the former the revival of an old sport and the latter newly introduced from England about 1874, had also been taken up widely by this time. They too were sports, gentle and genteel, which could be played by both sexes. "The contestants were ladies and gentlemen from the cultured circles of society," Harper's Weekly reported of an archery tournament in the White Stocking Park at Chicago in 1879, "and while the rivalry among the shooters was keen to the last degree, an air of such refinement and courteous dignity as is not often witnessed by observers of public games characterized every one connected with the contest." riting on tennis in 1881, the magazine Outing, whose establishment reflected the rising interest in sports, assured its feminine readers that this was far too refined a game to offer any attractions for the lower orders of society. A lady who took part in a tennis match would find herself "in the company of persons in whose society she is accustomed to move."

At this stage of its development, lawn tennis as played in the United States did not involve hard, overhand serves, back-court drives, or smashes at the net. Women players suffered only the slightest handicap in having to hold up the trains of their long, dragging skirts; they were not expected actually to run for the ball. It was patted gently back and forth over a high net stretched across any level space of lawn. Competition gradually led to changed methods of play, and with the organization of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (there were forty member clubs in 1883) and the institution of annual tournaments at Newport, men began to take the game more seriously. The active features of play that now characterize it were developed. A group of players whose names are still remembered emerged from the ranks -- R. D. Sears, James Dwight, Robert D. Wrenn, William A. Larned, Dwight F. Davis. . . . Finally in 1900 the establishment of the International Davis Cup matches definitely marked the transformation of tennis from a pastime to a sport.

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