THE GAME of croquet, which arrived here from England during the Civil War and swept the country like a plague, is unique in the history of American sports. It is the first outdoor game played by women, the first played by both sexes. Victorian ladies, hampered by multi-layered petticoats as well as by the prim proprieties of the era, were barred from such manly sports as baseball or cricket, although an occasional hoyden would try her hand at the English game. "Ladies have been known to play at cricket, but with doubtful success," frowned Harper's Weekly in 1871, and added that "their batting and running are dreadfully embarrassed by their petticoats, and few of them have the nerve to stand the approach of a swift ball."
In croquet there were no swift balls. The pace was slow, the atmosphere genteel and the new pastime soon became a "courting game" which afforded, as Harper's Weekly noted, "the most delightful opportunities for flirtations...and perhaps this is just what makes it so popular with the frequenters of summer resorts."
Its popularity was not limited to summer resorts, however. When the craze was at its height for some 20 years following the Civil War, no home was complete without its croquet lawn, a mark of social distinction comparable to the Hollywood swimming pool today. So widespread did the game become that it caused Captain Mayne Reid, author of Croquet (1869), to grieve: "Croquet has lost much of its aristocratic exclusiveness."
The captain's playing rules were basically the same as today's: driving the ball through a series of hoops from the starting peg and back. Croquetting, i.e., sending off the opponent's ball, was then, as now, the game's most devastating maneuver.
The Park Place Croquet Club of Brooklyn, organized in 1864, was the country's first croquet club. As dozens more came into being so did manufacturers of croquet sets. At first the equipment had no uniformity and the rules enclosed with each set varied according to the ideas of the different firms.
A big step toward standardization of rules and equipment was made when the National Croquet Association was formed in 1882 at Norwich, Conn., where the first national tournament was held that year. A few years later scientific croquet emerged under the name of roque, literally the heart of croquet: c(roque)t. Completely standardized and requiring skill and strategy, roque has little resemblance to the Victorian courting game which first took women out of doors to participate in sports with men.
"THE ACCOMPANYING ILLUSTRATION will please everybody who takes any enjoyment in the game," said Harper's Weekly of this 1871 "The workmen have come out...to mow the lawn into perfect smoothness, and make it as even as we trust the paths of the players may be through life."
THE EARLY RULES required a player to place a clip on the wicket he was shooting for. Later, when the croquet craze reached its zenith, candle sockets were fastened to the hoops for night play
AS IT WAS PLAYED in America in the '60s, croquet was a gentle pastime rather than a test of skill. Uneven lawns and poor equipment did not keep it from being the great courting game of the era.
AS IT WAS IMAGINED in England (Punch, Aug. 6, 1864) our croquet players used mallets as war clubs and stroked 96-pound cannon balls through triumphal arches.