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Original Issue


Hampered though they were by clothes and mores, Victorian women made a place for themselves in sports after a ringing denunciation of U.S. youth by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Much as today's critics rage about the sad state of American muscles, Oliver Wendell Holmes fumed during the 1850s. Said he: "Such a set of black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from the loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage." Physical-fitness-conscious males of the day promptly answered the challenge by making skating and rowing the vogue.

The ladies, too, rose to the occasion—within the limitations of the day. After the Civil War some of the more courageous women had formed clubs dedicated to sports.

By 1877 when the women of New Brighton, Staten Island, New York, organized their Ladies Club for Outdoor Sports (shown working out above), archery, lawn tennis and croquet were popular with women as well as men. There were so many ardent archers that bow and arrow clubs in the U.S. numbered in the hundreds. Part of the sport's appeal was undoubtedly due to a series of articles written in 1877-78 by the famous archer Maurice Thompson for Harper's Weekly Journal of Civilization.

Croquet, one of the other "feats of skill, nerve and patience" the ladies indulged in, was looked upon as a daring escape from the indoor life to which women had previously been restricted. But they were warned, in a book on how to play the game, to remember that they were still ladies and must practice "grace in holding and using the mallet." Cheating by female croqueteers was benevolently overlooked since "they only do so because they think that men may like it."

That women could participate in any outdoor sport while shackled with voluminous skirts and bone corsets is something of a tribute to their ingenuity and perseverance. Most remarkable, perhaps, was the fact that despite the hindrances of their apparel, some of those shown above managed to play a genteel form of mixed doubles lawn tennis. Tennis had been brought back to the U.S. from Bermuda by vacationing Miss Mary Ewing Outerbridge, whose family belonged to the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club, site of the Ladies Club's vigorous activities.

Every Friday in good weather, starting with the club's first season in 1877, the ladies took over the Cricket Club grounds at Camp Washington, near Tompkinsville Landing, to play match games. On other days they were permitted to practice for their Friday sessions.