Harmon’s Histories: ‘immoral practice’ of croquet corrupt early Montanans

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news station, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

The game has been around for over a century and is popular with all ages, from kids to grandparents.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’ve certainly played this game in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but you probably weren’t aware of its past reputation as an unsavory game, one that has been associated with gambling, drinking, and flirting. .

There were reports that it was literally “forbidden in Boston” at the turn of the century, calling for both “clergy and laity to suppress the immoral practice.”

What was this ‘immoral practice’, this evil game?

Croquette!

According to the Croquet Foundation of America (yes, there is such a group) the game dates back to France in the 13th century.

Another article, this in the Helena Weekly Herald, traced the game’s history more specifically to “a French doctor named Guyard who invented it to amuse his patients. He lived in Pau, a well-known watering hole in the south of France. From Pau it was carried to England by the English visitors.” and from England it came here (to America).”

CROQUET COURT, HELENA WEEKLY HERALD, 8/8/1887

In the 1850s, when the game became popular in Ireland and later England, it was referred to as ‘crooky’.

Victorian-era women would have especially enjoyed the game, as it gave them freedom from their attendants!

In 1884 the Fort Benton River Press newspaper noted, “Mrs. Epperson has hosted a string of croquet parties. She owns the only croquet set on Belt Creek.”

Croquet also influenced the fashion world.

The Helena Independent noted the popularity of the “croquet dress”. It described it as longer than a tennis dress but shorter than a garden party dress, concluding that the outfit was designed for women “to look beautiful and occasionally do very little.”

CROQUET PARTY DRESS, Helena Herald, 9-8-1887

The game became immensely popular in the US in the late 1800s. As a courtesy to its readers, the New Northwest newspaper in Deer Lodge tried to explain the game as simply as possible: “The apparent object of the game is to roll a striped ball against a speckled stick.”

But the paper also put the game in perspective, noting its rocky history and warning of the dark side.

“It is truly the most reprehensible violation of the Golden Rule that any Christian community will encounter. If you commit to playing it by ‘doing to others as you would have them do to you’, you will be beaten every match!’

Some “sacrilegious sinners” had even come to call it “Presbyterian billiards.”

The unknown author of this article claimed in a rather twisted sentence: “This view of croquet is the result of serious study, and has probably not occurred to those who, perhaps thoughtlessly, have taken part in it, but with a sincere desire to see that it becomes popular, we have seen to show that it is bad!”

In Missoula in 1878, a local newspaper echoed that thought: “The festive croquetball has come again, and the beautiful damsel is gnashing her white teeth again.”

Helena Herald 9/8/1887

Those kinds of views had their effect. The game declined in popularity until the post-war years of the late 1940s and 1950s, when croquet was reintroduced as a lawn game for children.

The Denver Croquet Club notes in its history of the game that manufacturers started making smaller, cheaper sets”with simplified rules.” The “informal backyard version of 9 wickets, 2 stakes croquet was usually played by the house rules on bumpy lawns.”

But it also notes that the current “competitive version of croquet – played with 6 wickets and 1 stake – is experiencing dramatic growth. Because croquet is played by men and women of all ages, it has become a very social game. There are only divisions between skill levels, so competition is available for both beginners and seasoned players.

Still, there are those bad but satisfying childhood memories—memories of knocking a competitor’s ball across the lawn into the neighbor’s hedge.

Dirty game!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news station, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes from Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.

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