The dangerous game of croquet

Croquet arrived in the US from England during the Civil War. It immediately became hugely popular and was hailed as a genteel, sophisticated activity suitable for groups of different ages and genders. But, as historian Jon Sterngass writes, for some critics it posed a danger to female morality.

Today, we might expect criticism of croquet to be along the lines of Mark Twain, who called the game “unspeakably tasteless.” But Sterngass writes that many observers were alarmed by the way women shortened their dresses to make play more comfortable, and the way young people seized the mixed sport as an opportunity to flirt. One magazine described the game as a “fountain of dormant depravity, a veritable Frankenstein monster of recreation” and suggested that “it would be good if the enthusiasm of clergy and laity were engaged to suppress the immoral practice of croquet.”

Croquet apparently had the potential to arouse not only lust, but the other deadly sins of anger and envy. Milton Bradley’s proprietary croquet set came with this advice to beginners: “Keep your temper and remember when it’s your turn.” The International Herald Tribune reported that at a divorce hearing, a woman testified that her husband refused to talk to her for days after questioning whether his ball really went through the ring. The judge replied, “I don’t think there is a game as sensitive to humor as croquet.”

Sterngass writes that the combination of co-ed play and intense competition challenged Victorian ideas about benevolent, moral femininity. The game’s popularity also challenged male superiority in competitive endeavors. It seems that women often beat their male companions and were often accused – rightly or wrongly – of cheating. Men complained about women using illegal techniques such as the “push shot,” or even using their dresses to hide the ball as they shuffled it across the lawn. An 1865 croquet manual lamented, “We are aware that young ladies proverbially love to cheat at this game; but because they only do it because ‘it’s so nice’ and also because they think men like it…” Sterngass notes that comments like this don’t really explain their behavior, as female players were well aware that men would cheat on women didn’t appreciate it because they constantly complained about it.

A more shocking violation of Victorian decency came from a variation of the game called ‘tight croquet’, in which players could place their ball next to their opponent’s, put their foot on their own ball and hammer it over. fly the other ball. The titillating overtones were teased in the caption of a Punch cartoon featuring a woman who showed a little ankle while performing the maneuver: “She fixed her eyes on his and placed her pretty little foot on the ball, saying: “Now then, I’m going to croquet you!” and croquet he was all over.”


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By: Jon Sterngass

Journal of Sports History, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Fall 1998), pp. 398-418

University of Illinois Press

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