By Alice Askins, Site Manager at Rose Hill
The game of croquet was wildly popular in the 1860s and early 1870s. It was popular that it figured (in fantasy form) in Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865. The craze began in
soon spread to other English-speaking countries. However, the origin of croquet is cloudy. According to Wikipedia, the game derives from ground billiards, popular in Britain Western Europe since the 14th century, with roots in classical antiquity.
By the late 1870s, croquet had been largely replaced by another fashionable game, tennis. Many of the newly-created croquet clubs, including the All England club at Wimbledon, converted some or all of their lawns into tennis courts. There was a croquet revival in the 1890s, and again between the 1920s and 40s. In the latter period, croquet was a favorite pastime of famous entertainment and literary figures. Harpo Marx, for example, talked about an extreme form of the game in his autobiography. Extreme croquet is still with us – a variation distinguished by adventurous conditions of play.
Backyard croquet has maintained a presence in the United States America for over a hundred and forty years, as the ideal complement of garden parties, family gatherings, outdoor fund-raisers, and picnics. There is a U. S. Croquet Association, and there are several Extreme Croquet groups.
I have not found any references to croquet in
Geneva newspapers from the 1860s, but
in September of 1868, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said, ‘People brag of croquet as a successful new amusement—"It brings
young people together, you know.”’
Bringing young people together, while frowned on by some, was
significant. Croquet was one of the
first outdoor games that men and women played together, and it gave them
opportunities to talk together in relative privacy. The local papers carried several stories and
poems about romance among the wickets – some humorous, some serious. As the Courier
put it in April of 1877, “The proprietors
of croquet grounds are preparing for the spring and summer . . . and many will
be . . . the matches made.” Matches made, as opposed to matches played, is a reference to courtship.
Croquet, though, had its dark side. Women were widely assumed to cheat by moving the balls under their skirts. In 1875, the
printed a fictional story of a devoted married couple who got into a terrible
argument over the game; it ended with the wife telling her husband to shove his
mallet down his throat and choke on it.
The Gazette referred in 1899
to croquet’s “devastating effect on the
temper, its known tendency to break up happy homes and destroy the friendships
of years. . . . the rules are
numerous, and new points are continually coming up, so that interested players
often discuss the rules and dispute the interpretation with as much vehemence
as baseball players in their quarrels with the umpires.” Geneva
As the Daily Times explained it in 1899, “Students of human nature can get a great deal of quiet pleasure out of the game. The honest and dishonest natures will assert themselves, just as surely as in poker. The quarrelsome and peaceful dispositions also show themselves. One cannot always tell on the croquet field whom to marry, but it is not hard to tell whom one should not marry.”
Daily Times tells us in 1873 about the
Moral Discipline of Croquet. “[Croquet] is a severe test of Christian
principle . . . a rare test of character.
We have played with men whose high position warranted us in expecting
the utmost honorableness and fair dealing.
But croquet was too great a strain upon their moral natures – the
weakness of their characters revealed itself.
We remember a college president who could not help stopping his ball in
the most accidental fashion when it was likely to roll too far. We know fair ladies who, in a
closely-contested game, always happen to dislocate their balls with their dress
skirts, who then claim every advantage in replacing them. What shall we say of such people? That their honesty of character will not
stand croquet – will not stand any of the severe tests to which the emulations of
life subject them.” Oswego
Despite the moral pitfalls, people continued to play croquet. Even in the 1880s, when the game is supposed to have been in temporary eclipse, we find an advertisement in the
Advertiser (May 1887) for Winnie’s China
Hall at Geneva 204 Exchange Street
selling croquet sets. It was, after all,
also “a game for all ages, and an
enthusiast of rising eighty may play all day with an amateur of eight.” (Geneva
Gazette August 4, 1899) The definitive word on the subject came early. In 1878 the Courier printed an account of a trip from Geneva
to the Antrim coal mines in - “For a little the Tioga river bears us
company, and then we leave it to ascend the long ridge that lies between us and
Antrim. . . .The country grows rougher .
. . the buildings are rude and unpainted; yet the inhabitants are not
uncivilized. They play croquet.” Tioga