Friday, September 3, 2010

Sticky Wicket: Croquet at Clermont

My introduction to the game of croquet as a child was undoubtedly through Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

“'Get to your places!' shouted the Queen in a voice of thunder, and people began running about in all directions, tumbling up against each other; however, they got settled down in a minute or two, and the game began.”

Okay, okay--so I saw the Walt Disney animated version long before I read the book. But the silliness of watching flamingos knocking around hedgehogs was appealing--and to a child, the devious act of knocking around the other person's hedgehog was even better. A sport where you are encouraged to mess with the other players? Bring it on!

Croquet has a history that dates back as far as the 17th century and appears to have descended from the game "pall mall." Games with similar rules were described throughout the 18th century and early 19th, but the game became fully recognizable during its resurgence in popoularity around the middle of the 19th century.

At Clermont, the first written record I have found of croquet goes back to 1878. Clermont Livingston wrote on April 29th "Moved croquet ground," suggesting that the croquet court had already existed here before that. So it is reasonable to suggest that croquet was being played on our rolling lawns at least as early as the middle of the 1870s and possibly back to the 1860s when it first experienced its resurgence.

But back to that social aspect: Croquet's slow, steady pace made it an acceptable activity for adult ladies at a time when few other outdoor sports really were. Even better, it was appropriate for men and women to play at the same time. Ooh my!
While the whole "separate spheres" idea does get overplayed for the 19th century, it is true that young, unmarried men and women were always on the lookout for ways to spend time together (isn't that true now?). Structured activities gave them an excuse to be together while helping to reassure parents or other society members that the couple was, in fact, not doing anything innapropriate. For example, think of all those lovely romantic walks the characters take in Jane Austen novels. If a one-mile walk takes you an hour to complete, someone's going to get suspicious about what's been going on out there.

So croquet made for a great opportunity to flirt with the oposite sex. Much of the period art depicting croquet focuses on the parties being mixed-sex. An 1860s Harper's Bazaar article even lampooned women's participation in croquet and a number of sports for this reason. Were they really playing because they liked the game, or were they just playing to meet boys? Either way it only sort of mattered since a woman with too much competitive spirit was considered tom-boyish. (Think of Jo in Little Women earnestly challenging Laurie to an ice skating race. This was just one of many proofs that labeled her a late-blooming or failed "lady.")
Just look at the costumes for croquet if you need a little further proof that the game was as much for flirting as anything else. A primarily middle- and upper-class game, appropriate croquet clothes for women were decorative and almost as heavy and restrive as other day clothes. Corsets, bustles, and piles of petticoats allowed them to look fashionable and pretty but not to run around too strenuously. Add in short skirts that showed off those sexy ankles (which were usually only visible for a few lucky moments) and you've got a costume that's perfect for flirting. Of course, the necklines stay high, but let's not go crazy here!

Croquet continued as a backyard passtime into the twentieth century, when it found its most avid Clermont players in Clermont Livingston's granddaughters. Janet and Honoria took up the game in the 1910s and began to play on the mansion's back lawn. This wide, flat area "made an excellent croquet court" according to Honoria, and the two girls played all summer either as a pair or with additional friends.

Honoria's competitive spirit found its greatest outlet in croquet, and when Clermont became a museum and eventually began hosting annual Croquet Tournaments, she was sure to be counted in. In 1983, the first year it took place, she arrived solo for a doubles tournament, and partnered with a young man who also arrived alone. The two were a perfect match and together took first place in the Advanced Division, perhaps the perfect storybook ending to the day.
The Croquet Tournament is still an annual event here at Clermont. In 2010, in its 28th year, the tournament will take place on September 18th and 19th, the conintuation of a tradition going back through three generations of Livingstons.


  1. Excellent post. I like very much the way that you highlight these fabric-of-life topics.

    In the photo of the girls playing croquet, five are in white, and one is in black. I wonder if that signifies anything, her family was in mourning, or something.

    1. I know almost nothing about the circumstances of this photo unfortunately. I had always assumed that, as an informal gathering, the little girl's dress was just a fashion choice. It seems possible that she is in mourning, but I would want to know who her family was and more closely examine 1920s mourning customs before making that assessment.

    2. Also, don't forget that because of the nature of the ways colors read on black and white film, her dress might not be black at all, but even a bright color!