“A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before. Her unlooked-for achievement was the subject of wonder, applause and admiration.”
The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, 1899
The press dubbed her “The New Woman.” But what was life really like for an active American woman at the dawn of the 20th century? Where did she learn about sports and exercise? How was she portrayed by the media? Who taught her to play? And who tried to stop her?
In this collection of articles and illustrations originally published over a century ago, over 100 contributors, including more than 50 women, depict a burgeoning American sports scene and a keen interest in women’s physical fitness. Although the articles are often condescending and sexist by modern standards, they are indicative of their era and provide the social context for the burdensome limitations imposed upon athletic women of that period. The sexist tone is not a revelation—but the enthusiastic participation in sports is.
Today, these women could pursue careers as athletes, coaches, trainers and fitness experts. At the time, however, they were bound by cultural mores as tightly-laced as their corsets and were under enormous pressure to conform to Victorian notions of womanhood. In spite of the obstacles, many American women played anyway. The backlash against their competitive exuberance resulted in decades of athletic repression and the long struggle for an equal right to play that culminated in the passage of Title IX in 1972.
Women athletes today are the daughters of the Title IX generation. Women athletes 100 years ago were the daughters of 19th century physical education trailblazers who opened gymnasium doors and playing fields for women. Sports of the 19th century often seem distant and quaint, antique pastimes from a forgotten age, but it was during this Lost Century that our modern American sports were born and women began to play.
The material is organized into six sections.
Section 1 contains a brief selection of non-sports items included for historical context. They address suffrage, divorce reform, inventions, health, and education. Physical beauty is a prominent theme in many articles about athletic women. Articles describing diets, face-lifts, and other beauty-related fads establish cosmetic standards and practices of the time.
Section 2 presents chronological illustrations from ten books published between 1849 and 1900, including Catharine Beecher’s influential work, Calisthenic Exercises, for Schools, Families, and Health Establishments, written in 1856. Beecher was a pioneer of American education whose philosophy influenced modes of academic instruction from kindergarten through college level. Her father and brothers were the country’s most famous clergymen. One graduate of the college Catharine founded was her younger sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The word “calisthenic” was new to English, a combination of the Greek words for “beauty” (kallos) and “strength” (sthenos), and was originally associated with exercises suitable for girls. Flora T. Parsons (“Calisthenic Songs Illustrated,” 1869), was a school teacher in Rochester, New York, known for her catchy children’s exercise songs.
Section 3 features a wide array of articles and illustrations from more than a dozen sports spanning from 1862 to 1908. Future volumes will explore individual sports in greater detail. The purpose of this section is to highlight the breadth of athletics women engaged in, as reported by the mainstream press. Several pieces were first published in British newspapers and demonstrate the influence of English sports in the United States.
One of the earliest high-profile proponents of physical fitness for women was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a renowned minister, author and abolitionist. His article, “The Health of Our Girls,” was published in The Atlantic Monthly in June 1862, just weeks after he received a letter with poems from a timid novice named Emily Dickinson, and months before becoming a colonel in the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first regiment of former slaves recruited for federal service in the Civil War.
The most recent article in this collection was written in 1915 by Vassar College English Professor Amy Louise Reed, PhD (“Female Delicacy in the Sixties”), and it recalls the era of Beecher and Higginson fifty years earlier.
Eleanor Waddle (“The Berkeley Ladies’ Athletic Club,” 1889) wrote articles about grace and beauty for Cosmopolitan and other magazines.
Dr. William G. Anderson (“Physical Training for Women” 1890) was the well-respected founder of the Brooklyn Normal School of Physical Education in 1888, and later the Professor of Physical Education and Director of the Yale University gymnasium and the Anderson Normal School of Gymnastics. He tested and measured athletes to scientifically verify the increase in strength and endurance obtained by exercise. He proved that blood flow to muscles could be increased by merely thinking about performing an athletic task, confirming the role of mental stimulus in relation to physical training. His wife, Grace Lee, was a gymnastics teacher, physical education lecturer, and co-author of books and articles with her husband.
Eva Lovett (Carson) (“Regular Exercise for Girls,” 1896) was widely published in Scribner’s, St. Nicholas, and Cosmopolitan.
Jean Pardee-Clark (“In a Girls’ Gymnasium,” 1896) wrote numerous short stories and articles published in Munsey’s, Metropolitan, and other magazines.
Lillian Baynes Griffin (“A Modern Gymnasium,” 1899) abandoned writing in 1908 due to illness and later became an award-winning photographer. Her husband was the Impressionist painter Walter Griffin.
Anne O’Hagan (“The Athletic Girl,” 1901) was a reporter, editor, and writer for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and other magazines, and a staunch advocate of women’s rights.
Alice Katharine Fallows (“Athletics for College Girls,” 1903) wrote many magazine articles and a biography of her father, a respected theologian. The accompanying illustrations were drawn by Charlotte Harding, one of the first female artists to emerge from Howard Pyle’s art classes at Drexel Institute.
Grace E. Denison (“How We Ride Our Wheels,” 1891), a Canadian outdoorswoman, wrote for more than 20 years for Saturday Night magazine under the penname “Lady Gay.” Her brother, Edwyn Sandys, is also a contributor to this volume.
Caroline F. Manice, (“Women Who Play Golf Well—And Ungracefully,” 1904) was the two time defending champion of the Metropolitan Golf Association.
Mary Bisland (“Bowling for Women,” 1890) and her sister, Elizabeth, were born in New Orleans and became established journalists in New York City in the early 1890s, writing for Cosmopolitan, The Illustrated American, and Outing.
Clara Dalton (“Things a Woman Should Know in Learning to Swim,” 1904) was from a family of lifesavers and swimmers who performed public aquatic exhibitions in New York. The accompanying photos were taken by her brother, Professor Frank Dalton, a swim teacher and an author of swimming manuals. Their father, Davis Dalton, backstroked across the English Channel in 1890, was the chief inspector of the United States Volunteer Lifesaving Corps, and drowned while performing for spectators in 1899. Clara’s article was published one month after more than 1,000 people, mostly women and children on a church picnic, died when their excursion boat caught fire in the East River, a short swimming distance from shore. Hundreds of lives could have been spared by a rudimentary knowledge of swimming. It was New York City’s deadliest disaster prior to September 11, 2001.
G. H. Corsan (“Trudg, or the Art of Fast Swimming,” 1901) wrote instructional swimming manuals and claimed to have taught more that 300,000 men to swim.
In the late 1890s, one-third of all bicycles manufactured in the U.S. were built for women. While a small number of women engaged in races and performed stunt riding exhibitions, the vast majority rode as a means of transportation. Men held the reins of most horses and carriages. The bicycle greatly expanded a woman’s range of independent unchaperoned movement.
Many of the articles reveal a preoccupation with what a woman should wear when she bounces a ball, pedals a bike, swims in a lake, or plays on a field. An unassailable argument in favor of the rational dress reform movement was the free range of movement required for healthful exercise.
Bloomers are frequently referred to throughout the volume and are most relevant in the “Baseball & Bloomers” articles. Touring women’s teams were often nicknamed “Bloomer Girls.” They performed exhibition games against local squads, usually made up of men. Most of the games were a non-competitive lark, drawing crowds of men to gawk at the rare and provocative act of women playing ball.
The section includes two brief but pivotal articles from the 1903 Spalding Indoor Base Ball Guide, describing a new gymnasium game for women that would soon move outdoors and become known as “softball.” The authors were high school physical education teachers in Chicago. Softball has since been played by millions of men and women of all ages. These two articles introduced the sport to a nationwide readership and triggered the rapid growth and public acceptance of the women’s game.
Several photographs in this section were taken by Frances B. Johnston, one of America’s first female photojournalists. Young Frances received her first camera from a family friend, George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. Her basketball and exercise photographs are from the Library of Congress collection.
Georgina A. Davis penned over 100 illustrations for Frank Leslie’s Weekly during the 1880s, including women’s exercise and roller skating. She studied art at the Cooper Union Female School of Design and was an established engraver and painter known for her portrayals of working women and domestic life.
Among the many works of art in this section are drawings by Charles Dana Gibson whose iconic Gibson Girl became the enduring idealized image of the assertive New Woman. Other noteworthy illustrators include Frank A. Nankivell, Joseph Klepper, Charles Bush, T. de Thulstrup, C.S. Reinhart, George du Maurier, and Edward Penfield.
Section 4 focuses on basketball, which Senda Berenson called “by far the most popular game that women play.” The articles are grouped by topic: (1) newspaper accounts of early intramural games at Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and other Eastern women’s colleges from 1894 to 1896; (2) extensive pre-game to post-game coverage of the first intercollegiate women’s game between the Universities of California and Stanford in 1896; (3) articles and illustrations from 1897 to 1906 describing the perils and popularity of the sport; and (4) articles from Senda Berenson’s influential pamphlet outlining restrictive rules for the women’s game.
Women began to play basketball within a few weeks after YMCA instructor James Naismith unveiled the new game on March 11, 1892. Naismith encouraged both sexes to participate and married one of the first woman players. The sport quickly spread to clubs, high schools and colleges across the country. Basketball released women’s competitive passions more than any other sport. For players in the heat of a contest, scrambling on the floor and tussling over a loose ball were natural athletic reactions. But to many observers it was a shocking display unlike anything they had ever seen before, a disturbing eruption of physicality that society had tamped down for centuries.
The clash between ladylike decorum and athletic abandon troubled many educators, social commentators and sports authorities. Young women were expected to remain proper and demure in all public settings. While golf, tennis, bowling, ice skating, and other individual sports inspired acceptably feminine behavior, the action-packed team game of basketball, played before an all-female audience, permitted a Victorian girls’ night out, and by many accounts the girls went wild. Scandalous reports of name-calling, hair-pulling, cheating, arguing with referees, and fighting on the court were sensationalized in the press. Gymnasium balconies surged with loyal supporters clad in team colors yelling organized cheers and exchanging volleys of taunts with rival fans. Critics of women’s sports were not the only ones who were alarmed. The same woman who introduced the game sought to rein it in soon after it was unleashed.
Senda Berenson of Smith College is widely considered the founder of women’s basketball. Her pioneering role was recognized in the 1894 article, “No Man In It,” written when she was only 25 years old. She strongly proposed restricting the women’s game in her Spalding Guide, “Basket Ball for Women,” which included articles from several other contributors. Her modified rules partitioned the court into three separate zones which players could not cross and also prohibited defenders from batting the ball out of an opponent’s hands.
While Berenson’s students played by these rules from the beginning, many other schools played by the full-court YMCA rules for men. She warned that “unless a game as exciting as basket ball is carefully guided by such rules as will eliminate roughness, the great desire to win and the excitement of the game will make our women do sadly unwomanly things…rough and vicious play seems worse in women than in men.” Her recommendations prevailed and the wide-open, full-court game was effectively suppressed for the next 75 years. Even in its restricted form, the sport remained popular among young women. Some states, most notably Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas, staged annual 6-on-6 high school tournaments that packed arenas. However, other states, including New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky, eliminated all interscholastic basketball tournaments.
Berenson did not balance her publication with dissenting viewpoints. Her 1903 booklet includes supportive articles by Augusta Lane Patrick, a high school physical education instructor who graduated from Mt. Holyoke in 1892; Theodore Hough, PhD, a Professor of Physiology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who later became dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine; and Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, the Superintendent of Physical Instruction in New York City Public Schools.
The technical side of the game is detailed in articles by three Smith College players from the class of 1901: Fanny Garrison was a physical education instructor at Smith for many years; Agnes Childs also became a physical education teacher; and Ellen Emerson, who was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s granddaughter, became a member of the Smith College War Service Board during World War I.
Julie Ellsbee Sullivan wrote “A Plea for Basket Ball” for Berenson’s 1905 guide. Her father, James E. Sullivan, was the most powerful man in amateur sports in the early 20th century and is the namesake of the prestigious annual award given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the U.S. He was a founder of the Amateur Athletic Union, the President of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a promoter of sports for boys, but he staunchly opposed women competing in sports and prohibited American women from participating in the 1912 Olympic Games.
Dr. Gulick was a similar contradiction. The son of devout missionaries, Gulick was a highly respected sports advocate and is one of the founders of American youth sports. In 1891, Gulick was the 25 year-old YMCA director who assigned 30 year-old James Naismith the task of inventing an indoor gymnasium game, and conveyed the rules of the new sport to YMCAs around the world. Gulick started the New York Public School Athletic League and co-founded the Camp Fire Girls with his wife in 1910. Despite his enlightened attitude toward youth sports, his article in Berenson’s pamphlet expresses unenlightened sexist and ethnocentric viewpoints. Sullivan and Gulick were not to blame for the ethos of their era—almost every admirable person from the time made impolitic comments by today’s standards—but their outspoken prominence lent intellectual weight and moral authority to prevailing racial and gender prejudices that were painstakingly challenged and rejected over the ensuing century.
According to the 1906 article in Leslie’s Weekly (“Danger to Women in Athletics”), Gulick led a movement to encourage women “not to be too athletic.” The article was written by Harriet Quimby, one of America’s best known newspaper reporters. In 1911, at age 36, she became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, and the following year was the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Weeks later in Boston, while performing at an air show attended by thousands of spectators, Harriet and her passenger were pitched out of her plane and fell hundreds of feet to their deaths. They were not wearing safety belts.
The first decade of women’s basketball was wilder out west. The earliest basketball article in this volume (“Girl Ball-Kickers,” 1892) describes the University of California’s first game, played a mere eight months after Naismith’s first public game. Writing in the San Francisco Morning Call, Albert May extolled the exploits of a superstar player named Jenny, “a perfect wonder. She was here, there and everywhere, stepping and jumping over and on top of everybody, having no eyes or feeling for anything but that leather ball and that basket. Like a perfect little fury, Jenny, with disheveled hair and disordered wardrobe, fought, scratched and kicked until that ball was safely inside of that basket.” However, May’s leering tone also epitomized why women sought to keep men out of the audience: “Such an aggregation of female loveliness and such a liberal display of the human form divine I had never hoped to be allowed to witness…the girls found it necessary to cover up some places in their costumes, where during the rough and tumble little pink flesh spots had made their appearance, peeping through rents and tears in the blue tights.” In this context, the U.C. women insisted on female-only spectatorship.
An extended series of transcribed newspaper articles portray weeks of hoopla and trash talk surrounding the first women’s intercollegiate game between Stanford and California on April 4, 1896. The date was two months after the first men’s intercollegiate basketball game, two days before the (all-male) modern Olympic Games were reborn in Athens, Greece, and nine days before the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson, which affirmed racial segregation and established the “separate but equal” doctrine. One newspaper article concluded, “Basket-ball has come to stay, and the innovation finds friends among those who believe that a woman should be more than a delicate and fragile plant, disciplined so rigidly by society’s law that to move other than languorously were a sin.”
Mabel Craft wrote about the landmark game for Leslie’s Weekly (“College Girls Play Basket-Ball”). Craft was an ardent suffragist, a proponent of racial equality, and the first woman editor of a major U.S. newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle.
The west coast basketball boom was brief. One of the players in the first Stanford-Cal game was Anita Corbert, who wrote “Intercollegiate Basket-ball for Women” three years later, in 1899.
That same year both universities quietly ended their participation in women’s intercollegiate team sports, not resuming them until the 1970s after the passage of Title IX (from three years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight until three years after men walked on the moon). For comparison, the Suffrage Movement lasted 72 years, from the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The Stanford women won their first NCAA basketball championship on April 4, 1990, exactly 94 years after the historic first game.
Basketball is also mentioned in other sections of this volume (see Index), and is the subject of one chapter in Section 5.
Section 5 contains the first comprehensive study of women’s sports in America, entitled “Athletics & Out-door Sports for Women,” published in 1903. The entire 340-page book, including 16 essays by sports experts and over 200 illustrations, is reproduced in its entirety. The page numbers from the original book have been retained to conform to page references within the text. Blank pages published in the 1903 edition have been eliminated in this reprint, accounting for pagination gaps.
The book was edited by Lucille Eaton Hill, the Director of Physical Training at Wellesley College from 1883 to 1909. Her role in the development of women’s athletics is touted in the basketball article dated April 19, 1896 (“Athletic Girls”), notwithstanding her later criticism of the sport (“Basket Ball Denounced,” 1903). Hill wrote the Introduction to her book and the chapter about her specialty, “Rowing.” As an editor, she gathered a noteworthy cast of contributors.
Professor Anthony Barker (“Physical Training at Home”) was a professional bodybuilder who wrote many articles about physical training and marketed his own brand of exercise gadgets, such as the “Herkules Elastic Exerciser,” a tension band with hand grips at the ends, similar to resistance bands sold today.
Watson L. Savage (“Gymnasium Work”) was a medical doctor who devoted his career to promoting physical fitness as a means of maintaining good health. In 1890, he established the Savage Physical Development Institute in New York City, occupying four floors of a building, including a gymnasium, running track, weightlifting equipment, gymnastics apparatus, billiard tables, bowling alleys, locker rooms, and exercise classes led by trained instructors. The institute was a model copied by many athletic clubs nationwide. He was also Director of the Columbia University gymnasium and head of the department of physical training for Pittsburgh public schools.
Melvin Ballou Gilbert (“Dancing”) was a prominent dance instructor and an author of books and articles about dance. His course at Harvard’s Summer School of Physical Training was titled “Esthetic Calisthenics.”
John Bapst Blake (“Cross-country Walking”) was the chief surgeon at Boston City Hospital in 1903, and later became a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.
Edwyn Sandys (“Swimming”) was a well-known author of “Trapper Jim” and other outdoor sports literature for boys and wrote detailed books about the behavior of wild game birds. His sister was the writer Grace E. Denison, mentioned earlier.
Frances C. Griscom, Jr., (“Golf”) won the U.S. Women’s Golf Championship at Shinnecock Hills in 1900 at the age of 20. The deceptive “Jr.” was courtesy of her father, the shipping magnate Clement Griscom. Frances was an active sportswoman who lived until age 93.
Motivated by the marathon event at the 1896 Olympics, Herbert H. Holton (“Running”), and fellow Boston Athletic Association member John Graham, founded the Boston Marathon in 1897.
J. Parmley Paret (“Tennis”) won the U.S. Men’s Tennis Championship in 1899 and became the country’s preeminent tennis writer. The American tennis star Maud Banks is featured in the accompanying photographs.
Englishwoman Constance M. K. Applebee (“Field Hockey”) introduced the sport of field hockey to the United States in 1901, when she was 27 years old. She became the athletic director at Bryn Mawr College in 1904 and remained a coach there until 1971 when she was 97 years old. She lived to the age of 107.
Belle Beach (“Equestrianism”) was considered the best equestrienne of her day and wrote the book Riding and Driving for Women. She rode sidesaddle, an athletic feat of balance, strength, and intuitive teamwork. In 1904, Belle won a show in Kansas City, defeating a horse trained by Tom Bass, the first African-American to ride in Madison Square Garden. Bass and Beach performed at several shows across the country. Bass renamed his favorite mare in her honor, and the equine “Belle Beach” became America’s most celebrated show horse. The human Belle’s career faded as public interest shifted from riding horses to driving automobiles. She filed for bankruptcy in 1914 and died in 1926 at the age of 50.
Ellen Bernard Thompson (“Basket Ball”) was a 27-year-old fledgling book illustrator who attended Howard Pyle’s art classes at Drexel Institute and married the teacher’s brother in 1904. Widowed in 1918, with four children to support, Ellen B. T. Pyle resumed her painting career and created more than 40 covers for the Saturday Evening Post and artwork for many books. The illustrations in this chapter are examples of her early work.
By 1903, Frenchman Regis Semac (“Fencing”) had been America’s premier fencing instructor for over 30 years, training world champions at the New York Athletic Club and stage performers at the Conservatory of Music.
Christine Terhune Herrick (“Track Athletics”), who also wrote the article in Section 3, “Women in Athletics: The Athletic Girl Not Unfeminine,” was a prolific author of more than 30 books on cooking, childcare and household management. She was the daughter of two writers, Mary Virginia Hawes and Edward Payson Terhune. Inspired by their family dogs, Christine’s brother, Albert Payson Terhune, authored a series of youth adventure stories starring a heroic collie named Lad.
Section 6 features articles, cartoons and advertisements from four issues of Bernarr Macfadden’s magazines published from 1900 to 1903. Several articles from these publications are sprinkled throughout the volume according to subject. Their relation to modern fitness magazines is unmistakable, both in content and style.
Born in 1868, the same year as Senda Berenson, Macfadden was the first modern fitness expert—a colorful multimillionaire entrepreneur with his own line of exercise equipment, nutritional supplements and weight-loss plans, and a thriving publishing empire that grew to include the magazines Photoplay and Sport. He authored over 100 books and countless articles, and is the male model in “Health Made and Preserved by Daily Exercise,” which he wrote for Cosmopolitan in 1903. It all started with his focus on good health and his magazines about physical culture for women: Woman’s Physical Development and Beauty and Health. He promoted physical fitness as the foundation of feminine beauty. His front-page motto was, “Health is Beauty, Ugliness a Sin.”
In many ways Macfadden was ahead of his time. His holistic approach to health was based on vigorous exercise, resistance training, weight control, deep breathing, fasting, massage, a vegetarian diet, and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and drugs. He railed against corsets and other restrictive clothing. His deep distrust of doctors, pharmaceuticals, and organized modern medicine may have contributed to his own death in 1955, at age 87, when he attempted to cure his urinary tract blockage by fasting rather than seeking medical aid.
Macfadden’s core message was often obscured by his personal eccentricities. He imposed a strict diet and grueling exercise regimen on his own family, including five daughters who performed together onstage to demonstrate the strength, beauty and vitality attainable by following his training methods. The results were not surprising—his daughters rebelled against him and his wife divorced him and wrote a tell-all memoir revealing a dysfunctional family life under an autocratic fitness fanatic.
The most famous writer in this sample of Macfadden’s magazines was the French novelist Emile Zola (“How Sports Benefit Woman,” 1900).
The cartoonist Ed Gardenier was one of the lyricists of the hit Broadway musical of 1903, The Wizard of Oz.
Mrs. Maud Johnson (“It’s the Way You Think,” 1901), a wealthy vegetarian from Pasadena, California, obtained a divorce from her husband in 1905 due to their incompatible dietary habits.
Mary Dameron (“Practical Suggestions for Inducing Sleep and Preventing Wrinkles,” 1902), wrote articles for St. Nicholas and other magazines.
It must be noted that youthful fun and games were generally restricted to those who were fortunate enough to attend high school and college or belong to an athletic club. At the turn of the century, nearly two million American children labored in mines, factories, and textile mills, or toiled as farmhands and domestic help, with the highest rates of child-labor among families of recent immigrants and African-Americans.
The articles in this volume do not directly address issues of race. Racial barriers were reinforced and institutionalized during this period. Traditional “Negro college” students participated in track & field, basketball and other organized sports. However, African-American women’s athletics were not covered in any of the mainstream media sources in this volume.
The Lost Century of Sports Collection publishes illustrated anthologies from America’s sporting heritage.
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