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Victorian Exercise–Tennis Anyone?

The late 19th century brought exercise to the Victorians, both men and women—gymnasiums, bicycling and tennis.

Even in Victorian times, tennis has been around for centuries. It was, however, a “court” game, played indoors and generally confined to wealthy men. In England, 1873, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, considered by some to be the inventor of modern tennis, brought the game outdoors, inventing “lawn” tennis. It was simpler than court tennis, which included a difficult scoring system and used the walls of the court; lawn tennis was in essence a combination of court tennis and badminton. It caught on fast and was soon the rage.

In 1874, Mary Ewing Outerbridge brought the game to New York. From a prominent New York family, Outerbridge obtained permission to lay out a court at the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball club. In the meantime, up in Massachusetts, William Appleton introduced the game at his summer place in Nahant, with F.R Sears, both from Boston Brahmin families. In 1875 a tournament was held there. And the game’s popularity quickly spread.

However, the home of the National Championships started in 1881, Newport, Rhode Island, a vacation resort for people like the Vanderbilts and Astors. It was, of course, an all male tournament, but as would be expected considering that a woman brought tennis to the United States, a female tournament followed not too long after. The first woman’s tournament was played at the Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1887.

Men and women did play tennis together also, although not in championships. Men tended to disparage these sorts of games (at least in private), since they considered women poor players. It is interesting to note that, while men at this time wore long pants and were at a disadvantage in comparison to today’s players, women’s outfits were similar to their everyday dress—long sleeved dresses with long, trailing skirts, hats (with feathers!) and most outrageous of all, corsets! It’s amazing that they played at all. On the other hand, considering the huge meals they ate at this period of time, tennis was probably a pretty good idea.

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2 Comments

  1. Susan Macatee says:

    I knew bicycling was popular around this time, but I didn’t know about tennis.

  2. Christine Koehler says:

    I was wondering what they wore, and had a suspicion it was their everyday clothing. I assume bustles were out by then, or did they just bear it like they did the corset? (Ouch!) Was the clothing white like they wear now?

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