Polo, Tennis, Cowboys, and the Folks Next Door

In one online writing class, my instructor and my virtual classmates were skeptical of the 1890s sport I described in my novel-in-progress.  In a class such as this, you don’t have the privilege of meeting the other people.  This instructor lives in New York and the other writers lived in various parts of the country.  I had posted sections of a novel I was writing, and some who read it wrote that cowboys could not possibly have played polo.

We picture polo as a sport played only by the wealthy, and on manicured fields.  Around 1900, polo was popular with cowboys.  Remember, they were good horsemen.  In a historic “saddle-up barn” in Wyoming, polo mallets still hang on the wall.  Around this time, people did not let the absence of courts deter them from fun and exercise.

I have a replica of an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. mail-order “Catalogue,” published much later by Dover, which reprints all sorts of fun publications from that era.  From this 1895 catalog, people could order croquet sets, all sorts of baseball equipment, and everything to play “lawn tennis,” whether or not you had a lawn.  On farms and ranches, people simply took sporting equipment outside.

This catalog offered lawn tennis nets and poles, balls singly or by the dozen, and “lawn tennis bats,” which the catalog points out that the name for the bats is “racquets.” The handles and frames were of wood, usually white ash, not metal like today.  I remember when tennis rackets were made of wood.  Rackets for children started at seventy-five cents.  Full-size ones ranged greatly in quality and price, from$1.75 to $6.90.

Marking the boundaries was trickier.  One set for this included boundary marking tape, pins, staples and webbing.  I think I would get the set with iron markers, painted white, “with pins for fastening in ground.”  It sounds like your eye connects the dots using these markers and there are special markers for the corners.

Ah, the good old days.  No TV, outdoor fun and a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade.  One of the down sides, though — in the catalog, the 1895 editors wrote the page filler, “Lawn tennis is a game for everybody.  The best athletes find it requires all their energy, and yet the weakest girl can play the game.”  Another down side — the pounds of clothes the women wore.

Makes me want to play a game outdoors.  At your next outdoor gathering when the weather is warm enough, consider croquet or bocce, or badminton for the fitter folks.  Don’t forget the lemonade.

Author: Pamela Tartaglio

Fiction writer, blogger and a past president of Women Writing the West.

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