Harmon’s Histories: ‘Immoral practice’ of croquet corrupted early day Montanans
The game’s been around for more than a century – popular with all ages, from children to grandparents.
If you’re a baby boomer, you most certainly played this game in the 1940s and 1950s – but were likely unaware of its past reputation as an unsavory game, one which had become associated with gambling, drinking and philandering.
There were reports that it was literally “banned in Boston,” around the turn of the century and calls for both “clergy and laity to suppress the immoral practice.”
What was this “immoral practice,” this evil game?
According to the Croquet Foundation of America (yes, there is such a group), the game dates back to France in the 13th century.
Another article, this one in the Helena Weekly Herald, traced the history of the game more specifically to “a French physician named Guyard who invented it to amuse his patients. He lived at Pau, which is a well-known watering hole in the south of France. From Pau, it was carried to England by the English visitors, and from England it came here (to America).”
In the 1850s, when the game caught on in Ireland and later, England, it was called “crooky.”
Women of the Victorian era were said to have particularly enjoyed the game, since it gave them freedom from their chaperones!
In 1884, the Fort Benton River Press newspaper noted, “Mrs. Epperson has been giving a series of croquet parties. She is the owner of the only croquet set on Belt Creek.”
Croquet also affected the fashion world.
The Helena Independent noted the popularity of the “croquet dress.” Describing it as longer than a tennis frock but shorter than a garden party gown, it concluded the outfit was designed for women “to look pretty and do very little occasionally.”
The game became immensely popular in the U.S. in the late 1800s. As a service to its readers, the New North-West newspaper in Deer Lodge attempted to explain the game as simply as possible: “The ostensible object of the game is to roll a striped ball against a speckled stick.”
But the newspaper also put the game in perspective, noting its rocky history and warning of its darker side.
“It is really the most reprehensible infraction of the Golden Rule encountered by a Christian community. If you undertake to play it by ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ you are going to be beaten every game!”
Some “sacrilegious sinners,” it said, had even begun to call it “Presbyterian Billiards.”
The unknown author of this article, in a rather contorted sentence, claimed: “This view of croquet is the result of serious study, and has not probably occurred to those who have, perhaps thoughtlessly, participated in it, but with a sincere desire to see it become popular we have seen proper to show that it is wicked!”
In Missoula in 1878, a local paper echoed that thought: “The festive croquet ball has again made its appearance, and the lovely damsel again gnasheth her white teeth.”
Those sorts of views had their effect. The game declined in popularity until the post-war years of the late 1940s and 1950s, when croquet was reintroduced as a children’s lawn game.
The Denver Croquet Club notes in its history of the game that manufacturers began making smaller, less expensive sets “with simplified rules.” The “informal backyard version of croquet with 9 wickets and 2 stakes was usually played following house rules on bumpy lawns.”
But it also notes that today’s “competitive version of croquet – played with 6 wickets and 1 stake – is experiencing dramatic growth. Because croquet is played by men and women of all ages, it has become a very social game. Divisions exist only among skill levels, so competition is available for both beginners and seasoned players.”
Still, there remain those evil, yet satisfying, memories of youth – memories of knocking a competitor’s ball sideways across the lawn into the neighbor’s hedge.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.