While the west was going through its gorgeous epoch of gambling, drinking, and gun-play, a series of athletic crazes were sweeping through the states of the East. Baseball developed from its humble beginnings in the days before the Civil War to its recognized status as America’s national game. The rapid spread of croquet caused the startled editors of The Nation to describe it as the swiftest and most infectious epidemic the country had ever experienced.
Lawn tennis was introduced to polite society by enthusiasts who had seen it played in England, and the old sport of archery was revived as still another fashionable lawn game. Roller-skating attained a popularity which extended to all parts of the country. What the sewingmachine is to our industrial wants and the telegraph to our commercial pursuits, one devotee wrote rapturously, this new system of exercise had become to society’s physical and social wants.
Track and field events were also promoted with the widespread organization of amateur athletic clubs; gymnastic games were sponsored both by the German Turnverein and the Y.M.C.A.; and in the colleges a spectacular sports phenomenon loomed over the horizon with the development of intercollegiate football. Society welcomed polo as an importation from abroad, took up the English sport of coaching. And finally a craze for bicycling arose to supersede all other outdoor activities as city streets and country roads became crowded with nattily dressed cyclists out on their club runs.
All this took place in the late 1860’s and the 1870’s. Previously the country had had virtually no organized sports as we know them to-day. Neither men nor women played outdoor games. Alarmed observers in mid-century had found the national health deteriorating because of a general lack of exercise more widespread than among the people of any other nation. Ralph Waldo Emerson had written despairingly of “the invalid habits of this country,” and from abroad the London Times had issued grave warnings of possibly dire consequences for our national wellbeing. No transformation in the recreational scene has been more startling than this sudden burgeoning of an interest in sports which almost overnight introduced millions of Americans to a phase of life shortly destined to become a major preoccupation among all classes.
The famous ball with which Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt crashed the gates of society in 1883 was admitted by the press to have been more magnificent than the entertainments of Alexander, Cleopatra, or Louis XIV. It was soon outshown by other affairs of New York’s Four Hundred. In his Society as I Have Found It, Ward McAllister describes dinner parties with squadrons of butlers and footmen in light plush livery, silk stockings, and powdered hair; orchestras concealed behind flowered screens; and every out-of-season fruit and vegetable served on golden plates. At society’s fancy-dress balls, men weighed down in suits of medieval armor tripped over their swords as they attempted to dance quadrilles; the women wore wreaths of electric lights in their hair to add a new luster to their diamonds.
“Everything that skill and art could suggest,” McAllister notes at one point, “was added to make the dinners not a vulgar display, but a great gastronomic effort, evidencing the possession by the host of both money and taste.” But always taste was secondary, and Crœsus was crowned society’s Lord of Misrule. A marveling correspondent of the LondonSpectator found America’s newly rich pouring out money on festal occasions as from a purse of Fortunatus, making feasts as of the Great King Belshazzar.
For one ball the host built a special addition to his house providing a magnificent Louis XIV ball-room which would accommodate twelve hundred. Another time a restaurant was entirely made over with a plum-shaded conservatory, a Japanese room, and a medieval hall hung with Gobelin tapestries especially imported from Paris. At a reception given at the Metropolitan Opera House, twelve hundred guests danced the Sir Roger de Coverley on a floor built over stage and auditorium, and were then served supper at small tables by three hundred liveried servants. It was a world of jewels and satins, of terrapin and canvasbacks, of Château Lafite and imported champagne — “luxurious in adornment .. epicurean in its feasting.”
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