A Captured Moment of Tennis History
This month our musings on antique sporting goods continue, but as the season gradually progresses towards summer our focus shifts from ice skates (our February posting) to tennis antiques.
We recently acquired and sold this rare tennis tintype. Tintypes were a photography innovation introduced in 1856 and used into the 1880s, in which images were printed on thin metal plates. The size of tintypes range from large full plates (6.5” x 8.5”), which are the most desirable to collectors, to small 1/16th plates (1.375” x 1.625”). This tennis photograph is a full plate tintype.
Tennis antiques do not fit exactly within the genre of rustic antiques so it may seem surprising to see this tintype featured here, yet there are some interesting areas of overlap. One connection between tennis and rustic antiques is that tennis was a popular sport enjoyed by genteel rusticators in places such as summer colonies near the turn of the 20th century.
Another connection is that early sporting accoutrements make intriguing accessories within present-day rustic décor, especially in vacation homes where enjoying leisure sporting activities has been a long tradition.
So the occurrence of an antique tennis tintype in our recent inventory is not completely anomalous. Also, like most antiques dealers we occasionally step outside of our main specialty area to buy and sell other types of antiques. Jeff has learned about tennis antiques over the years thanks in large part to the expertise and enthusiasm of his mother Jeanne Cherry, author of the 1995 book Tennis Antiques & Collectibles (the source for much of the historical information included here).
While the flourishing of tennis in the United States coincides with the height of the rusticator era, from the mid-1870s through the first decades of the 1900s, it is a game with a much longer history—the precursors of the modern game of tennis date back to the 12th century. By 1750 a game called court tennis had evolved in Europe, and although players (members of royalty and other elite classes) used a racket similar to the shape of the rackets used today, they played in a walled court using rules that were very different from those of modern tennis.
It was not until the 1800’s that tennis started to be played outdoors on lawns, giving rise to the game of lawn tennis which is the game we refer to simply as “tennis” today, whether it is played on grass, clay, or hard courts. The year 1877 marked the start of tournament tennis at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, and by the 1880s lawn tennis had “supplanted croquet as a social garden party activity in which men and women could participate together” (Cherry, 1995).
Indeed, the seven women and four men shown in this tintype were most likely participating in just such a garden party. Based on some limited information we received with the tintype, we think the photograph was taken in the outskirts of New York City, which is plausible because one of the earliest lawn tennis courts in the U.S. was established in Staten Island, NY, thereby introducing people in that region to the game. In 1874 a young socialite named Mary Ewing Outerbridge had just returned from Bermuda where she had played tennis and acquired a boxed set of tennis equipment. When she returned home she convinced her local club, the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club, to mark lines and set up nets to create lawn tennis courts so that she could introduce tennis to her friends.
The men and women in our tintype are holding lopsided tennis rackets, which is the earliest form of lawn tennis rackets.
Lopsided rackets had a relatively brief period of production and use, lasting from 1874 to the mid-1880s when flat-top rackets were introduced and quickly became more popular. So knowing the dates of lopsided racket use along with the dates of tintype photography makes it easy to date this full plate tintype to circa 1880.
Lopsided rackets have an asymmetrical head and are based on the shape of the court tennis rackets used in the 1750s which also had lopsided heads, thick gut stringing, and long handles. That shape was particularly suited to scooping balls out of the corners of walled courts, as well as for putting spin on the ball.
In addition to their tennis rackets, the other main feature of interest in the tintype is the clothing that the men and women are wearing. The men wear what they would also have worn for participating in sports such as cricket: white shirts, white or cream flannel trousers or knickers, and jaunty caps.
The women, however, did not have such sporting attire. Instead they wore outfits for playing tennis that were very similar to the proper Victorian clothing they wore to garden parties: long dresses or skirts, corsets, petticoats, belts, bustles, and elaborate hats.
Even as tennis became as much an athletic as a social event for women, the attire was slow to change. As late as 1905 May Sutton, a southern Californian who won that year’s Ladies Singles Championship at Wimbledon “created a small scandal by wearing her skirts a little above the ankle and rolling her sleeves up to the elbow” (Cherry, 1995).
Tennis attire and tennis equipment (including rackets, presses, balls, ball containers, and tennis court marking and maintenance equipment) are just two categories of tennis antiques and collectibles. Other areas of collecting include decorative arts with tennis themes (jewelry, silver, and ceramics), fine art, books, prints and other ephemera, and photography. What we appreciate about tennis-related photography in particular is that its images immediately convey the context of early tennis culture, while individual objects convey smaller pieces of the larger tennis story.
One of our most rewarding roles as antiques dealers is enabling people to live with historical objects that speak to them in some way. Incorporating antiques into home decor is one way to assure that their aesthetic appeal is present in everyday environments. Many sporting antiques, including tennis equipment, are eminently suited to decorative display, and with a bit of creativity can blend well with rustic décor.
Tags: sporting antiques