#MyrtleMondays: Sports for Victorian Girls

In Cold-Blooded Myrtle (coming October 6), you’ll meet some brand-new characters, including a field hockey player and some mountaineers. Contrary to the common image of 19th century girls sitting demurely in parlors with their needlework, plenty of girls were also active in all kinds of sports. Enjoy this collection of images celebrating the sporting life of Victorian girls and women…

Godey’s Lady’s Book was a popular American magazine in the 1860s, and kept on top of every trend in fashion and leisure. This athlete is dressed for a day of archery and weightlifting.

Sports of all kinds were popular all throughout the Victorian era. But then, as now, sports equipment (bicycles, skis, tennis rackets, mountain climbing gear) and the specialized clothing for active pursuits were costly, so opportunities for formal sports were often limited to girls whose families had the means to afford the equipment or send their daughters to schools with physical education programs. (Working-class girls and women presumably got all the exercise they needed… working.) But the health benefits of exercise did not go unnoticed by 19th century experts, even if some of their attitudes raise some modern eyebrows. For an excellent social history of 19th century girls and sport, check out the special exhibit from the Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections: Building Muscles While Building MindsĀ 

A Bryn Mawr student demonstrating her shotput form around 1890-1900. The objects on the wall behind her are likely not bowling pins, but “Indian clubs,” which were wildly popular in 19th century gyms.


Diagram demonstrating one Indian club routine from about 1870. The weighted clubs were introduced to England by British soldiers serving in India, where they’d been used to build strength and agility for hundreds of years. (There has been a modern resurgence in Indian club interest, and you can get sets in sporting goods stores.)

Schools were often where many girls experienced sports and physical fitness:

Did your school gym have those mysterious round-runged ladders along the back wall, too? Apparently they were actually used, once upon a time! These girls at Boston’s Charleston High are climbing the “Swedish Ladders” in an 1897 gym class.


New York’s Bennet School for Girls had a well-equipped PE class. Rings, clubs, and even fencing!


The 1904 World Championship basketball team from Fort Shaw Indian Industrial Boarding School in Montana


The Samuel Huston Women’s Basketball team (early 1900s)


Colleges began offering organized sports in the late 1800s (Vassar had a baseball team in 1867!), and field hockey is one of the oldest team sports for girls in the United States.


The Moseley Ladies’ Hockey Team, 1891

Tennis might be a more familiar image of the Victorian woman at sports:

Sir John Laverty Kelvingrove “A Ralley” 1885 (Are the balls on the woman’s side of the court meant to suggest she should work on her game?)


It’s not totally clear whether this La Mode Illustree fashion artist had not ever actually played tennis, or if 1896 France had different rackets. The shape of rackets did change somewhat over the years, but these seem very unusual.


This post was inspired in part by the marvelous Victorian images of women fencing that have been populating my Pinterest feed lately. This 1898 magazine article introduces the sport to a new audience.


A cyclist poses with her bicycle in the 1890s

We’ve explored the role the bicycle played in the lives of Victorian girls here before, but cycling was a serious sport, too, as these 1896 London racers show:

This image is notable because it actually depicts female athletes in the act of exerting themselves, instead of simply posing artfully.


I don’t golf, but I can imagine how good back support could really help your drive!


Norwegian skiers, circa 1900


Several generations of hikers, around 1900


Mountain climbing has always been a sport for the elite (a modern expedition to Mount Everest can cost upward of $80,000). Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed (shown here climbing in Switzerland in 1898) was the daughter of an Irish baronet and descended from Polish nobility.


This French mountaineer treads a narrow pass in her deerstalker hat

Archery was also considered a suitable ladylike pursuit (if you ask me, it’s a natural evolution from needlework: we just love to stick sharp objects precisely at a small target) from the Regency era onward:

“The Archery Lesson,” English School, 1840-1850

As you can see, period images abound of girls and women enjoying an active and often competitive lifestyle! Check out my Pinterest board “Garb Love: Sporting & Cycling” for much more, and follow the links to learn more about the history of women’s sports.

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