I recently published excerpts from a collection of 1892 articles about basketball, then called basket ball. The significance of 1892 for basketball content is that the first-ever basketball game was played in Springfield, Massachusetts, in December 1891. Each of the 1892 articles highlights how fast the new sport, which had been invented by James Naismith, spread throughout Y.M.C.A. gyms in the United States. All of the articles in my collection, save for one, focused on men’s basketball. The exception was published in San Francisco’s The Morning Call on November 19, 1892. It featured a women’s basketball game. While I discussed the article in brief in my main post, it was long and detailed enough to warrant some individualized treatment.
The title of the article published in the November 19, 1892 edition of The Morning Call is Girl Ball-Kickers: Berkeley Beauties Have a Glorious Game.
It was written by Albert May, a reporter for The Morning Call. In my main article on 1892 basketball content, I opined that the article reads a bit like it was written by an 1892 version of a frat boy or bro. I first thought this from the bro-like use of glorious in the headline, and the content of the piece did not disabuse me of my initial impression.
The morning call. [volume] (San Francisco [Calif.]), 19 Nov. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn94052989/1892-11-19/ed-1/seq-2/>
I will quote extensively from the Girl Ball-Kickers article while offering my own thoughts and quips along the way. However, I am not re-printing the original article, which you can find here, in its entirety. For purposes of organizing the content, I will break the original article into several sections indicated by sub-headings.
The sub-heading of the original article indicated that the “seminary maidens” prevailed over Berkeley co-eds “in one of the liveliest tussles girls ever engaged in.” To be sure, the sub-head set the tone for the article, but what exactly were the co-eds and seminary women tussling in? The opening paragraph of the article by Mr. May does not clarify matters:
Nine of the best looking ‘co-eds’ are limping about the State University grounds covered all over with bruises, and nine pretty little maids, covered all over with glory are wasting their pin money on arnica and court plaster in Miss Head’s fashionable seminary in Berkeley.
Translation: 18 young women in total – nine college students and nine seminarians – were limping around and buying pain killers and plaster for their wounds. This sounds terrible. Who was responsible? What was the cause? Fortunately we learn in the next passage:
Mr. Magee, the instructor in physical culture, is responsible for it all, for it was he who, at an unguarded moment, introduced to his fair lady pupils the latest Eastern fad called ‘Basket-ball.’
We learn that Mr. Magee was responsible for all of the carnage, but that he merely introduced the young women to basketball and was not a criminal. In my main 1892 basketball article which focused on basketball proper, I noted that May’s description of the then-new sport engaged in by the young women as an “Eastern fad.” That is interesting in a historic sense in light of the fact that this story is from California and basketball was created on the East Coast. Moreover, most of the basketball articles I found referenced the sport being played close to the East Coast (however, note I did find contemporaneous articles about basketball in Kansas, Nebraska, and Ohio).
Despite all the injuries reported by Albert May, he explained that the young women were eager to take up basketball, albeit I have some reason to question whether his explanation of the reason for their enthusiasm was on point:
Besides the great fuss the University boys have of late been making about their prowess on the football field has been galling to the girls [something seems missing in that phrase] , and they have got into the habit of shrugging their shapely shoulders and turning up their little noses with an air of superiority whenever some hero of a scrimmage, a run or a touchdown boasted of his deeds.
Indeed. This must be it. May continued:
The co-eds were just dying for a chance to show that they were as nimble and as athletic as any sophomore that ever wore a plug hat.
Notably, Albert May did not cite to sources for his analysis of the motivation of the co-eds to take up a sport. But no matter, let us learn how they were introduced to basket ball, the new fad from the East.
Mr. Magee was the physical education instructor at Berkeley. It was him, we are told by May, who decided to introduce his students to basket ball:
Instructor Magee innocently gave the girls that long hoped for chance when he arranged two clothesbaskets, one on each end of the gymnasium, the other day.
The inventor of basketball, James Naismith, famously used peach baskets for the inaugural basketball game less than one year before Mr. Magee fastened two clothesbaskets in Berkeley. What would he do with the baskets?
He produced a leather ball weighing about six pounds, and divided his fair pupils in physical culture into two teams of nine each.
That the ball being used weighed six pounds should key us into the fact that the basket ball introduced by Mr. Magee was not only alien to contemporary basketball, but also to much of the basket ball that was being enjoyed in Y.M.C.A. gyms in the autumn of 1892. We can infer, for example, that the clothesbaskets were likely fastened close to the ground if the ball was that heavy.
Moreover, when reading this article, bear in mind that it is entirely possible, if not likely, that none of the eighteen young women had heard of basketball before their class that day. As May noted, basketball was new to San Francisco, and the sport was not yet one year old. For this reason, Mr. Magee explained the rules to his students. May quoted Mr. Magee’s explanation:
Now, ladies, this game is called basket-ball and consists in one nine trying to put the ball into one of these baskets and the other crew doing everything possible to prevent the accomplishment of the feat. The side that succeeds in basketing the ball the greatest number of times is the winner.
This was a concise explanation, albeit it was not entirely in line with the version of basketball created by James Naismith in the previous December or the descriptions of most of the basketball being played in Y.M.C.A. gyms. In fact, I dare say from the football-like nine-vs-nine arrangement and the lack of rules to prevent physical violence, it is not at all surprising that some of the participants in the basket ball game came away with injuries (if we believe May’s account). James Naismith himself implemented rules to prevent injuries after he found that the young men he introduced the game to initially treated it a bit too much like football.
According to May, the women took to basketball. While May’s conclusions were generally questionable, one passage lends support to my view that their basket ball was a bit close to football:
With the keen perception so often noted in the female mind, the girls scented an opportunity for glorious and great fun and chances to outdo the boasting football players of the other sex.
While I doubt that the young women went into their first basket ball game hoping to outdo the football players, I do think it was possible that their frame of reference for how to play basketball was what they knew about football. That Mr. Magee made their game nine-vs-nine and was not reported as having given instructions fully in accord with the prevailing basket ball rules (Naismith had not yet codified his original 13 rules) made it more likely that this strange new game would have been understood to be played like football, but with baskets instead of goalposts.
May, continuing to interpret everything through the lens of the young women trying to impress or outdo the football players, informed his readers that Mr. Magee’s students, “like the cunning little minxes they were” organized a 9-woman team of their best athletes and sent a challenge to the young women of Miss Head’s seminary. Lest one fears that this challenge was unfair, May wrote that the seminary students had also learned how to play basketball from Mr. Magee. May recounted that the seminary students were smaller than the college students – which I suppose we have no reason to doubt.
The match between the college students and the seminarians was set for Friday, November 18, 1892. May was present at the game.
Before reporting on the game, May focused on his excitement about seeing “nine of the handsomest, best shaped, loveliest co-eds in the whole world.” But that aside, he did offer an explanation of how they were attired before returning to waxing poetic about how attractive he found everyone:
They were dressed, or costumed, in blue bathing suits with gold ribbons.
You may wonder why they would be wearing bathing suits in a gym with no water. As it turns out, you would be right to wonder. May explained his ignorance:
At least I, in my ignorance, thought they were bathing-suits, but somebody told me since that they were gymnasium costumes.
In light of the fact that this article was published one day after the game, it sounds as if May had come dangerously close to inaccurately informing readers that the women had played basket ball in their bathing suits. Perhaps the editor saved him from the error.
In any event, I was curious about what the gym uniforms look like. While I have written two articles about nineteenth century women’s fashion, I am unsurprisingly not an expert in the field. The newspaper article came with one illustration of the game:
The illustration – which does not appear to be drawn with maximum realism in mind, appears to depict two women in loose dresses with stockings. There are unsurprisingly no photographs of the game, but I conducted some research to see if I could find uniforms similar to May’s description from the era. I found a few images of women’s basketball teams from the early 1900s with uniforms that are similar to what May described:
- 1892 image of women’s basketball team at Smith College image; site
- 1907 image of Johnson & Johnson’s Laurel Club women’s basketball team image; site
I found an 1899 image of high school girls playing basketball at Western High School in Washington D.C. in 1899 which appears to depict uniforms that are similar to the ones described in the 1892 article:
Again noting that I am not an expert on late nineteenth century gym attire for women, I will refer readers to two histories of women’s basketball uniforms which include information about the 1890s:
- 1890s Basketball Uniform Took Fashion from Trends of the Day
- Women’s Basketball – An Early Controversy
- Bloomers: A short history (discusses the most common uniforms in the 1890s, including ones similar to what we have described in San Francisco)
Now that we have cleared up the uniform questions, let us skip ahead a bit more of Mr. May’s discussion about his favorable impressions of the appearance of the players on both teams and move to the game.
The two teams of nine gathered for “the toss” – which I assume was the equivalent of an opening jump ball. The first possession went to the co-ed team. Potential violence ensued:
They all got together into a bunch and tried to hustle that ball into their basket, but the Head girls were on the alert and threw themselves in a body against the enemy.
(Note that the Head girls are the seminary students.)
This sounds more like football than basketball…
The reporter waxed poetic about how much he enjoyed the “scrimmage” between the teams, which involved “wrestle and struggle.” Setting aside his errant focus, I will note again that the substantive part of the passage sounds quite a bit like 19th century football.
The reporter stated that his sympathies were initially in like with the seminarians because they were smaller in stature than the co-eds. However, he was surprised to discover that despite their size, they had the better team. Here, he wrote about the captain of the seminary team, a certain Jenny (he spells it as Jennie as well):
She was here, there and everywhere, stepping and jumping over and on top of everybody, having no eyes or feeling for anything but that leather ball and that basket. Like a perfect little fury, Jenny, with disheveled hair and disordered wardrobe, fought, scratched and kicked until that ball was safety inside of that basket, and the Head nine had scored one.
After the Jenny description, we learn that there were not supposed to be any men in attendance. We learn this when the reporter noted that they were taking care of their appearance despite there being no men present. I know not whether the reporter had a press pass of some sort (The Morning Call was the most-circulated paper in San Francisco at the time) or whether he went in a disguise – but these questions are beyond the scope of the instant inquiry. After reporting that the women in attendance were enjoying the game, including a needlessly long digression on how the players were fixing their hair clips and damage to their “bathing-suits” (note: I think the editor missed this second “bathing-suit” reference), May returned to the game.
This time the Head girls started off and pretty soon the whole crowd was in a bunch again right in the middle of the hall, yelling, screeching, fighting, and scratching away like eighteen little demons. But the ‘co-eds’ were on their mettle, and they finally after a severe and protracted scrimmage got the ball into their basket.
We skip ahead past some more descriptions to the next section where May described the actual game:
With various luck the score stood 4 to 4 after the eighth struggle, and my favorites, the little ones from the Head Seminary, who were called the ‘Kids’ by the lofty co-eds, came out winners by landing the ball in a splendid manner.
To the Head Seminary goes the spoils by a final score of 5-4.
May described the women as being “exhausted” and having “numerous bruises” after the game. While I do believe based on the lack of rules and the football frame of reference that the game may have been rough, there may have been a bit of embellishment from the author. While he had noted that some of the women sustained small tears to their tights (which were apparently repaired), their gym uniforms would have covered nearly all of their arms and legs. It is possible that the bruises were part of May’s imagination or wishful thinking.
According to May, the players enjoyed the game and some left with cloaks. He reported that by the end of the game, a company of students drilling on campus had caught wind of the basket ball affair and had arrived to watch the end of the game.
Had Albert May been more interested in reporting on the basketball game than reporting that he was attracted to the women on both teams and offering his view that the players saw themselves as competing with the football teams, we may have learned more about matters such as the rules that the basket ball game was played under and how different it was from other early basket ball games in 1892. As I noted several times in the article, there are clues that this game in Berkeley was played more similarly to football or handball than to what basket ball was in 1892. But alas, the author’s attentions were often elsewhere.
However, despite the article’s myriad flaws, we can read through the Mr. May’s fantasy and condescension to glean an interesting story. A certain Mr. Magee introduced an unusual version of basketball to college and seminary students in Berkeley in November 1892. There was a game played between the college students and the seminary students on Friday, November 18, 1892. The game was won by the seminary students led by a certain Jennie. Moreover, in between May’s explaining how he somehow thought the women were wearing swimsuits, we gleaned a clear picture of what they were actually wearing – and cursory research reveals that the serious description is consistent with photographs of women’s basketball uniforms from the 1890s to early twentieth century.
While I am a bit late to the party – I congratulate Jennie and the seminary students for their hard-fought 5-4 victory. I do hope that Mr. Magee assessed the game closely and implemented some rules to make future basket ball games less like football and more like the refined version of basketball that James Naismith developed after he found that the first few games in Springfield were a bit too violent.