The History of Sporting America

Philadelphia Pastimes

By: John L. Cotter

Originally Published in 1985

View PDF

Archaeological traces of sports are often ephem­eral, especially in North America. The Indians left a few ball courts, notably in the Southwest, various gaining pieces, a snow snake here and a chunky stone there, and accounts in ethnological records (see Becker’s article on lacrosse in this issue). European and other immi­grants left a little more but not lunch.

In Colonial Philadelphia, the games played by boys and girls alike reflected sports practiced in their ethnic and national places of origin in Europe. Swedish and German children practiced in the 17th and 18th century the same games of skill and athletic prowess glimpsed in Peter Breughel’s famous 16th cen­tury painting of children’s games in Flanders, or in the delightful Dutch blue and white tiles which adorned fireplaces and walls of New as well as Old World houses to recount for burghers of all ages and lauds how childhood hours were spent (Fig. 2). These tile fragments are prime ar­chaeological records.

English immigrants also had their sport patterns, and these precedents have a clear echo in present practice. As the 19th century neared, Philadelphia boys were having fun with such toys and games of dexterity and strategic skills as marbles in its many forms (spans and snow, knock-out, ring-taw), sling shot, tops (whip-top, peg top), pea shooter, battledore and shuttle­cock, and that wonder sport known from the stone age to Roman times and ever since: skipping round, flat stones on water. Early Philadel­phians from England called this click, duck, and drake (one, two, and three skips). Adults applied the term “playing ducks and drakes” to risky circumstances, often financial, wherein a venture briefly skipped on the surface, then sank (Cluck 1830).

Colonial boys, as today, practiced sports pursued by their fathers: baste the bear (after bear baiting, but with the “bear” tethered by a short rope to his “keeper” who tried to touch all who attempted to bait the bear with twisted handker­chiefs), ice skating, archery, cricket, and football—a rowdy game which Edward III (1312-1377) briefly pro­hibited by edict because it impeded the progress of archery (Chick 1830). Indeed, Shakespeare viewed football dimly: Kent (giving Oswald his due): “…you base football player” (Lear I, IV). The football, which began as a sphere, developed in America an increasingly elon­gated contour from the 1870s until, by the turn of the 20th century, it had definitely assumed the modern pointed end shape, thus rendering football more truly a game of chance, since, contrary to the soccer ball, no one could guess with certainty how it would bounce.

In reviewing the history of sports. it is worth noting that the equip­ment used has always had to be ex­pertly (and expensively) crafted. A good bow, like skiis and tennis rackets, is something of a work of art. Henry VIII complained of the expense of keeping Ann Boleyn in archery equipment (although he soon headed off Ann and her ex­penses), and to this day Olympic committees express anxiety over such matters (Final Report of the President’s Commission, 1977).

There was also rounders, played with a bat and leather-covered hard ball of wound twine, plainly the forerunner of “work up” baseball ex­cept that the bases were run clock­wise; and goff or bandy-ball, from “the northern part of the kingdom,” that entailed using a stick with a crooked end to drive a small leather hall stuffed with feathers a mile or more from hole to hole—a fashion­able sport among the nobility at the beginning of the 17th century. Boys here knew archery, javelin tossing, fencing (with sticks), stiltwalking, swimming, and wrestling (Weigley 1982:96).

What kids couldn’t manage was horseracing; footraces had to suffice, and did. But adult men were racing horses as soon as they could be im­ported, and leisure allowed recrea­tion—and betting. Stunt riding in an indoor ring, the hippodrome. flourished at the turn of the 19th century. The Walnut Street Theater (1809) began as one of these. al­though the Philadelphia institution was soon refitted to become what is today the oldest continuously operated theater in the English-speaking world. As for the race tracks where Philadelphia colonials cheered their favorite horses, only traces remain. One was along what is now Race Street—the name has stuck ever since. The other was where now stands City Hall at Center Square, still the scene of betting but on mayors rather than mares (Weigley 1982:96).

Other spectator sports character­istically enjoyed by men were bear and bull baiting and cockfighting. For participant and spectator there was the manly—if rough—athletics of wrestling, which could be either “fair fight” or “rough and tumble,” the latter entailing kicking, biting, and gouging. According to Pierce Egan (1822), a Mr. John Palmer noted of his travels in the United States and lower Canada in 1817 that Prize-boxing is unknown in The United States. Alexander Graydon said that American ice skaters by the latter 18th century were “the best and most elegant in the world.” They were good swim­mers, too: Benjamin Franklin had been expert at both skating and swimming from his Boston child­hood, and as an elderly diplomat he amazed Parisians by casting off his clothes and swimming briskly in the Seine.

Women were not much at the pe­destrian sports in early America, but the men of the frontier were. The most notable relay race of record was the infamous Walking Purchase of 1686 in which the most energetic walkers were organized to cover in a day and a half enough of south­eastern Pennsylvania in a closed cir­cuit to dismay the unsuspecting In­dians who had agreed to yield the land so encircled. In that athletic scam a team of three athletes, ex­pected by the Indians to walk, soon were running flat out on a cleared path, and by noon of the second day had gained Thomas Penn, the second Lord Proprietor, half a mil­lion acres of prime aboriginal corn­fields and hunting grounds. As if blighted by this precedent, walking as an athletic feat languished, and it was not until 1876 that walking races were included in American cham­pionships and the sport went na­tional. American sportsmen were outwalked by a Brighton policeman in the Olympic Games of London in 1908 (Encyclopedia Brittanica). Walking has gone downhill in this country ever since. Jogging is cur­rently in ascendency, having sur­passed cycling, which wheeled onto the American scene at the Philadel­phia Centennial Exposition in 1876.

The emergence of the university in 19th century America presented a bridge between the athletics of childhood and adulthood, and col­legiate sport was born. This was an­ticipated by the ever avant garde Ben Franklin who proposed in 1749 for the students of what was to be­come the University of Pennsyl­vania: “That to keep them in Health, and to strengthen and render active their Bodies, they frequently exercisd in Running, Leaping, Wrestling, and Swim­ming. etc.'” (Franklin 1749).

At the University of Pennsylvania competitive sports began in the fall of 1873 when members of the classes of’ ’75, ’76, and ’77 organized an athletic association, offering at time first meet a contest of throwing a baseball for distance and a running match (Orton n.d.). In the spring of 1874 the association was reorga­nized and the number of events was raised to 10. The record shows a re­doubtable H. L. Willoughby took the hop-step and jump at 35 feet 81/2 inches, to which he added the hammer throw (9 lbs.) at 72 feet 101/2 inches and the standing broad jump at 8 feet 81/2 inches. T. Kerr took the 120-yard dash in 12 sec­onds, the 120-yard hurdles (3) in 15 seconds, and H. W Andrews won the baseball throw at 327 feet 51/2 inches. The broad jump went to H. Porter at 14 feet 1 inch. The com­petitions became intercollegiate for the 1892-3 season.

Rowing on the Schuylkill was first organized at Penn by the University Barge Club in 1854, to remain in­tramural and local for many years. Later the victorian boat houses above the Fairmount water works were to become the most enduring heritage of this type of architecture in the nation.

Prior to 1876 when rugby was “first and finally adopted,” Football had been played “for many years” at Penn. (In January of 1872 a mere 14 seniors played 21 students picked from the other three classes and won 3-0.) The year 1887 was Penn’s worst, when it lost to Yale 50-0. In due time the rugby tradition evap­orated.

When the Penn campus moved to West Philadelphia from its original Center City campus in the 1870s, a sporting field was established on the site of time present residential Quad­rangle or ‘Quad’ (the dormitories were built in 1898). Here, between Pine Street—now a walk—and Spruce Street, bleachers stretched in an “L” on the west and north sides of an oval track which enclosed a football field with a baseball dia­mond at the west end. By 1894 the bleachers were handsomely roofed over; four years later the dormitory complex had obliterated all, and the athletic field was moved towards the Schuylkill, into the present-day Franklin Field opposite the new University Museum, with baseball diamonds relegated to the railroad track bottoms by the river. (Franklin Field overlays an earlier 19th cen­tury potter’s Field from which emerges, unbidden, in storm drain excavations, occasional evidence of medical school teaching specimens—a sawn skull or so.)

In 1900, a Penn track team of 13 men dominated the medallists in the Second Olympiad in Paris (Fig. 6). Penn mustered a selection of top men from the track team which had that year won its fourth consecutive victory in the Intercollegiates with a total of 39 points, 18 of which were contributed by the phenomenal Alvin Christian Kraenzlein. At Paris he took 4 gold medals, J. B. Tewkes­bury and I. K. Baxter another 2 each, and G. W. Orton took 1, for a Penn sweep of 9 firsts, plus 7 sec­onds, and 4 fourths. This was the primordial “Chariots of Fire” in American collegiate athletics, never to be matched (Penn historian E. Digby Baltzell in a speech to the Alumni Reunion, October 27, 1984). Penn might have won more golds had not the contests been held on a Sunday, when staunch Presbyte­rians J. McCracken and E. R. Bush­nell, both leading athletes, declined to compete and went to church in­stead. Nor were these gentlemen to be remembered only as ath­letes. Kraenzlein, McCracken and Tewkesbury became notable M.D.s, Orton was a Ph.D., and Remington an Episcopal Bishop of Pennsyl­vania.

Playing fields and stadia are quickly replaced and lost in America, in contrast to the ball courts of the Maya and the Greek stadia. The history of Penn sports lies mainly in the assorted equip­ment saved as relics of past triumphs, some prune-wrinkled footballs, the trophies, and the rec­ord of events in the archives. And there are the many sculptures of athletes by the physician-artist R. Lit McKenzie who did for college athletes in the 1920s what many Greek sculptors did for the Olympic heroes of antiquity.

Cite This Article

Cotter, John L.. "The History of Sporting America." Expedition Magazine 27, no. 2 (August, 1985): -. Accessed July 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to