When croquet took off in mid-19th century Europe, it was largely popular with Victorian women, most of whom had never played an outdoor game in the company of men before. For this reason, most croquet games for young adults were chaperoned.
However, amorous youth evaded watchful eyes by playing a form known as “tight croquet,” wherein the player held the ball in place with his or her foot while striking it with the mallet, giving the player more control as to where the ball rolled. That way, young lovers could send their opponents far away chasing after the ball, or they could look for the ball themselves in the bushes.
Croquet mostly likely developed from a 1300s French game called paille-maille or “ball-mallet”—Pall Mall in England—which is said to have been altered by a French doctor for his patients and renamed “croquet” after its crooked sticks. In the early 1800s, “crooky,” a crude form of croquet, caught on with Irish peasants, who used broomstick mallets and willow-rod hoops. This form came to England in the 1850s, and by 1860 it was so popular among high-society types that garden parties were referred to as croquet parties.
Around 1861, “Routledge's Handbook of Croquet” appeared, giving the loosey-goosey party game more order—this first rule book still more or less applies to the British take on the sport. Captain Mayne Reid’s “Croquet: A Treatise and Commentary,” published in England 1863 and New York in 1869, suggested the game could serve as a healthy alternative to war and discouraged women from playing. Then in 1866, the first British croquet champion Walter Jones-Whitmore published a series of articles on tactics in “The Field,” reproduced in a 1868 book called “Croquet Tactics,” with hand-colored diagrams and instructions on types of strokes.
That year, the All England Croquet Club was formed as an official governing body to establish universal game rules. In 1869, this group leased four acres in Wimbledon. However, thanks to the new stringent rules, women were losing interest in the once-lighthearted game, and in 1877, a new craze called Sphairistrike or lawn tennis was sweeping garden parties. Soon, the club sanctioned one of its lawns for this new game, and changed its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. Lawn tennis, of course, became the sport we now know as just tennis, and it took over the lawns at Wimbledon.
Not surprisingly, croquet caught on in America, too, around 1865. Board game maker Milton Bradley published “Croquet, Its Principles and Rules” in 1871, and by 1882, twenty-five regional croquet clubs met in New York to form the National American Croquet Association. Games played in the 1890s at the Boston Common were accompanied by much drinking and gambling, which prompted local clergymen to ban the game. Still, it was revived later in the decade, and in 1900, when Americans and British were playing more or less the same game, croquet was introduced as a sport at the Paris Olympic Games.
But the Brits still had a quibble with the America version. Turn-of-the-century English rules banned rubber-head mallets and insisted on a nine-wicket court. In the U.S., croquet...
Croquet made a comeback in the U.S. in the 1920s, as the first Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Herbert Bayard Swope, Sr., and his famous Algonquin Round Table of writers, humorists, and intellectuals took to the game, using Swope’s own rules. In the ’30s, the Work Progress Administration and National Recreation Association included croquet sets in their standard playground equipment sets.
During the 1940s and 1950s, croquet’s popularity as a suburban lawn game grew steadily, as manufacturers put out sets with a wide variety of rules. The Marx Brothers, as well as Hollywood studio heads Sam Goldwyn and Daryl Zanuck, delighted in the game. These West Coast bigwigs had a heated competition with East Coast heavyweights George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, and Dorothy Parker.
But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that croquet was revived as a serious sport through competitive U.S. clubs using American rules on both six- and nine-wicket courts. Finally, in the 1970s, the British-style croquet style became popular in America again—to preserve the U.S. version of the sport, Jack Osburn organized the United States Croquet Association in 1977.