“Sporting Girls”

So I guess I’ve been neglecting the blog at bit. I’ve been swamped with work and other forms of chaos since about November.

A break in the work allowed me to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is always recommended for sanity and general refreshment, especially when they have charming and bizarre little exhibits like:

The "Polka Dot Nine"

The “Polka Dot Nine”

“A Sport for Every Girl”
Women and Sports in the Collection of Jefferson R. Burdick

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tobacco companies produced small advertisement cards, sort of an early version of baseball cards. They weren’t limited to baseball—or even sports in general—but featured series of cards like “Actors and Actresses,” “Famous Generals,” “Birds of America,” “Natives in Costume,” and “City Flags.” Women who appeared in the series who were usually actors, and there were sets of cards with names like “The World’s Beauties” and the tantalizing “Parasol Drills.” But “sporting girl” cards also became popular, and they are the subject of the Met’s exhibit.

As opposed to traditional baseball cards, most of the sporting girl cards don’t feature known athletes (not surprising, given that there weren’t a lot of actual female athletes around back then). There are only a couple of named women in the Met’s exhibit. Annie Oakley was the first, the only woman in a set of cards from 1887 depicting “The World’s Champions.”

Trapeze, Flying Jump

Trapeze, Flying Jump

Many of the cards are painted images of women engaging in various sports, plus there are a lot of photographs of women dressed up as baseball players or cyclists and acting out their sports quite seriously.

Compared with the more serious photograph cards, the painted cards often seem fanciful.

Take the trapeze artist to the left, for example, in her bright red stockings and uncomfortable-looking little shoes with low heels.

I have to say she doesn’t look like she is making much of an effort to grab the bar there. Perhaps that’s all part of the act: she flies limply through space, staring into the distance, until the crowd below gasps in fear. Then she grabs the bar, lightning-quick, just before it swings out of range, and the crowd sighs with relief and cheers. Or maybe that’s overthinking the image a bit.

There is one named woman in the Met’s little exhibit besides Annie Oakley: Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer and film star. She appears in her tight-fitting one-piece swimsuit. Kellerman designed this swimsuit, which was vastly different from the loose-fitting suits common at the time—Kellerman’s suit actually allowed women to move freely enough to swim. This swimsuit was so controversial that she was once arrested for indecency when she showed up on a Massachusetts beach wearing one.

Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman (last name spelled with two n’s in the image)



Typically, what was controversial and “indecent” in real life was not a problem in media. Her swimsuit seems positively dull compared to the costumes in some of the sillier painted cards (such as the “Fireman” in the “Occupations for Women” set of cards).

I’m guessing the woman in the card to the right is supposed to be a baseball outfielder, elaborately kitted out in knickers, cute little yellow pumps, and something that seems to be attempting to be a shirt.

It’s interesting to compare painted cards like this one with the photograph cards of women athletes, such as the “Polka Dot Nine” baseball players above. This “Outfielder” card here seems so purely salacious that it makes you wonder about the intent and reception of the seemingly serious photograph cards. Were they to be taken seriously? Were those “girl baseball players” mere curiosities? I’m not an American historian and I know next to nothing about late nineteenth century ephemera, so I can’t answer those questions. But even without answers, the exhibit gives us a fascinating look at women’s sports before there really were any serious women’s sports.

The Met’s exhibit runs through early July. It’s small and quirky—that is, utterly delightful.


About eteokretan

Interests include: books, art, movies, history, mythology, wandering around, people watching, being a bit weird, running, soccer.
This entry was posted in art, feminism, sports and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “Sporting Girls”

  1. smintheus says:

    These cards are fascinating and hilarious. The changes in how women were depicted during the 25 year span covered by the exhibit are pretty remarkable.

    • eteokretan says:

      Yes, Annette Kellerman and her swimsuit are revolutionary. The suit’s utilitarian; it’s not brightly colored and festooned with ribbons and sashes. It puts purpose above prettiness. It points to a future where women in sports is actually about women playing sports. I’m thinking I have to look up more about Kellerman; she seems really interesting.

  2. auntadadoom says:

    I love the baseball photo, where the batter appears to have hit the ball about three inches, and run about four, in the time it took the fielder to get over there and grab it off the ground. She’ll be tagged out in about .0001 seconds.

    • eteokretan says:

      Yeah, I noticed that. And it seems that there’s a catcher’s mask on the ground, so maybe it was a bunt that went 3 inches, and the catcher just has to lean over and pick it up. Either way, that runner’s not going anywhere.

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