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Amusements

Ping-Pong is a Craze

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During the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, the convergence of time-saving technologies, increased prosperity, and the growing middle- and leisure-classes created a society ripe for a variety of fads. One of these fads was for ping-pong, or table tennis. Lawn tennis, the outdoor sport, rose in popularity in the 1870s and 1880s, and no doubt due to the vagaries of English weather, the tennis-mad devised a way to play the sport indoors. This indoor tennis game, known as “whiff-whaff” or, according to famed toy shop Hamley’s of Regent Street, as “Gossima,” gradually became a popular after-dinner parlour game until around 1901 when The Windsor Magazine stated “whilst the game was undoubtedly introduced in a crude form several years ago, it was not played to any extent till July or August of last year, yet by Christmas it had caused a perfect furore, and no upper or middle class social function was considered complete without its Ping Pong table.”

Ping Pong
From The Library of Congress

“Arnold Parker, the author of Ping-Pong, the Game and How to Play It, 1902, and one of the earliest champions, gives 1881 as the first date he had heard in connection with the game. He says that there was a rumour that someone in that year started to play with cigar-box lids for bats, champagne corks (rounded one assumes) for balls and a row of books for a net. This is rather vague but he states more confidently that the game really began about 1891 when a Mr. James Gibb persuaded John Jaques, the sports manufacturers, to register the title ‘Gossima’ for a version of the game which first of all used india-rubber balls until the introduction, about 1900, of celluloid (or xylonite) balls. The much repeated story – which probably originates with Parker – tells how Gibb, a prominent athlete, brought back some toy celluloid halls (sometimes said to be coloured) from the United States. Jaques soon saw how these balls were a huge improvement on the small india-rubber balls previously used” [Source]

Jaques of London trademarked the word “ping pong” in 1901, and the name “came to be used for the game played by the rather expensive Jaquesses equipment, with other manufacturers calling it table tennis.” By the following year, fifteen books were published on the topic and the craze had spread to the United States, where, according to The Suburban Citizen, thousands of sets were sold, and one factory even churned out 1000 sets daily.

Ping-pong even infiltrated America’s golf clubs:

“Our indoor putting green in the back of the store has been occupied by a ping-pong table for several weeks. Lots of people who never saw the game come in here and watch a few sets, get fascinated by the play and end by buying racquets and balls and a net to take home and set up on their dining-room or billiard table. There’s a game going on here almost every hour of the day. People can’t seem to get enough of it.”

The activity acquired legitimacy through its recommended health benefits, and Zaza Belasco (surely a pseudonym!) states confidently in Woman’s Physical Development:

Ping pong makes you work hard. Ping pong causes rills and rivulets of perspiration to flow and makes you feel from head to foot that moist glow that only hard exercise can produce. There is no doubt that it is one of the best flesh reducers known to too heavy man—or woman.

According to Dr. F. L. Burt of the Union General Hospital of Boston, and a well-known specialist: ” Proud men and beautiful women spend at least $1,000,000 every year in Boston alone, and nobody knows how many millions of foot pounds of energy, in their frantic efforts to get rid of superfluous tissue. They ride, swim, walk, box, fence, play golf, and do all sorts of leg-swinging and kicking up calisthenics in their anxiety to get thin and stay so. They enrich doctors who have the reputation of being able to cure adiposity. Quacks of all kinds thrive and fatten on these martyrs who drink nauseous waters, hot or lukewarm, and who submit to boiling, steaming, baking and Japanese, Burmese, Swedish or German massage in the hope of achieving and retaining slenderness.”

To my mind, Dr. Burt is right, but, presto! ping pong arrives and the necessity for all these arduous labors and sacrifices vanishes with its advent. Moreover, the game amuses while it reduces, which is more than the laboring fat man can say for his therapeutic horse or walk on baking, boiling and kneading. It may seem idle to introduce here any evidence as to the amusing quality of the game, but let it be recorded for the benefit of the ponderous and pondering type that ping pong is every bit as fascinating as golf and that hardened golf veterans, veritable high priests of the game, have deserted the pastime of the links to burn incense before this new god of sport.

High society playing ping pong
From L'Illustration, 25 May 1901

In Canada, “a first edition of 500 copies of Ping Pong and How to Play It, by the English champion, Mr, E. Arnold, was disposed of within a week or so,” tournaments were devised from Halifax to Stockholm to Vienna, and in Russia, the game was banned because it was believed that playing the game had an adverse effect upon players’ eyesight!

Of course, as with all fads, the wags came out to poke fun at ping-pong, with one clever stanza ribbing shopkeepers:

If up-to-date you’ll advertise
Ping-pong shoes and ping-pong ties,
Ping-pong cakes, and ping-pong clothes,
Ping-pong pills and ping-pong hose,
Ping-pong crackers, ping-pong soap,
Ping-pong cocktails, ping-pong “dope,”
Ping-pong cigarettes, cigars,
Ping-pong motors, ping-pong cars,
Ping-pong tea of ping-pong brew,
Ping-pong ice cream soda, too.
Ping-pong couches, ping-pong beds,
Ping-pong hats for ping-pong heads,
Ping-pong gowns for ping-pong girls,
Ping-pong irons for ping-pong curls,
Ping-pong shirts, and ping-pong stocks,
Ping-pong watches, ping-pong clocks,
Ping-pong curtains, ping-pong rugs.
Ping-pong remedies for bugs.
Ping-pong hairpins, ping-pong nails,
Ping-pong carpets, ping-pong veils,
Ping-pong plasters for your corns,
Ping-pong whistles, ping-pong horns,
Ping-pong goods and ping-pong trash.
Why, then, you’ll ping-pong lots of cash!

The craze for ping-pong died out around 1903, but serious enthusiasts kept up with the game, and table tennis associations sprang up in the early 1920s, with London hosting the first official World Championships in 1926.

Further Reading:
Chronicling America – Ping-Pong
Ping-pong (Table Tennis): The Game and How to Play It by Arnold Parker

The Tradition and History of Easter Eggs

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The egg is one of the enduring symbols of Easter, and unsurprisingly, we find it present far, far before the modern era.

Easter and Easter eggs have their roots in pagan Europe, where eggs symbolized the rebirth of the Earth in celebrations of spring. When the pagans converted to Christianity, they kept many of their symbols and holidays and gave them meaning within their new religion.

The meaning of the Easter egg can also be found in other mythologies and religions: “[e]ggs were held by the Egyptians as a sacred emblem of the renovation of mankind after the Deluge. Jews [of the Ancient Era] adopted this mythos to suit the circumstances of their history, as a type of their departure from the land of Egypt, and it was used in the Feast of the Passover, as part of the furniture of the table, with the Paschal lamb. The Christians have […] used it on this day, as retaining the elements of future life, for an emblem of the Resurrection.”

Edwardian easter egg

Interestingly enough, the English word for “Easter” is Saxon, although the Spanish, French, and Scandinavians cling to the Semitic word, derived from the Aramaic pesach, which means “to pass by,” and has been translated into passover. From this, Easter eggs are also called also Pasche, Pash, Pace, or Paste eggs.

The earliest known practice of painting and decorating eggs comes from 2,500 years ago, when the ancient Zoroastrians painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which fell on the Spring equinox. The painting of eggs also derived from the folk traditions of Bulgaria, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, and Poland. In the 18th century, Italy produced beautifully designed and elaborately painted Easter eggs, which were frequently presented as gifts to ladies of quality.

By the Edwardian era, decorating Easter eggs had become a very fine art–eggs were painted, dyed, enameled, bejeweled, and beribboned. Some books of children’s amusements even featured instructions for turning eggs shells into a variety of shapes, such as frogs, or gluing delicate appendages on them to turn them into rabbits or cranes. In Switzerland, craftsmen carved delicate wooden eggs, which were painted and highly polished, and held little gifts (a bottle of scent, a tiny vanity bag, or some of the miniature bronze or china animals and birds).

French eggs were incredible chic, “covered with every conceivable material, stylishly trimmed with ribbons, artificial flowers, birds, and butterflies.” They usually contained chocolates or bon-bons, and the more sophisticated eggs were used as table decorations. And let us not forget the absolutely amazing and breathtaking eggs created by Carl Fabergé for Russia’s Imperial family and for the wealthy.

Duchess of Marlborough Egg
Duchess of Marlborough Egg

Chocolate and chocolate cream eggs were also very popular treats. Charles Apell’s Up-to-Date Candy Teacher gives a recipe for chocolate Easter eggs:

Place in a copper kettle and melt down on the fire 50 lbs. of No. 1 fondant cream and heat the cream thin enough to cast, then add 15 lbs. of special nougat fondant and heat the cream thin enough so that it can be casted by runner or funnel dropper. Then add 4 ounces of vanilla flavor, then cast in starch, using the different sizes of egg shape molds, from the 5 cent egg to the $1 size chocolate dipped egg.

Make the eggs with fruit, nuts and cocoanut in the cream, or drop the glazed pineapple or glazed cherries or nuts in the cream. Then leave in starch over night, then dip each half in the 25c and 50c and the $1 size in chocolate. Then, after they are dipped in chocolate, stick the two halves together with chocolate. Then decorate by placing a border around the egg where the two halves are stuck together. In making the large size eggs the cream must be heated good and hot before being casted in starch, or otherwise the cream will not hold its shape when dipped in chocolate.

In making the 10 cent size eggs stick the two halves together before being dipped in chocolate, then have the chocolate dippers make the decoration or splice on the chocolate dipped egg when it is being dipped.

For the traditional Easter egg, the coloring was obtained from inexpensive dyes, or cheap ribbon, which was boiled in a little water and the egg submerged into the bowl until the desired color was obtained. Calico eggs were very popular, and to make them, you would wrap each egg in a piece of chintz, and the pattern would adhere to the egg shell while boiling. Other sources for color included the red skins of onions for rose, logwood dye for blue, Spinach water for green, and onion juice water for a golden yellow.

For painted eggs for place cards or caricatures, the boiled egg was washed in powdered pumice to remove the gloss of the shell, then the egg yolk was blown out of the shell through small holes pricked at both ends. After the yolk was gently blown out of the egg, it was rinsed with warm water and dried carefully. The decoration was drawn with a hard pencil and then quickly painted over with watercolors. If the egg was intended to hold a dainty treat, a hole was made on one end, the treat dropped in, and the shell pasted with thin paper.

The most enduring Easter egg event in American history is the annual egg rolling across the White House lawn. Some point to Dolly Madison as the arbiter of this tradition, but it kicked into full swing under the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881). Children of every ethnicity arrived from just about every corner of Washington D.C. to roll their eggs on the White Lot (an area located between the South Lawn of the White House and the Washington Monument). By the 1900s, it had become the social event of fashionable Washington, and a Marine Band was added for sprightly music!

Egg rolling
Egg rolling on the White House lawn

Further Reading:

Every-day life in Washington by Charles Melville Pepper
“Easter Eggs And What To Do With Them” (Every Woman’s Encyclopedia v4)
“Easter Eggs”, The Living Age, Volume 113 (1872)
“Customs and Traditions of Easter”, Lippincott’s Magazine, Volume 33 (1884)
“Rolling the Easter Egg” by John Nixon, The Strand Magazine, Volume 21 (1901)
“Preparing Easter Eggs,” The New York Times, April 2, 1911

An Edwardian Mardi Gras

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street maskers, 1900s mardi grasThough the common perception of Mardi Gras links it with New Orleans, the tradition began in Mobile, Alabama in 1703, as that city was the capital of the territory of Louisiane (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama). The Carnival season in New Orleans began with the grand ball of the “Twelfth Night Revellers,” on January 9, and ended on Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday, though English-speaking countries called the day “Shrove Tuesday”), which was the eve of Ash Wednesday and marked the close of the festivities and the beginning of the Lenten Season. Because the New York social season (and those of society in many other major cities) closed with Lent, the celebration spread from the South during the Gilded Age and the Four Hundred, as well as everyday New Yorkers, threw a variety of balls and gatherings to mark the occasion.

Since Mardi Gras celebrations had begun to distance itself from the Church, it descended into what many longtime residents of the city considered “chaos.” The Mystic Crew, or Crew of Comus was founded in 1857 by six New Orleans businessmen as a secret society which would observe Mardi Gras in a less crude fashion. This society was soon joined by rivals–the Argonauts (1891), Atlanteans (1891), Krewe of Proteus (1881), Momus (1879), and Rex (1880), whose members were also made up of businessmen in high society. With the appearance of these secret societies, and the accompanying exclusive balls, floats and parades, Mardi Gras lost a fair bit of its wildness and openness by the turn of the century.

Arrival of Rex, 1897Nevertheless, the customs of these secret societies became a high point of the celebrations, particularly for women and debutantes, who were selected as maids and Queens for each society’s float. Of most importance was Rex, king of the carnival, who came up the river on his private yacht, which was decked out from stem to stem with many colored flags and was saluted by visiting battleships with twenty-one guns. The local militia would meet “His Majesty” on the landing and a grand military parade would lead Rex to the city hall, where he was presented the keys of the city by the “Duke of Crescent City” (the mayor). In the evening, the Krewe of Comus would throw a ball at the old French Opera house, where “all the kings and their queens, representing all the carnival societies, were in the opening quadrille, all crowned and robed and with their splendid suites.” At midnight, all of the masked men would disappear and return in evening dress, but as they were required to show their invitations, it was impossible to discern whom was masked as who.

Another old custom was the “King Cake” or gâteau du Rois. Though associated with the festival of Epiphany in the Christmas season, the French and Spanish colonists brought their traditions to the New World and it morphed into a Mardi Gras custom, since the King and Queen of krewes were chosen on King’s Day, or Twelfth Night. The King cake is a ring of twisted bread topped with icing or sugar dyed the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green, and whomever found the trinket baked within its folds was required to provide the cake for the following year’s celebration.

When the clock struck midnight, it marked the end of Mardi Gras and the beginning of Ash Wednesday, the day of repentance. Many of the celebrations and traditions of Mardi Gras of the 19th century remain, so when you get the chance to visit New Orleans during the festivities you will notice the connection between the present and the past remains strong!

Further Reading:
The Picayune’s Guide to New Orleans (1903 edition)
The Picayune Creole cook book (1922)