The sport of croquet was born, some say, on the British Isles in the mid-19th century and soon migrated to most other English-speaking countries. But others claim the Romans were playing a game with a small leather ball and curved sticks over 2,000 years ago. Peasants in France played a game in the 1300s with shepherd crooks and some French croquet enthusiasts like to say the word croquet comes from the French word for hook, crochet. Meanwhile, Italians popularized the game of pallamaglio in which a large ball was passed through arches or hoops in alleys, and the winner was the one who achieved this feat in the fewest hits or strokes. Dutch manuscripts from the 1500s describe a similar game called klos.
Mention the word croquet, and many of us recall playing on the front lawns or backyards of our childhood homes. My own introduction to the game was in the 1940s growing up on a farm in the heartland of America in Mahaska County, Iowa. I took great delight in hitting my sister’s ball under the lilac bushes on our front lawn. Years later, when introduced to serious or competitive croquet, I learned that hitting a ball out of the court meant the end of a turn. (Not a very good strategy for winning.)
Little did I know then that King Louis XIV of France and King Charles II of England had also played a similar game. Or that Wimbledon was famous for croquet tournaments before tennis took over. Or that Oxford University has a club for croquet dating to the 1860s. There’s more: In 1894, Frederick Douglass built a croquet court at his home in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In 1900, croquet made a brief appearance as an Olympic sport in the Paris games. And there was a bit of a scandal years earlier when President Rutherford B. Hayes spent $6 of American taxpayer money on a set of fancy boxwood croquet balls in 1878. Croquet-gate?