Antique Photograph: Tennis Party

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I took a photo of this photo last fall at the Liberty flea market.  It was pretty expensive, but the owner was nice enough to let me take a shot of it.  There is so much to look at and think about, and it has given me a chance to use my dating skills to give a shot at when it might have been taken.

Unfortunately there was no information about the photo at all, so I have no idea who these young people were.  Were they friends?  Relatives? Members of a club?

The first thing I looked at was the shape of the heads of the tennis racquets.  Look carefully at the racquets in the photo and you will notice that they all have a squared off shape at the top of the head.  One site I found dated this shape to the late 1880s.

Because all the women are seated, and three of them are partly obscured, we might be able to tell more from the men’s attire and hair.  I thought it was interesting that seven of the eight have facial hair, with all but one of them having only mustaches.  Only the man with the beard has sideburns.  Their hair is very short, very controlled, and several have center parts.

Here’s what Joan Severa had to say about men’s hair in the early 1890s:

…very short haircuts, almost shaved up the sides, and clipped necks.  A center part was usual, and the hair was oiled.  A generous walrus-style mustache appears with some frequency in the photographs.  

Most of the men are wearing sack jackets, in a style that came out in the late 1880s.  The jackets were rounded at the hem to show off the waistcoat, with three or four buttons.  The sleeves were shorter than before, allowing a bit of shirt cuff to show.  The ties shown are also consistent with the styles of the late 1880s and early 1890s, with both the bowtie, and the black neck tie (tied either over or under the collar) being popular.  Pant legs were slim, which you can see on several of the men.

As for the women, there are some clues as well.  First, I considered what I did not see – the puffed sleeve caps that came into vogue at the beginning of the 1890s.  By the middle of the decade the sleeves were the huge leg-o’-mutton that is so associated with the 1890s.  Since none of the women are wearing the puffed sleeve, I think it is safe to say the photo had to have been made before 1892.

We can see the most detail on the woman on the right.  She certainly does not seem to be dressed for tennis, with the lacy underskirt and front of her bodice.  The skirt has a draped apron effect, which became more prevalent as the bustle started to collapse around 1886.  The woman on the left has a much sportier look with her striped skirt.

All the women have high collars, another feature of the late 1880s.  The sleeves on all are shorter than full length, with the wrist bones being exposed.

As we saw with the men, the hairstyles reveal a lot of information.  Joan Severa quoted the July, 1890 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal to describe changes to hair styles that year:

And then remember that the “bang” is no longer a heavy “mop,” but should be a softly curled fringed that comes like a halo about one’s face, not overshadowing the eyes or hiding the forehead, only shading and softening the entire face.  The frizzy bang is essentially bad form.

The addition of the little dog in the lap adds a lot of charm to the scene.  And do any hat experts care to comment on the hat that is in front of the woman on the right?

The woman on the right in this section of the photo is wearing a plaid dress with a sort of pinafore over it.  I could not find a similar garment in any of my sources, poor as they are.  When I posted this photo on Instagram it was asked if that was another dog on her lap.  At first I thought it was her hat, but you can see the plain straw hat to the right.  Could this be a cat, maybe a dog?

So, add it all up and what do we get?  My best guess is 1889 or 1890.  I don’t mind if you care to point out something I missed, or to correct my dating.


Filed under Summer Sports, Vintage Photographs

10 responses to “Antique Photograph: Tennis Party

  1. Diana coleman

    Just took a picture of a picture of my grandfather probably taken in mid 1890’s, which follows your criteria for dates. Will try to send it to you.


  2. looking at a photograph of my great grandmother and family – I think your timing is correct-this was dated 1901 . The unconstructed jacket/soft shoulder of the men’s casual jacket. “Gay 90’s? perhaps? Strange there is not a Stetson straw hat or a bowler anywhere! So that alone may help?


  3. Did not see the straw hat on the gentleman ! does not look like a Stetson though!?


  4. I was thinking 1880’s as well, based on the women’s bodices, and both men’s and women’s hairstyles. Very intriguing!


  5. Tennis first started in 1100 BC….so that gives you plenty leeway to guess a date. smile.
    They do show a picture of an 1884 racket with that funny shape that is in the picture…then the article jumps all the way to 1947 with descriptions and pictures and info (nothing in betwen).

    So there you have it…this means the rackets in the picture are somewhere between 1884 and 1947.

    I looked up the history of Tennis and this is all I had time to research…but this may be of help to any tennis slulths (is that the right word) amoug y’all.

    Good Luck….Thanks Lizzy for a fun stimulating write…. another smile.


  6. Ruth

    I think your dating is right. Maybe the pinafore is an apron to keep her dress clean? It’s very plain and I don’t remember fancy aprons for dresses being worn then. And who can tell on the thing on her lap! Probably another little dog as there is already one there. Love those expressions, still in the era of “hold still for the picture” and you just know sometimes you are going to have a blank expression! Or the hurry up and get this over one. And all the hair is so severe and pasted down, this must have been a before the game picture.


  7. From the net behind them and the shape of the rackets, I almost wonder if they’re actually there to play badminton. But then the gentleman in the picture has something that looks like a a round ball….and then a gentleman to the right looks like he’s either wearing knickers with long socks or riding boots. Not what I’d choose for either sport!

    Interesting as well that most men are looking at the camera, but only one of the ladies is….it’s almost as if it’s posed to look as if it’s candid. Hard to pull that one off when exposure times would have been so long!


  8. Christina

    I think the photo is c1887. The bold striped skirt was fashionable for outdoor pursuits. The fitted bodices and tight sleeves and cuffs are all good. The straw hat is very nice. Here is a reference;


  9. I’m with Christina. The women’s hairstyles (those short bangs/fringe), the sleek, super-fitted bodices, it says mid- to late-1880s to me. Don’t know much about sports at all, so I’m no help there. We should get Barbara to look at the woman’s hat!


  10. I love all of the details and clues that went into dating this picture to such a precise date! Absolutely fascinating.


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