Prospect Park’s Olde Athletics
Since its creation, Prospect Park has attracted visitors looking to bask in the sheer pleasure of the Park. For some, this means enjoying a walk or a picnic, while for others the Park is a place to let loose some energy. A few of the athletic pastimes enjoyed by 19th-century visitors—biking and running—are familiar to us today, while others like lawn tennis, archery and miniature yacht-racing are a stretch of the modern imagination.
Archery was one of the quiet amusements allowed on the Long Meadow. You can hardly imagine this activity being permitted anywhere in the Park today because of safety concerns, but in 1881 the National Archery Association’s annual tournament was held at the Parade Ground. An article about the event in Harper’s Weekly noted that women liked archery because it was not strenuous and displayed their "pretty dresses and graceful attitudes as the sent flights of arrows on to the targets."
Men and women also played croquet on the Long Meadow. Prospect Park croquet clubs were credited with preserving the game in the United States—one had to pay to play in Central Park or be a member of a club, but any player could join a match in Prospect Park. Brooklyn players pioneered new mallets and balls of different materials and rewrote the rules of the game. The croquet lawn, near the Third Street entrance, was even in use in winter when snow was swept away.
Lawn tennis became all the rage in the 1880s as enthusiasm for more active sports increased. Eventually, Prospect Park offered 300 courts on the Long Meadow and the Nethermead, which were rolled, watered, lined and cut three times a week by teams of horses and with hand movers until horse-powered movers took over in the early part of the 20th century.
Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence (1920) that for women of the late 19th century, tennis was "too rough and inelegant for social occasions," but in reality they loved it. Men wore long trousers and or knickerbockers, while women wore loose white or blue flannel jackets with matching skirts—they also often held the racket in one hand and a parasol in the other. Tennis developed such a large following that in 1910, the Tennis House was erected on the edge of the Long Meadow to provide 1,000 lockers for players.
Miniature Yacht Racing
Miniature yacht racing was also a favorite pastime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Six-foot sloops or schooners, bearing a passenger, shot across the Lake, heeling and dipping their masts, and weaving in and out of spectator boats. Excitement mounted as the yachts rounded the marker buoy and headed for the finish line of the five-eighths-mile course. "If you think the contestants are sailing their boats for nothing more than a little fun, you ought to watch their faces when the boats are nearing the finish," said the boathouse custodian. "One of our elderly members had to give up racing because his doctor told him the excitement was too much for his heart."
Since the Park’s earliest winters, the first day of four-inch-thick ice was cause for celebration borough-wide, and led to peak crowds of as many as 20,000 skaters. Visitors were notified of the Lake’s ability to accommodate skaters through creative means: a red flag hung at Grand Army Plaza, as well as signs on the fronts of the trolleys that used to traverse Flatbush Avenue and Prospect Park West.
If bicycling is ubiquitous in Prospect Park today, it was equally popular in the years after the park first opened. There were a variety of styles; velocipedes with two small front wheels and a big back wheel, as well as those with one big front wheel and two small back wheels, bicycles, tricycles, quadricycles and tandems. In the early days of the Park, bikes were restricted to walkways, but in 1886, cyclists were given more freedom, granted they followed the prescribed rules: no speeding, no bugles, and riders had to have lighted lamps after sundown.
In the nineteenth century, as now, track squads used the Park for training. Runners also ran moonlight races, "making the occasional wayfarer wonder whether he had seen ghosts or flitting figures in real flesh." In 1906, Prospect Park hosted the first cross-country championship meet for the high-school boys of Greater New York, on a course that wound through the park and ended at the Parade Ground.
This slide show is based on the materials from Prospect Park: Olmsted and Vaux's Brooklyn Masterpiece, by David P. Colley.