Mary Baldwin tennis

Two Mary Baldwin students wearing long dresses are photographed with their tennis racquets.

I love old photograph albums. Flipping through the pages of one is a little like time travel. A couple of years ago I purchased several albums at an auction that clearly were from the area around Newport and McKinley in southern Augusta County. It was equally obvious that at least one of the women in the local family that kept the album had attended Mary Baldwin around 1900.

Mary Baldwin University, as we know it today, was started as a Presbyterian girls’ school of higher education in 1842 by Rufus Bailey. The school, which was connected to what is now known as First Presbyterian Church in Staunton, was known then as Augusta Female Seminary. Because the girls’ school did not close during the Civil War it is now the oldest continuously operating girls’ school of higher education in the South.

Among the first students at the seminary was a young lady named Mary Julia Baldwin. Baldwin later returned to the school as its principal in 1863 and led the school through the difficult last years of the Civil War and then subsequent hard times that followed the war. She was a beloved principal and in 1895, the school was renamed Mary Baldwin Seminary in her honor. It became Mary Baldwin College in 1923, and Mary Baldwin University in 2016.

But, back to the tennis picture, which I would guess was taken around 1900. The game of tennis was indicative of a move that the school started making in the 1870s to give the students more physical activities. At that time, the girls were encouraged to participate in calisthenics, bowling, croquet and tennis. It was not long after that when golf was added to that list.

The 1905 school yearbook had three sports clubs: golf with 40 members, tennis with 36, and fencing with four. By 1910, Mary Baldwin actually had an Athletic Association as well as a tennis club (90 girls), a track team (40), a tramping (hiking) club with 80 girls, an archery club with 11 girls, and a golf club with 10.

The 1916 yearbook was all about tennis as the school sported a club with over 100 members. There were also two basketball teams, and a golf club with 32 girls.

For the many girls at the school who played tennis, the challenges of playing in long dresses must have made for interesting times.

When I first saw this picture, I wondered about whether it featured two girls clowning around at playing tennis or badminton. Although the racquets for the two games are quite different today, back a century or more ago, they were less so and, besides, the quality of this photograph is so bad that it is hard to make a determination.

So I did a little digging. Tennis is actually an ancient game that probably originated in the monasteries of France in the 1200s, but modern tennis really started in the 1860s and 1870s. By the mid-1870s the game had arrived in America and took off quickly.

Badminton is even older than tennis, dating back two thousand years to an ancient game in Greece, China, and India. Some say that the modern game is derived from a game in India that was picked up by British army officers in the 1870s and brought back to England and then America.

While both sports were popular in America at the time this photograph was taken, tennis probably had the upper hand in popularity. I was strongly leaning toward this being a tennis picture, but then I decided to check the best source of all, the history of Mary Baldwin that was written by Dr. Patricia Menk, a beloved history professor at the school.

When I looked through her book, I saw that tennis was mentioned at least 25 times, including as one of the first athletic activities to be encouraged at the school. Through the years the school has always had tennis courts and had some very successful intercollegiate teams in the 20th century. Badminton, on the other hand, was mentioned once when it was introduced in a 1967 physical education class.

That sealed it. Enjoy this photograph of these two Mary Baldwin students in their long dresses clowning for the camera with their tennis racquets.

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