Online Exhibit: The Sportin Life

Saturday, Aug 8, 2020



During the last half of the 19th century, interest in physical fitness and athletic competitions was on the rise in America. People living in urban and rural regions, across all social classes and from all backgrounds spent a portion of their leisure time engaged in sporting activities. Grand resort hotels offered America’s leisure class an array of socially acceptable entertainments of varying levels of vigor while away from home.  The Sportin’ Life dives into the sporting lifestyle of the upper class at America’s grand resorts from the corset-restricting 1880s through the freedom of expression of the Jazz Age into the 1930s. 

America’s ability to play was the result of increased time for recreation. Starting in the 1890s, the work day was shortened and Saturday became a half-day holiday. This additional free time meant more time for pleasure activities, such as vaudeville shows, motion pictures, world’s fairs, amusement parks, athletic activities or watching sporting competitions.


America’s prominent resorts, nestled amid mountains or overlooking picturesque bodies of water, provided many opportunities for the pursuit of pleasure and fitness outdoors. The opulent accommodations and elaborate facilities at destinations such as the Tampa Bay Hotel, The Breakers Hotel, The Grand Hotel, The Greenbrier, Hotel del Coronado or Mount Washington Hotel were designed to attract and entertain the leisure class.

Sprawling grounds accommodated bicycling, croquet, horseshoes, hunting and fishing, racing of various types, driving, walking, archery, horseback riding, table tennis, shuffleboard and bowling. Boating and bathing were popular pastimes at waterfront hotels. Elegant spa facilities included natatoriums for indoor swimming. For those who enjoyed competition, neatly manicured landscapes surrounded tournament-worthy golf links and lawn tennis courts. In Florida, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler built baseball diamonds to host exhibition games at the Tampa Bay Hotel, The Royal Poinciana Hotel and The Breakers Hotel. Travel brochures and advertisements touted the variety of sporting activities and the unparalleled quality of the facilities.


The enthusiasm with which the public took up sports in the late 19th century mirrored the energy of an era that was experiencing great social, cultural and technological change. Fitness activities, in some form, were accessible to everyone and allowed for the freedom of expression. The Victorian sense of repression was starting to fade. Social customs governing men and women relaxed. Society permitted both sexes to play sports together, such as croquet, archery, lawn tennis and golf. Ladies’ corset strings loosened and waistlines dropped, allowing women the freedom and comfort to participate in more vigorous athletic activities. A better range of movement made it easier for them to make the sweeping gestures of swinging a golf club or a tennis racket.

However, ladies in polite society were still mindful of social etiquette. In 1881, Outing magazine noted that it was acceptable and comfortable for a lady to participate in tennis as she would be “in the company of persons in whose society she is accustomed to move.”

Bicycling was one of the most popular and influential athletic activities of the era. Individuals were permitted to enjoy the outdoors and exert energy in the pursuit of socially acceptable fitness. For women, bicycles were liberating, giving them transportation and freedom. The popularity of cycling inspired the design of new female fashions. Cycling skirts with wide-legs or loose-fitting trousers were a practical development, as they would not become caught in the bicycle chain.

Historic footage showing a variety of sporting events.  Note that men and women are visible in most of the clips.

The cultural popularity of sports touched almost every aspect of daily life. As a spectator or participant, there was a growing interest in more vigorous and competitive sports such as tennis, baseball, boxing and football. In 1883, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was the first American newspaper with its own sports department. By 1895, William Randolph Hearst introduced the first dedicated sports section in his New York Journal. Sporting equipment emerged as an industry, and the Rawlings and Spaulding sporting goods companies became established purveyors of sporting equipment. Communities rallied around their local teams. The modern revival of the ancient Olympic Games in 1896 symbolized the international interest in athletic competition.

Resorts responded to the public’s interest in competitive sports by organizing tournaments or exhibition games of tennis, golf, racing of all types or baseball. Some hotels fielded baseball teams comprised of employees that played against local teams and hosted professional ball teams for spring training.

The Tampa Bay Hotel hosted the Chicago Cubs in 1913 and the Washington Senators for spring training in the 1920s. During the 1922-23 season, Kenesaw Mountain Landis and five future baseball hall-of-famers were among the players who stayed at the Tampa Bay Hotel.