A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories has made its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit. With spring here and summer on the horizon, this time it’s a look at garments Americans wore as they delighted in the “sporting life” in their leisure time.
By the 20th century, recreational sports were an increasingly popular way to get exercise while having fun. Most Americans lived in cities rather than on farms—and lifestyles had become less physically active. Many people viewed sports as a necessity—an outlet from the pressures of modern life in an urban society.
The easy-to-ride safety bicycle turned cycling into a national obsession in the 1890s. At the peak in 1896, four million people cycled for exercise and pleasure. Most importantly, a bicycle meant the freedom to go where you pleased—around town or in the countryside.
Women found bicycling especially liberating—it offered far greater independence than they had previously experienced. Clothing for women became less restrictive while still offering modesty. Cycling apparel might include a tailored jacket, very wide trousers gathered above the ankles, stockings, and boots. Specially designed cycling suits with divided skirts also became popular.
Columbia Model 60 Women's Safety Bicycle, 1898. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. H. Benjamin Robison. / THF108117
This 1895 poster for bicycle road maps offered a pleasant route for cyclists north of New York City. / THF207603
Young men and women enjoy cycling and socializing in Waterville, Ohio about 1895. Gift of Thomas Russell. / THF201329
Baseball has long been a popular pastime—countless teams sprang up in communities all over America after the Civil War. During the early 20th century, as cities expanded, workplace teams also increased in popularity. Companies sponsored these teams to promote fitness and encourage “team spirit” among their employees. Company teams were also good “advertising.”
Harry B. Mosley of Detroit wore this uniform when he played for a team sponsored by the Lincoln Motor Company about 1920. Of course, uniforms weren’t essential—many players enjoyed the sport while dressed in their everyday clothing.
Baseball glove and bat, about 1920, used by Harry B. Mosley of Detroit, Michigan. / THF121995 and THF131216
The H.J. Heinz Company baseball team about 1907. Gift of H.J. Heinz Company. / THF292401
Residents of Inkster, Michigan, enjoy a game of baseball at a July 4th community celebration in 1940. Gift of Ford Motor Company. / THF147620
The game of golf boomed in the United States during the 1920s, flourishing on the outskirts of towns at hundreds of country clubs and public golf courses. By 1939, an estimated 8 million people—mostly the wealthy—played golf. It provided exercise—and for some, an opportunity to build professional or business networks.
When women golfed during the 1940s, they did not wear a specific kind of outfit. Often, women golfers would wear a skirt designed for active endeavors, paired with a blouse and pullover sweater. Catherine Roddis of Marshfield, Wisconsin, likely wore this sporty dress for golf, along with the stylish cape, donned once she had finished her game.
Dress and cape, 1940–1945, worn by Catherine Prindle Roddis, Marshfield, Wisconsin. Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis. /THF162615
Golf Clubs, about 1955. Gift of David & Barbara Shafer. / THF186328
Woman putts on a golf course near San Antonio, Texas, 1947. / THF621989
Clubhouse at the public Waukesha Golf Club on Moor Bath Links, Waukesha, Wisconsin, 1948–1956. Gift of Charles H. Brown and Patrick Pehoski. / THF622612
Swimming had become a popular sport by the 1920s—swimmers could be found at public beaches, public swimming pools, and resorts. In the 1950s, postwar economic prosperity brought even more opportunities for swimming. Americans could enjoy a dip in the growing number of pools found at public parks, motels, and in suburban backyards. Pool parties were popular—casual entertaining was in.
For men, cabana sets with matching swim trunks and sports shirts—for “pool, patio, or beach”—were stylish. The 1950s were a conservative era. The cover-up shirt maintained a modest appearance—while bright colors and patterns let men express their individuality.
Cabana set with short-sleeved shirt and swim trunks, 1955. Gift of American Textile History Museum. / THF186127
Advertisement for Catalina’s swimsuits—including cabana sets for men, 1955. / THF623631
In the years following World War II, the number of public and private swimming pools increased dramatically. Shown here in this June 1946 Life magazine advertisement, pool parties were popular. / THF622575
Swimming pool at Holiday Inn of Daytona Beach, Florida, 1961. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Moores. / THF104037
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
In 1902, the U. S. adopted Rural Free Delivery. Americans in the countryside would no longer need to go to town to get their mail -- the mail would be brought to them. Rural letter carrier, Orville J. Murphy, pictured here circa 1905, used a bike to deliver mail to outlying households around New London, Iowa. THF 201311
Since 1956, May has held the honor of being designated as National Bike Month. The holiday celebrates cyclists of all kinds across the United States and encourages everyone to get outside and hit the road on two wheels. Within the month of May one week is all about biking to work. This year National Bike to Work Week is May 16-20 and today, May 20, is Bike to Work Day.
By the end of the 19th century technological miracles were commonplace. Railroad trains routinely traveled a-mile-a-minute. Electric lights could turn night into day. Voices traveled over wires. Pictures could be set into motion. Lighter-than-air balloons and dirigibles even offered access to the sky. But the age-old dream of flying with wings like birds still seemed like a fantasy. In a simple bicycle shop now located in Greenfield Village, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, turned the fantasy of heavier-than-air flight into reality.
"You know me, Barney Oldfield," was the classic catchphrase of one of America's earliest celebrity sports figures, and during the nascent period of the automobile, most every American knew Berna Eli Oldfield. He became the best-known racecar driver at a time when the motor buggy was catching the imagination and passion of a rapidly changing society. Oldfield would cut a populist swath across turn-of-the century American society and in the process help define an emerging cult of celebrity.
One of the consistent themes of Oldfield's early life was a restlessness and desire for bigger, brighter, and better things in life. As a teenager, Oldfield worked odd jobs in Toledo, Ohio earning money to buy his own bicycle to ride in local and regional road and endurance races. An attempt at professional boxing ended after contracting typhoid fever and Oldfield returned to racing for company-sponsored bicycle teams and selling parts in the off-season. Throughout the 1890s, Oldfield was part of a team of riders barnstorming across the Midwest and racing in the new "wood bowl" tracks that were sprouting up across the region. Oldfield quickly realized the need to appeal to the audience beyond the track, promoting himself as the "Bicycle Racing Champion of Ohio" and promoting a "keen formula for winning" by wearing a bottle of bourbon around his neck during races but telling reporters the liquid inside was vinegar.
Americans were fascinated with the quirky and expensive auto cars, and the boxy, carriage-like vehicles appealed to American’s desire for new, loud, audacious, and fast entertainments. During the winter of 1899, Oldfield reconnected with an old racing companion, Tom Cooper, who had just returned from England with a motorized two-wheeler (an early motorcycle). Cooper was going to demonstrate the vehicle at a race in Grosse Point, Michigan, in October 1901 and asked Oldfield to come along. Cooper and Oldfield were a preliminary exhibition before the main event: a race between local "chauffeur" Henry Ford and the most well-known and successful automobile manufacturer of the day, Alexander Winton.
After the Grosse Point event, Oldfield and Cooper's attempt at mining in Colorado ended in failure and Cooper headed back to Detroit to pursue working with automobiles. Oldfield took the motorized cycle on a circuit of Western bicycle tracks, setting records along the way before returning to Detroit in the fall of 1902 at the request of Tom Cooper to drive his racecar. "The Race" between Cooper's 999, recently purchased from Henry Ford and driven by Oldfield, and Alexander Winton's "Bullet," captured the imaginations of not only Detroit's automotive elite, but the general population as well. When Oldfield piloted the 999 to victory over Winton's sputtering Bullet, the news spread like wildfire across Detroit, the Midwest, and eventually the nation. Beyond the immediate thrill of the race itself, Barney Oldfield, the "everyman" bicycle racer from the heartland, appealed to a much wider, less elite segment of American society rushing to embrace the motor car. As the Detroit News-Tribune reported after the race, "The auto replaced the horse on the track and in the carriage shed. Society sanctioned yesterday's races. And not only society, but the general public, turned out until more than five thousand persons had passed the gatekeepers.” Barney Oldfield became the face of racing for the "general public" and helped to democratize not only racing entertainment, but also automobiles in general, as the vehicles moved out of the carriage house and into backyard sheds.
Over the next 15 years, Barney Oldfield established multiple world speed records and gained notoriety wherever he went. He added an iconic unlit cigar to his racing persona and perfected the roguish image of a daredevil everyman. After a brief stint driving for Winton, Oldfield took the wheel of the Peerless "Green Dragon" and established himself as America's premier driver.