- Historic Sites
The Country Club
For a century now it has been a haven to some, an outrage to others—and it is one of the very few social institutions that have survived their founders’ world
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
I‘m sorry, son,” said the father to his young offspring in a New Yorker cartoon some years ago, “but we WASPs have no tribal wisdom to pass on.”
Nevertheless (and at the risk of stepping on a joke), no ethnic group capable of developing a social institution as durable, adaptable, and now universal as the country club could be wholly lacking in tribal wisdom.
The country club was invented a little more than a century ago by affluent Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom were then Protestant and of British (or Dutch or German) ancestry. Today the country club has spread to virtually every ethnic and religious group in this heterogeneous country and to most other nations around the world. The country club has had a profound effect on the development of American society and on the most dynamic part of the American social scene in the twentieth century, the suburbs. Thus it is no surprise that the country club has fascinated the American creative establishment since the days of the novelist Henry James, who saw the clubs as the very essence of the American upper-class scene in 1907, and the composer Scott Joplin, who wrote “The Country Club Rag” in 1909.
Ironically, the country club got its start because the mostly British-descended American rich of the post-Civil War era, who tried so hard to adopt the manners of the British aristocracy, lacked one of Britain’s central social institutions: the country house. The British upper class had been centered in the country since feudal days, and while its members often went up to London for politics, business, or “the season,” they lived most of the year on the vast estates that were the source of their wealth, and they entertained one another lavishly there.
The American rich had no such deep rural roots. For the most part their fortunes were no more than a generation or two old and had their origins in commerce, manufacturing, and transportation, not land. America’s was an urban elite. When the Civil War and the consequent rapid industrialization of the country began to produce the vast rush of wealth that fueled the Gilded Age, the country’s rich began to look about for ways to display it and enjoy it.
In the 1880s clubs sprang up on the outskirts of major cities, drawing their original membership from each city’s wealthy, largely WASP elite.
Earlier, going to the country had meant going to resorts such as Saratoga Springs, Newport, Bar Harbor, and Long Branch, usually staying at hotels and boarding establishments. Even when families began to build their own “cottages” at these resorts, some of them among the most elaborate private dwellings ever erected, there was often not enough land attached for the outdoor sports that were becoming increasingly popular: croquet, lawn tennis, fox hunting, and polo.
During the early 1850s the more affluent had adopted cricket in imitation of the British, and several cricket clubs opened on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Boston, and other American cities. Also among the popular activities of the day were coaching—the equestrian equivalent of the Sunday-afternoon drive—and amateur trotting races. The participants in these races would drive out from their city stables on pleasant afternoons, and as the New York Herald reported: “It would seem as if all New York had suddenly become owners of fast horses, and were all out on Bloomingdale [as rural upper Broadway was then called] on a grand trotting spree. This rushing to and fro of ship commodores, book and newspaper publishers, bankers, merchants, gamblers, and fast men generally, continues until the sun in its daily course has gone to visit the antipodes.”
William H. Vanderbilt was so passionate about his champion trotters that in order to keep an eye on them from his office in the Grand Central Depot, he stabled and even pastured them on the square block that would later contain the Biltmore Hotel in midtown Manhattan. But as American cities grew by leaps and bounds after the Civil War, the need for permanent facilities outside the cities increased, and the idea of a club in the country, devoted not to one sport, such as cricket, but to many sports, was born.
Exactly which was the first country club is an argument that has long raged among those who have nothing better to do. It soon degenerates into a semantic quibble about what, exactly, constitutes a country club, as opposed to, say, the facilities attached to a cricket field or a hunting ground. One institution that has long claimed the honor, and its claim is probably as good as any, is The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.