- 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
Early in 1882 a wealthy Bostonian named J. Murray Forbes called together some friends to meet in the dining room of his Boston town house. There he proposed renting Clyde Park, a farm on which a horse-racing track had already been laid out in then-rural Brookline. The group assembled by Forbes liked his idea and put out a terse prospectus among their friends. “It may be stated, briefly,” the invitation read, “that the general idea is to have a comfortable club-house for the use of members with their families, a simple restaurant, bedrooms, bowling-alley, lawn tennis grounds, &c.; also, to have race-meetings and, occasionally, music in the afternoon, and it is probable that a few gentlemen will club together to run a coach out every afternoon during the season, to convey members and their friends at a fixed charge.”
Forbes and his friends hoped to sign up 300 subscribers, but the idea was greeted so enthusiastically that they soon had 404 who agreed to join and pay dues of thirty dollars a year. By the fall of 1882 The Country Club (always rather ostentatiously spelled with a capital T ) was a going concern. The next year it took in another 200 members.
The original membership was from the very heart of Boston Brahmindom, with names like Abbott, Adams, Cabot, Hovey, Hunnewell, Peabody, and Saltonstall. Indeed, so narrow was the group from which the membership was drawn that of the thirty-five men assembled by Forbes at the initial meeting, thirty-four were members of Boston’s Somerset Club, the city’s oldest and most prestigious men’s club. This conspicuous lack of ethnic diversity was to be a fundamental characteristic of country clubs.
Almost immediately, similar clubs sprang up on the outskirts of other major American cities, drawing their original members from each city’s wealthy, largely WASP elite. The Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, organized in 1884, was first proposed as a tennis club but soon developed into a place where all country sports could be enjoyed. The original facilities included tennis courts, a polo field, a racetrack, a baseball diamond, traps for live pigeon shooting, boats, bathhouses, and a pack of hounds.
The Merion Cricket Club of Philadelphia, founded in the 1850s, evolved rapidly at this time into a full-fledged country club, as did several other cricket clubs. In 1882 the Myopia Hunt Club (so called because all the founders happened to have been nearsighted) was established outside Boston, as was the Chevy Chase Club near Washington, D.C. The latter was formed ostensibly “for literary purposes, mutual improvement, and the promotion of social intercourse by the encouragement and support of all outdoor sports and amusements.” Chevy Chase soon became an indispensable social, political, and sporting institution of the nation’s capital. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t approve of golf (he thought it effete), but William Howard Taft was so fond of it that he built a cottage at the club. Woodrow Wilson courted his second wife there while serving as President, and he was playing golf at Chevy Chase when he was first informed that the Lusitania had been torpedoed.
In 1886 one of the more unusual country clubs was founded near New York City, the vision of a single man, Pierre Lorillard III. Heir to a great tobacco fortune, Lorillard owned no less than six hundred thousand acres of undeveloped land in New York’s Orange and Rockland counties, across the Hudson River and about an hour’s train ride from the city. At first Lorillard envisioned only a hunting and fishing lodge for himself and his friends, but this soon grew in his mind into a large clubhouse, cottages, and sports facilities surrounding a body of water long known locally as Tuxedo Lake.
In 1902 a journalist wrote: “The country club … changed the entire social life of America. It has … modified our ideas of right and wrong.”
Lorillard decided to surround two thousand acres abutting the lake with a fence, guarding the entrance with a large gatehouse and calling the establishment Tuxedo Park. He invited his friends to buy the cottages and build more of their own, and soon Tuxedo Park was a pleasure ground for Astors, Iselins, Millses, Havemayers, and Vanderbilts. Just as The Country Club’s membership had come largely from Boston’s Somerset Club, so Tuxedo Park was largely populated by members of New York’s old-guard Union Club. Because so many of these families summered at Newport and elsewhere, the Tuxedo Club was at its liveliest in the spring and fall, when people would come on short visits from their city residences.
At the first Autumn Ball held at the Tuxedo Club, in 1886, the founder’s son, Griswold Lorillard, appeared not in white tie and tails like the other men but in a short jacket with black tie, a fashion he had observed being worn by the Prince of Wales in England that year at the Cowes Regatta. The new fashion for informal evening wear immediately caught on, and, ever since, most Americans have called it a tuxedo. (In Tuxedo Park itself and other bastions of what was once called New York Society, the costume is never called a tuxedo, but rather a dinner jacket.)