- 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
As more and more people wanted to join the old clubs, there was more and more prestige to be gained by not letting them in.
In Britain there had long been sporting clubs devoted to particular sports rather than country sports in general. “There are … all over England,” wrote George Birmingham, a British social critic, in 1914, “clubs especially devoted to particular objects, golf clubs, yacht clubs and so forth. In these the members are drawn together by their interest in a common pursuit, and are forced into some sort of acquaintanceship. But these are very different in spirit and intention from the American Country Club. It exists as a kind of center of the social life of the neighborhood. … But neither golf nor tennis, dancing nor sailing, is the object of the club’s existence. Sport is encouraged by these clubs for the sake of general sociability. In England sociability is a by-product of an interest in sport.”
The country club was a revolutionary idea also because it was a most un -Victorian institution. The very word Victorian was first applied to the era now associated with it in 1875, a sure sign that the era itself was beginning to slip into the past.
The Victorian era had been characterized above all by the vast expansion of the middle class and its rise to economic and political powwer in the Industrial Revolution. These nouveau riche masses, especially in America, were prudish and socially conservative in the extreme. Among the unquestioned tenets of Victorianism was that men and women were profoundly different beings, destined by Providence to fulfill different roles in God’s plan. Men, it was held, were supreme in the intellectual and physical spheres, while women were morally and emotionally stronger. Thus the great world of politics and business was properly a masculine preserve, while women ruled supreme in the home. And it was at home that upper- and middle-class women largely stayed.
But only twenty years after the first country clubs were established, Frank S. Arnett wrote in Munsey’s Magazine , a popular journal of the day, that “the country club has practically changed the entire social life of America. It has to a certain extent modified our ideas of right and wrong. It has been chiefly responsible for the development of gentlemanly sports. It has taught our men the value of healthful pleasure. It has brought our women out of stuffy houses and out of their own hopeless, aimless selves, has given color to their cheeks, vivacity to their movements, charm and intelligence to their conversation. The influence of the country club has been almost wholly for good.”
This may be overstating the case a bit (and it certainly contains more than a whiff of male chauvinism), but even Henry James, that profound observer of social mores, was impressed with the country club’s “extension, its whole extension, through social space.” As women and children began to use country clubs for social purposes, however, the difficulty of chaperoning them increased sharply. It became more and more important to see to it that they did not meet “unsuitable” people outside the home. James realized that “even the most inclusive social scheme must in a large community always stop somewhere.”
The country clubs established by WASPs, in other words, were for the WASP establishment. Still, American society has always been less rigid and exclusionary than society in European countries, and Europeans have often looked upon American social institutions far more kindly than have Americans. In 1914, when Tuxedo Park was inhabited almost exclusively by wealthy New Yorkers of British and Dutch ancestry, a British social critic wrote that “Tuxedo society, instead of becoming, as might have been expected, a very narrow clique, seems to be singularly broad-minded and tolerant. … The fact that the experiment was not wrecked long ago on the rocks of snobbery goes to show that society in America is singularly fluid compared to that of any European country. That a considerable number of people should want to live together in such a way is a witness to the sociability of America.”
Until the First World War there was not much pressure from below. Country clubs, obviously, are only for those with disposable income. In the early days of the country club, that group was mostly made up of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The occasional Montant, Onativia, and Zabriskie (all old and distinguished names in New York Society) were absorbed with no problem. But tolerance did not extend, in the country-club era, to the one ethnic group in this country that had families as wealthy and educated as those of the WASP establishment, the Jews.