Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Ball, a Pole, a Rope – a Twisted History of Tetherball

A Ball, a Pole, a Rope – 
a Twisted History of Tetherball

Wright & Ditson's Lawn Tennis Guide for 1900.
Tetherball was invented in Britain by at least as early as 1875.  It may have been invented in Ireland, where some lucky, young Dubliner could have received a set for Christmas in 1875.

Freeman's Journal, (Dublin, Ireland), December 7, 1875, page 5.


Go-Bang, Tether Ball, Billieard Tables, Bagatelle, Lawn Tennis, Badminton, Croquet, &c., &c.

Freeman's Journal, (Dublin, Ireland), December 7, 1875, page 5.  

It made its way to fashionable circles in England by 1880 and into the United States by 1881.  No one knows who invented the game, although a certain “Mr. Lehmann, of Oxford University” was given credit twenty years after the fact.[i]  

Harvard Lampoon, series 2, volume 40, October 19, 1900, page 24.

Instead of hitting a volleyball-sized ball with your hands, it was initially played with a tennis ball and racquets.  It was also frequently referred to as, “tether tennis.” The new game had one great advantage over regular tennis; it eliminated the hassle of chasing down balls:

A new game called tether ball met with approval in England last year, and promises to be a favorite this season.  The court is similar to that of lawn tennis, and the players number either two or four.  Instead of a net, a pole in the centre, ten feet high, is used, to the top of which is attached an elastic cord sufficiently long to allow the rubber ball at the other end to swing clear of the ground.  Racket bats are used, and the elastic tethering or fastening of the ball corrects a great fault of lawn tennis, in which time and temper are lost in recovering over shots.  It also introduces a new element, in the circular motion of the ball, which affords opportunity for a great variety of hits, creating very erratic courses, which can be made by a skilful player exceedingly puzzling to an antagonist.  A few tether ball materials have been imported this spring on a venture by dealers in games.

The Sun (New York), March 28, 1881, page 1.  

Tetherball could also be played without incurring all of the expenses of lawn tennis, which had recently been introduced to the fashionable set at Newport:

Lawn tennis has been a fashionable open-air game in England for several seasons, but was rarely played in this country until last season, when its introduction at the Newport Casino brought it into vogue at a few leading watering places and at the summer residences of many wealthy families.  It caused a partial neglect of archery, which had become a favorite game in 1878 and 1879, but did not destroy the prestige of the more humble croquet, which, on account of the cheapness of its materials, will continue at present to figure upon the grass plots of many individuals who will be deterred by the expense of lawn tennis sets from purchasing them.  These last range in price from $8 to $60, according to quality, and consist of four racket bats, two to twelve rubber balls, which are often covered with felt, a net, a pair of poles upon which to fasten it, and boundary pegs.  In addition to these, a machine costing $5 for pressing bats, and preventing them from warping, is often purchased, together with shoes of canvas and yellow leather with corrugated rubber soles, to prevent slipping.  These cost from $5 to $7.  The lines of the “court,” or boundary within which the game is played, are marked between the boundary pegs with chalk.  The labor of chalking thoroughly distinct marks upon grass is considerable, and this is frequently facilitated by an iron “marker,” costing $9, which greatly resembles, in general aspect, a lawn mower.

The Sun (New York), March 28, 1881, page 1.

The Houma Courier (Houma, Louisiana), July 14, 1900, page 6.

Somewhere along the line, some genius realized that you could play with your hands – no racquet required.  The racquet-free version may well have been invented by the first person to leave their racquet at home.  But, however it happened, hand-batted tetherball was apparently common, at least in Missouri, by 1912:

After dinner the boys roamed around the near-by hills or played games in camp, one of the favorite pastimes being a modified tether ball, using tennis racquets instead of the hands to bat the ball.

The Iron County Register (Ironton, Missouri), July 11, 1912, page 5.

But even when played by hand, the ball was a tennis ball, or similarly-sized ball; it had not yet involved into the game we know today:

Tether ball is a recent game which came originally from lawn tennis.  The most difficult and disagreeable part of the latter game is the constant running over the sunny court to recover the ball.  The object of tether ball is very simple – two persons standing on opposite sides of the pole endeavor to strike the ball and wind it around it.  The ball may be struck with either the hand or a racquet.

The Evening World (New York), September 14, 1915, Final Edition, page 9.

The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu, Hawaii), November 10, 1900, page 9.
Strangely, perhaps, just as soccer will always be America’s sport of the future (and has been since 1905), tetherball was perennially new.  Various accounts of the game referred to tetherball as a, “new game,” in 1897, 1901, 1905, 1911, and 1915.  The continued “newness” of the game may stem from the fact that it was apparently not widely adopted, at least in the United States, until after 1899.  

The floodgates may have been opened when the United States National Lawn Tennis Association’s official rule book, Wright & Ditson’s Lawn Tennis Guide, first mentioned the game in its 1899 issue:

A new and interesting English Game for ladies and gentlemen was introduced last year called “tether ball.”  It is played by two persons, and a great deal of amusement, exercise and skill can be had from the game.  It is capital sport.  See advertisement in back of Guide for rules, etc.

Wright & Ditson’s Lawn Tennis Guide for 1899, Boston, Massachusetts, Wright & Ditson, 1899, page 162.

A similar advertisement also appeared in the Lawn Tennis Guide for 1900:

Wright & Ditson's Lawn Tennis Guide for 1899

The game’s popularity was on the rise.  In January, 1900, the New York Tribune reported that, “[t]ether ball is a very popular game these days.  The same year, Spalding followed Wright & Ditson’s lead; publishing its own set of rules and selling a rival line of tether-ball equipment.  And in October, 1900, Louise Bissell, of Arlington Massachusetts, received a patent on a new-and-improved tether-ball.  Perhaps competition and demand spurred innovation; perhaps she had some connection with Wright & Ditson, based in nearby Boston.

The Games of Lawn Hockey, Tether Ball, Squash Ball and Golf-Croquet, New York, American Sports Publishing Company, 1900, pages 30, 38.

Proponents touted the game’s simplicity, ability to be played in a small space, and the vigorous exercise it provided.  You could even make your own tether-ball set; and, if you did not want to use your hands, you could even make your own rackets.  All you needed to buy was a ball, a pole and a rope:

Fulton County Tribune (Wauseon, Ohio), May 1, 1914, page 8.

If you did not make your own racquets, or use your hands, the game could be expensive to maintain:

Tether ball is excellent exercise, but is rather expensive on account of the breaking of the rackets and wearing out of the balls.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Congress of the Playground Association of America, New York, 1910, page 227.

The Weekly Republican (Plymouth, Indiana), July 20, 1911, page 7.

The game became a fixture in discussions about playground games and equipment, starting in the late-19-Aughts, and continuing throughout the 1910s, and into the 1920s; most commonly described with racquets. 

When someone finally substituted the tennis ball with a volleyball, tetherball’s transformation was complete.  The stage was set for a young boy, decades later, to waste hundreds of hours of precious childhood (that he will never get back) wrapping a yellow ball-on-a-rope around a metal pole, instead of perfecting his curveball.  No one gets a multi-million dollar contract to play tetherball.  

I’m not sayin’ I . . . ; um . . . ; er . . . ; HE – made the wrong decision; I’m just sayin’.

Postscript - the Tradition Continues

In September 2022, the directors of an historic summer camp in New Hampshire, Camp Mowglis (, sent word that their campers still play old-fashioned tetherball, with "tennis-ball-sized balls slung in crocheted sacks that whirl around at dizzying speeds."  The ball covers, lovingly hand-crocheted by the staff, are consistent with Louise Bissell's patent (US 660787), mentioned above.

Crocheting a new ball cover.

Playing the old game.

"They are 'old-school' tetherballs that, if you don't watch out, can come around and whack you; watch out, they leave a mark!"

"Tetherball at Mowglis," Nick Robbins, Director of Camp Mowglis.


To see what else you can do at Camp Mowglis, check out this "Day in the Life at Camp Mowglis."


As Napoleon Dynamite might say, those campers are Lucky!

[To learn about the origin of another well-known children's game,
see my earlier post about the history of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.]

[i] The Harvard Lampoon, Series 2, Volume 40, Number 2, October 19, 1900, page 24 (advertisement for “Wright & Ditson Fine Athletic Goods”).  The claim of inventorship was made twenty years after the fact, so it is unclear whether it reflects the original inventor from 1875 or someone who “invented” the game again, after a long period of inactivity in tetherball.

[Edited May 3,2018, to reflect newly discovered, earliest reference in 1875. ]
[Edited December 5, 2022, to add the postscript about tetherball at Camp Mowglis.]

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