Past Exhibits

The Sportin' Life

During the last half of the 19th century, interest in physical fitness and athletic competitions was on the rise in America. People living in urban and rural regions, across all social classes and from all backgrounds spent a portion of their leisure time engaged in sporting activities. Grand resort hotels offered America’s leisure class an array of socially acceptable entertainments of varying levels of vigor while away from home.  The Sportin’ Life dives into the sporting lifestyle of the upper class at America’s grand resorts from the corset-restricting 1880s through the freedom of expression of the Jazz Age into the 1930s. 


America’s ability to play was the result of increased time for recreation. Starting in the 1890s, the work day was shortened and Saturday became a half-day holiday. This additional free time meant more time for pleasure activities, such as vaudeville shows, motion pictures, world’s fairs, amusement parks, athletic activities or watching sporting competitions.

Text box reading: sunshine, flowers, music, tennis, boating, fishing, hunting, motoring, driving and riding. 100 miles of dustless shell roads. no storms or fog on the west coast. Tampa Bay Hotel advertisement circa 1909

The Resorts

America’s prominent resorts, nestled amid mountains or overlooking picturesque bodies of water, provided many opportunities for the pursuit of pleasure and fitness outdoors. The opulent accommodations and elaborate facilities at destinations such as the Tampa Bay Hotel, The Breakers Hotel, The Grand Hotel, The Greenbrier, Hotel del Coronado or Mount Washington Hotel were designed to attract and entertain the leisure class.

Cars in procession in front of large grand hotel, open field rolling hills and mountain range in background
Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, circa 1900. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Sprawling grounds accommodated bicycling, croquet, horseshoes, hunting and fishing, racing of various types, driving, walking, archery, horseback riding, table tennis, shuffleboard and bowling. Boating and bathing were popular pastimes at waterfront hotels. Elegant spa facilities included natatoriums for indoor swimming. For those who enjoyed competition, neatly manicured landscapes surrounded tournament-worthy golf links and lawn tennis courts. In Florida, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler built baseball diamonds to host exhibition games at the Tampa Bay Hotel, The Royal Poinciana Hotel and The Breakers Hotel. Travel brochures and advertisements touted the variety of sporting activities and the unparalleled quality of the facilities.

Newspaper clipping with image of Tampa Bay Hotel reads: Fireproof Tampa Bay Hotel, Tampa Florida a magnificent Moorish palace, capacity 500 guests, recently remodeled and renovated throughout, New nine-hole golf course, tennis, motorboating, fishing, bathing, automobiling, baseball. The Chicago Cubs have winter training quarters in grounds; will play match games in Fe. And March with Philadelphia Athletics and St. Louis Browns. Four days’ carnival in Feb., rivaling New Orleans Mardis Gras and St Louis Veiled Prophets. Northern servants. Grounds consist of 42 acres of luxuriant tropical shrubbery and flowers, beautiful palm fringed walks, fountains and shady nooks, facing on the Hillsborough river, where boating and fishing are unexcelled. Over a hundred miles of well paved auto boulevards, creating beautiful drives through golden fruit-laden orange groves, over picturesque streams, through tropical jungles and piney woods. All trains and boats are met by auto-bus. Special rates for families and long stays. Write for a booklet and rates to W.F, Adams, Manager. Spend a few days at the Manavista Hotel on the Manatee river.

Tampa Bay Hotel advertisement, Life magazine, 1913.

Case display of various artifacts: shotgun, horns, flask, game caller

Parker Brothers double-barreled shotgun, American c. 1875, Henry Plant Museum permanent collection. Duck call and hunting flasks on loan from the Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee and St. Petersburg Museum of History.

Sports and Social Change

Frances Lippett in long white dress, white shoes dark belt, neck tie and hat swinging a tennis racket
Frances Lippett, 1913. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The enthusiasm with which the public took up sports in the late 19th century mirrored the energy of an era that was experiencing great social, cultural and technological change. Fitness activities, in some form, were accessible to everyone and allowed for the freedom of expression. The Victorian sense of repression was starting to fade. Social customs governing men and women relaxed. Society permitted both sexes to play sports together, such as croquet, archery, lawn tennis and golf. Ladies’ corset strings loosened and waistlines dropped, allowing women the freedom and comfort to participate in more vigorous athletic activities. A better range of movement made it easier for them to make the sweeping gestures of swinging a golf club or a tennis racket.

Victorian ladies wearing long dresses with mutton sleeves, holding tennis rackets seated and standing on stair steps
U.S. International tennis players, 1895. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

However, ladies in polite society were still mindful of social etiquette. In 1881, Outing magazine noted that it was acceptable and comfortable for a lady to participate in tennis as she would be “in the company of persons in whose society she is accustomed to move.”

Small porcelain cup and saucer with lid gold trim and glazed image of woman playing tennis .Two opposing handles with winged dragons

Chocolate cup and cover, Art Deco style depicting early 20th century lawn tennis, bone china, Spode, England. Private collection of Kathy Durdin.

Text box reading: There has heretofore in our American life, crowded to excess as it has been with the harassing cares and anxieties of business, so little attention paid to the organized practice of health-giving outdoor exercise to which bicycling is peculiarly adapted... Harper's Monthly Magazine, July 1881

Two women wearing long dresses and hats standing next to bicycles with headlamps
Courtesy of 100 Years Ago: The Glorious 1890s.

Bicycling was one of the most popular and influential athletic activities of the era. Individuals were permitted to enjoy the outdoors and exert energy in the pursuit of socially acceptable fitness. For women, bicycles were liberating, giving them transportation and freedom. The popularity of cycling inspired the design of new female fashions. Cycling skirts with wide-legs or loose-fitting trousers were a practical development, as they would not become caught in the bicycle chain.

Ladies bicycle with wooden spokes and fenders next to child’s tricycle
Elliott women's bicycle with hickory wheels, spokes and fenders, the trademark of an Elliott bicycle, 1886. On loan from the Elliott Museum.

Historic footage showing a variety of sporting events.  Note that men and women are visible in most of the clips.

Sports and Cultural Change

Text box reading: baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.  Mark Twain 1889

The cultural popularity of sports touched almost every aspect of daily life. As a spectator or participant, there was a growing interest in more vigorous and competitive sports such as tennis, baseball, boxing and football. In 1883, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was the first American newspaper with its own sports department. By 1895, William Randolph Hearst introduced the first dedicated sports section in his New York Journal. Sporting equipment emerged as an industry, and the Rawlings and Spaulding sporting goods companies became established purveyors of sporting equipment. Communities rallied around their local teams. The modern revival of the ancient Olympic Games in 1896 symbolized the international interest in athletic competition.

Three race cars on dirt track kicking up dust in front of grandstand
Auto racing at the Tampa Bay Hotel race track, 1927. Courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.

Engraved silver plated trophy with two handles: Consolation Prize Trophy awarded to Chas C. Weber, Tampa Bay Race January 4, 1913
Consolation Prize Trophy awarded to Chas C. Weber, Tampa Bay Hotel Track Race January 4, 1913. This was a motorcycle race. Weber rode an Excelsior.

Resorts responded to the public’s interest in competitive sports by organizing tournaments or exhibition games of tennis, golf, racing of all types or baseball. Some hotels fielded baseball teams comprised of employees that played against local teams and hosted professional ball teams for spring training.

Batting practice on baseball diamond on Plant Field
Washington Senators spring training at Plant Field, Tampa, 1923. Courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System​.

The Tampa Bay Hotel hosted the Chicago Cubs in 1913 and the Washington Senators for spring training in the 1920s. During the 1922-23 season, Kenesaw Mountain Landis and five future baseball hall-of-famers were among the players who stayed at the Tampa Bay Hotel.

Partial display of baseball memorabilia: leather glove baseball cards photo of players signed baseball
Clark Griffith, Leon Goslin, Stanley "Bucky" Harris, Walter Johnson and Sam Rice were future baseball hall-of-famers who stayed at the Tampa Bay Hotel during spring training in the 1922-23 season. Griffith’s signed ball is on loan from John Osterweil.


Underwritten By


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Thanks to

Archive Farms

Wayne Ayers

Belleview Inn archives/Joey Vars

Shelley Copeland

Kathy Durdin

Elliott Museum

Kaylee Farrell

Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee

Florida State Archives

Jo Hopper

Hotel del Coronado

International Tennis Hall of Fame

La France Vintage Clothiers

Library of Congress

John Osterweil

PGA Tour Entertainment

Amy Sakovich

Sarasota County Historical Resources

Earl A. Smith, M.D.

Mike Stevens

St. Petersburg Museum of History

St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club

Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

Tampa Yacht & Country Club

The Greenbrier

Eldon and Kenton Trubee

Mrs. James Turner, née Joan Holtsinger

World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum