A Sparkling Vintage Life

marjorie deanAll across the country, fall means sports. Football, soccer, volleyball . . . you name it, we’ve got it! More kids than ever are participating in sports of one kind or another. I thought it would be fun to compare the (fictional) experience of a high school athlete of nearly a century ago with today’s players. What do you notice that’s the same now as it was then? What’s different?

(Edited to add: Some people talk as if girls’ sports programs started with Title IX, and no girl ever sweated in public before 1972. Here’s a bit of counter-evidence.)

This exciting excerpt is from Marjorie Dean: High School Freshman by Pauline Lester, written in 1917. The story picks up just after our heroine, Marjorie Dean, has succeeded at her basketball tryout and won a place on the Sanford High School freshman team.

“‘Hurrah for the new team!’ cried Muriel Harding. ‘Let’s call ourselves the Invincibles. You certainly can play basketball, Miss Dean. How lucky in you to come to Sanford just when we need you. By the way, ‘Miss Dean’ is too formal. Please let us call you Marjorie. You can call us by our first names. What’s the use of so much formality among teammates?'”

(Unfortunately, Marjorie gets into squabble with some teammates who play a mean joke played on another girl–prompting Marjorie to quit the team. This means she doesn’t get to play in the big Freshman-Sophomore game, but she goes to watch it anyway. Her nemesis and the chief “mean girl,” Mignon LaSalle, is on the team.)

“By half past one Saturday every seat in the large gallery surrounding the gymnasium was filled, and by a quarter to two every square foot of standing room was occupied by an enthusiastic audience largely composed of boys and girls from the high school.

‘I never went to a basketball game before,’ confessed (Marjorie’s friend) Constance after a time. ‘What are those girls over there in the red paper hats and big red bows going to do?’

‘Oh, that’s the sophomore class. They lead their class in the songs. The green and purple girls are the freshman chorus.’

‘I didn’t even know our class colors were green and purple.’

‘You didn’t! Why, that’s the reason you and I wore violets. Almost every freshman has them.’

‘Oh, look!’ Constance’s eyes were fixed upon a tiny purple figure that had just emerged from a side door in the gymnasium and was walking slowly across the big floor. Immediately afterward a door opened on the opposite side and a diminutive scarlet-clad boy flashed forth.

‘They are the mascots,’ explained Marjorie. The two children advanced to the center of the room and gravely shook hands. Then the boy in red announced in a high, clear treble: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the noble sophomores!’

The door swung wide and a band of lithe blue figures, bearing a huge letter “S” done in scarlet on the fronts of their blouses, pattered into the gymnasium amid loud applause.

‘The valiant freshmen!’ piped the purple-clad youngster.

There was a rush of black-clad girls, with resplendent violet ‘F’s’ ornamenting their breasts, another volley of cheers from the audience, then a shrill blast from the referee’s whistle rent the air. The teams dropped into their places, the umpire, timekeeper and scorer took their stations, and a tense silence settled over the audience.

The referee balanced the ball. Ellen Seymour and Mignon LaSalle gathered themselves for the toss. Up it went. The two players leaped for it. The referee’s whistle sounded again. The struggle for basketball honors began.

A jubilant shout swelled from the throats of the watching freshmen and their fans. Mignon had caught the ball. She sent it speeding toward Helen Thornton, who fumbled it and, losing her head, threw it away from instead of to the basket. An audible sigh of disapproval came from the freshman contingent as they beheld the ball pass into the hands of the sophomores, who scored shortly afterward.

Now that the ball was in their hands, the sophomores had the advantage and they kept it. Try as the freshmen might, they could not score. Toward the close of the first half they managed to score, but all too soon the whistle blew, with the score 9 to 2 in favor of the sophomores.

Their fans went wild with delight and their chorus sang,

‘Hail to the sophomores, gallant band!
See how bold they take their stand!”

The freshmen answered with their song, ‘The Freshmen’s Brave Banner,’ but they did not sing as spiritedly as they had before the beginning of the game.

The teams changed sides and hastened to their places. Again Mignon and Ellen faced each other. Then the whistle shrilled and the second half of the game was on.

From the beginning of the second half it looked as though the freshmen might retrieve their early losses. They worked with might and main and made no false moves. Slowly their score climbed to six. So far the sophomores had gained nothing. Then Ellen Seymour made a spectacular throw to the basket and brought her team up two points. With the realization that they were facing defeat, the freshmen rallied and made a desperate effort to hold their own, bringing their count up to eight.

Two more points were gained, and the score was tied, but the time was growing short. Helen Thornton had the ball and was plainly trying to elude the tantalizing sophomore who barred her way. She made a clumsy feint of throwing the ball. It slipped from her fingers and rolled along the floor. There was a mad scramble for it. Mignon and Ellen leaped forward simultaneously.

The crowd in the gallery was aroused to the height of excitement. Marjorie, breathless, leaned far over the gallery rail. She knew every detail of the dear old game. She saw Mignon’s and Ellen’s heads close together as they sprang; then she saw Mignon give a sly, vicious side lunge which threw Ellen almost off her feet. In the instant it took Ellen to recover herself, Mignon had seized the ball and was off with it. Eluding her pursuers, she balanced herself on her toes and threw her prize toward the freshman basket. But it never reached there. A long blue figure shot straight up into the air. Elizabeth Corey, a girl whose sensational plays had made her a lion during freshman year, had intercepted the flying ball. She sent it spinning through the air toward the sophomore nearest their basket, whose willing hands received it and threw it home.

Mignon’s trickery had availed her little. The sophomores had won.”

(from Marjorie Dean: High School Freshman by Pauline Lester, 1917)