Joanna here, talking about the history of hoop chasing and the many misconceptions we nourish about this.
Right off, let me explain how chasing or bowling or driving or rolling or trundling a hoop came about.
About seven minutes after the invention of the wheel, some bright young lad standing in the back of the cave noticed you could roll the thing and chase after it. It probably took a half hour's experimentation to discover you could roll it even better by knocking at it with a short stick. You could make it go fast or slow, turn, even spin backwards. A new human activity — part sport, part contest, part art, part meditation — was born.
It proved amazingly popular. There's something in the human race that wants to chase a rolling object. We're like golden labs.
I want to claim Classical sources for my subject. And, indeed, the Classical Greeks were great hoop trundlers.
Oh. Let me digress. The word 'trundle', which we'd use in 1800 when our characters are talking about rolling a hoop, means 'to push or propel on wheels or rollers. As in,
"I doubt if Emerson could trundle a wheelbarrow through the streets."
That is a quote from the redoubtable Thoreau where he is very likely criticizing Emerson.
Trundle also means 'to spin or twirl' and you can see how that would neatly fit in with what we do to hoops.
Like so many of our most robust words, 'trundle' comes to us from Middle English where 'trendle' meant 'wheel'. We use the word trundle, nowadays, mostly in the concept of 'trundle bed' — which is a little bed with wheels that goes under the main bed for anyone who may not happen to know this.
Yes. They rolled hoops. We see this represented on vases and bowls and the odd mosaic. One common representation of boy-with-a-hoop is Ganymede, whom we see over to the left, with hoop and live chicken. The rooster in this picture is symbolic and represents an appropriate gift from a homosexual lover to the beloved. It should not be taken as an indication one carried around poultry as part of the sport of hoop bowling, in case you were wondering.
To the right we got a boy rolling, not hoops, but wheels in this mosaic of Sixth Century, AD.
Small wheels are very popular during hoop-time, and make an interesting toy, requiring more skill to guide than the ordinary hoop. To trundle a wheel the boy uses a long stick, one end of which he places under the hub, and with which he both pushes and guides the wheel in a very interesting and skilful manner, as he runs after it.
Outdoor Handy Book By Daniel "Dan" Carter Beard, 1896
The hoop is apparently the superior instrument for racing, as per this contest in 1807. Hoop versus wheel. Do not bet on the wheels.
A wager between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Parkbouse was decided on Friday morning, 1st inst. on the Clapham road, from the third mile stone on the common to the fifth, Mr B. who trundled the hoop, having gained the contest by some distance. We understand another wager, of 200 gs. has been offered by Mr. B. to trundle a hoop for five miles against any man that can be found to run a wheel the like distance.
Historically, well into the Twentieth, hoops were made of two materials.
One sort was forged in a blacksmith's shop from iron. I imagine the construction was pretty much like that of barrel hoops. In fact, I suspect a good many of the hoops rolling the streets were popped off a barrel someplace. Hoops were also similar to the metal rims of wooden wheels — another likely source of hoops for the disenfranchised poor.
Hoops might have pairs of tin squares nailed to the inside of the circle, that clattered back and forth against each other and jingled as the hoop was rolled. This goes right into the Twentieth Century. See it there at the left along with the sarcastic hound and the rack of rats, also in the Bruegel painting above. (Click on either of these to increase size.)
Martial, the Classical Roman writer, says, of a similar setup. "Why do these jingling rings move about upon the rolling wheel? In order that the passers-by may get out of the way of the hoop."
Myself, I suspect the tin janglers served the same purpose as those playing cards I used to attach to the wheels of my bike. (With clothespins. Remember clothespins?)
They were there to make a nifty racket, and they did.
The other kind of hoop — I said there were two — was made of ash wood, rounded on the outside, carved flat on the inside. Looks like they were made from a single piece of ash, soaked and shaped, bent and fitted.
Dorothy Palmer reminisces about life in the 1920s:
We also had hoops, which were often old cycle wheels minus the spokes. To be very grand was to have a wooden hoop purchased from Perkins Penny Bazaar in the Market Place at Oakham or a steel hoop with a trundle made by the blacksmith.
The boys in the picture to the right are very obviously using bicycle tires with the spokes removed.
One variation — it seems to be Nineteenth Century — were hoops with the driving stick fitted permanently. Maybe it was intended for small children. The idea never really caught on.
A case of 'Not Clear on the Concept'.
The practice pursued by boys in trundling their hoops on the streets and footpaths has become a dange rous nuisance. The other day a gentleman was riding a rather spirited horse in Macquarie-street when a careless urchin drove his hoop against the animal's legs, when it instantly reared and plunged, and would have thrown its rider had not his good horsemanship enabled him to keep his seat . . . the boys ought to be compelled to quit the public thoroughfares, and to resort to places where no injury could arise from the pursuit of their pastimes.
The Hobart Town Daily Mercury; 18 August 1858
Hoops were the skateboards of their day.
So the burning question of the hour is — did girls bowl hoops, or was it only a sport for boys?
Anytime after about 1830, we see girls depicted with a hoop and stick. An example is the charming Renoir at the top of the page. In the last half of the Nineteenth Century, hoop rollers are as apt to be girls as boys. Victorian moralists and physicians considered it wholesome, healthy exercise for young girls.
Girls to the age of thirteen may be permitted to indulge at pleasure in play and exercise proportionate to their strength, with as little restraint as their brothers. We would not send them into the cricket ground nor initiate them in at football, because there is a sociality of intercourse in such plays that is not feminine in nature; but we would not preclude them from exercise as strong and as unrestrained merely because it implied an effort of physical power; nor would we shut them out from the boys of their own age who are usually brothers or near relatives on any principle of precocious prudery, so long as such games are not dangerous or indecorous, if they are they are as unfit for the brother as for the sister.
We love to see girls of eleven or twelve trundling a hoop or running a garden-face in rivalry with Tom just returned from Eton.
George Stephen, A Guide to Service: The Governess 1844.
But what about in the Regency? What about the Georgian era?
I have no evidence one way or the other. There's no indication girls didn't play with hoops. But hard proof they did starts emerging in the teens of the Nineteenth Century. And when it does, it's treated as a commonplace.
Amusements there are which properly come under the denomination of sports, in which a little girl or boy may partake. The hoop, battledore, drum, kite, bat and ball,etc.
Early education, 1821
. . . and saw, at the farthest end of the terrace, a young girl, of about fifteen, running very fast, with a hoop, which she was keeping up with great dexterity for the amusement of a little boy, who was with her. The governess no sooner saw this, than she went in pursuit of her young ladyships calling after her, in various tones and phrases of reprehension, in French, Italian, and English; and asking, whether this was a becoming employment for a young lady of her age and rank. Heedless of these reproaches, Lady Julia still ran on, away from her governess.
Tales of Fashionable Life: Vivian, Maria Edgeworth, 1812
Whenever the lessons of her childhood had been concluded, she had always been permitted, and even encouraged, to join in many of those games and exercises, that are usually appropriated to the amusement of the other sex. Often has she quitted an abstruse book, or a beautiful drawing, to trundle her hoop, or run races with her playfellow Augustus. And when other girls have trembled under the rod of the dancing master, she has been gaining health and activity together,
Manners: a novel, Frances Brooke, 1817
I can't end without admitting that long, long ago in the foolishness of youth, I attempted to trundle a hula hoop. It was not a great success. Perhaps I just lack the knack, but I think Hula Hoops are too light for the purpose.
I wonder — What 'olde tyme' toys have you played with. Did you find it a satisfactory experience?
Some lucky winner from the comments trail will receive an early, fresh-off-the-press copy of my new book, Black Hawk, though they will have to wait for about a month till I get some author copies.