Article related image

A Brief History of Popular Lawn Games, From Bocce Ball to Croquet

Backyard sports tend to move at a leisurely pace; turns are taken between sips of lemonade, shade is sought under sprawling trees, a canine belly rub can warrant a group time out. When the weather is hot, low-stakes, low-sweat activities are ideal for enjoying the outdoors. Below, we’ve rounded up seven summertime games and how they came to be.

Bocce Ball

Red and black bocce balls in grass.
Credit: bradwieland/ iStock

Now synonymous with Italy — Roman soldiers formed the current rules around 246 BCE — bocce ball was actually present a millennia earlier in the land of the pharaohs. While investigating an Egyptian tomb, an English scientist discovered a painting of two boys, circa 5200 BCE, who appeared to be playing bocce ball. The game eventually became associated with class. In 1511, bocce ball aficionado King Henry VIII banned the game for those outside the British noble class so the working class could concentrate on other, more important tasks, such as training for war — and he was not the first European monarch to do so.

In spite of the bans, bocce ball’s popularity grew and the game was featured in the first modern Olympics in 1896. More than 100 years later, bocce ball has continued to be a favored outdoor pastime; enthusiasts have also dubbed their passion "lawn bowling," "nine pins," "skittles," and pétanque (a French word meaning “two feet planted”).

Cornhole

Top view of bean bags on a cornhole board.
Credit: mirror-images/ iStock

Bags, baggo, bean bag, or sack toss has just one Midwestern moniker: cornhole. Inhabitants on either side of the Ohio-Kentucky border claim the game as their own 1800s brainchild. Heyliger de Windt patented Faba Baga Parlor Quoits in 1883 — essentially cornhole with a single board angled under a bell — and a Massachusetts company began selling it soon after. According to legend, though, 14th-century Bavarian cabinetmaker Matthias Kaupermann saw children tossing rocks at a hole, so he intervened by replacing the stones with pouches of corn kernels. Others say modern cornhole borrows a tradition from the Indigenous people of Illinois’ Blackhawk tribe, who lobbed bean-filled pig bladders. ESPN now broadcasts major cornhole tournaments, and the 2021 American Cornhole Organization’s World Championship was presented by Bud Light. The winning prize? $50,000.

Croquet

Overhead view of a croquet mallet about to strike a yellow ball with a blue ball in the jaws a croquet hoop with black and red balls nearby.
Credit: TRossJones/ Shutterstock

Peasants likely originated croquet centuries before Lewis Carroll dropped Alice into a match with flamingo mallets, hedgehog balls, and a tempestuous queen. In the countryside of 13th-century France, people played a game called paille-maille that involved whacking wooden balls through hoops molded from willow branches. The hobby made its way to the United Kingdom, where a variation called “crooky” drew fans. In 1864, Englishman John Jacques brought the rules to new regions of the globe with the publication of Croquet: The Laws and Regulations of the Game; he also began selling croquet equipment, and Jacques of London continues to be a leader in the business. Croquet made history in 1900 as the first Olympic sport that welcomed female competitors. Yet only one audience member purchased a ticket to the Parisian display, and the game was omitted from future Olympiad.

Horseshoes

Two red horseshoes around a post on asphalt.
Credit: Ignacio Ruiz Casanellas/ iStock

It’s unknown exactly when people started flinging horseshoes onto pegs for fun. One theory proposes that in ancient times, civilians who trailed Greek armies wanted to hold their own mock Olympics. Unable to procure an expensive discus, they found that discarded horseshoes made sturdy substitutes. England formalized the earliest set of horseshoe rules in 1869. In a related English pub game, Ringing the Bull, a small metal ring is strung from the ceiling, awaiting a deft player to thread it onto a taxidermied animal’s horn. The first horseshoe pitching tournament — “throwing” is a term only used by beginners — occurred in 1910 in Bronson, Kansas. Participants flung U-shaped weights onto stakes that were just two inches off the ground. Today, a regulation horseshoe stake is between 14 and 15 inches tall.

Jarts (Lawn Darts)

Red and blue lawn darts sticking in the ground inside a yellow hoop.
Credit: Allkindza/ iStock

In his barn in the 1950s, New York dentist Lawrence Barnett produced a set of plastic and metal arrows. The basis of a new game, these “jarts” were intended to be thrown underhand so that they poked from the grass. Soon, manufactured jarts incentivized many lawn dart copycats; the activity became a staple at outdoor gatherings for decades. However, jarts shared an accidental similarity with throwable weighted missiles on a Grec0-Roman battlefield. (Ancient warriors could hide as many as four wood and iron plumbata inside their shields.)

The U.S. first banned the sale of jarts in the 1970s, instigating court challenges until it was mandated that boxes bear a warning label stating that the game was for adults only. Then, in 1987, 7-year-old Californian Michelle Snow died three days after being hit with a far-flung jart. Her father, David — an aerospace engineer with expert understanding of how objects accelerate as they fall — convinced the U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC) to implement an all-out ban, citing scores of injuries. Instead of recalling jarts and their contemporaries, CPSC instructed owners to destroy their wares (and some complied). In 2010, Sportcraft released Sky Darts, essentially evolved jarts with soft bases.

Mini Golf

A club preparing to hit a ball in mini golf.
Credit: milepost430media/ Shutterstock

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland — site of the world’s oldest golf course — is also home to the first putting-only prototype. The latter launched at St. Andrews' Ladies Putting Club in 1867, when the times dictated that elegant women not attempt full swings. Miniature golf crossed the pond in 1916 with the advent of Thistle Dhu (“This’ll do”), a Pinehurst, North Carolina putting course owned by James Barber.

It took a dozen years for the game to adapt its sillier side. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Fairyland Inn’s Garnet Carter patented a visitor experience called Tom Thumb Golf, which challenged players to shoot golf balls through sewer pipes and hollowed-out logs. America boasted a reported 25,000 mini golf courses by 1930. (Carter later sold the rights that made him a millionaire to Heinz’s W.H. Robinson.) Meanwhile, Don Clayton of North Carolina founded Putt-Putt Golf and Games, the largest international chain of mini golf courses, in 1954. A golf purist, Clayton would likely disapprove of today’s bathroom golf greens, backyard windmills, and glow-in-the-dark obstacles — and the fact that “mini golf” and “putt-putt” are often used interchangeably.

Water Balloons

Closeup of a bucket of filled water balloons.
Credit: Tri-Eun/ iStock

Anything can be made into a competition — even hurling squelchy orbs at sun-baked pals. For Edgar Ellington, creating water balloons began with the desire to fashion a military accessory: waterproof socks to keep soldiers from developing trench foot, a condition that arises from overexposure to moisture. Instead, in 1950, he sparked the childhood pastime originally marketed as “water grenades.” Plenty of adults maintain their enthusiasm: In August 2011, the University of Kentucky’s Christian Student Fellowship drew 8,957 participants in the world’s largest water balloon fight. (According to Guinness World Records, they landed 175,141 colorful bursts.) As that group knows, the sole water balloon drawback is the prolonged process of filling them. In 2014, a father of eight named Josh Malone debuted a time-saving solution called Bunch O’ Balloons, a device that allows 37 latex casings to be inflated and tied at once. The invention generated more than $929,000 via Kickstarter.

You Might Be Interested In