Archery Was Cincinnati’s Hottest High-Society Fad in 1880

Cincinnati was the virtual center of the archery universe, and some of the wealthiest families in our fair city drove the obsession.

Did you ever feel like there was a big target centered on the Queen City? There certainly was for several years around 1880, when Cincinnati was the virtual center of the archery universe. Driving the obsession were some of the wealthiest families in our fair city.

Matilda “Lida” Scott Howell is among the elite athletes who hail from Cincinnati, although she is little remembered outside archery circles. She has 17 national titles and three Olympic gold medals to her credit.

Photograph from Spalding Official Archery Guide, 1910, Page 34 digitized by Internet Archive

A national archery craze was launched in the late 1870s by an Indiana writer named Maurice Thompson who penned a series of articles on the topic for Scribner’s Monthly. Those rather florid paeans to toxophilism were gathered together as an 1878 book, The Witchery of Archery capturing the imagination of the nation, and especially Cincinnati.

The 1883 guide, Picturesque Cincinnati, published by the Shillito department store, nods to Thompson’s articles, but hints that archery enthusiasm was already building here before his promotional book hit the presses:

“Archery has established itself as a permanent and prominent feature of amusements in Cincinnati. The Westwood was the first club to begin shooting, and had been doing so for some time before Maurice Thompson aroused the country by his stirring magazine articles in 1877. In July of that year was started the Sagittarian Club of Walnut Hills, and also about the same time the College Hill Archery Club.”

Philadelphia doctor and renowned archer Robert P. Elmer, in his definitive 1926 book, Archery, recalled the glory days of archery during the 1879-1884 years when the sport was first inspiring clubs and competition in the United States:

“In these five fat years, and in some places for a short time thereafter, clubs and associations of clubs had flourished in many parts of the land but for the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century there were very few archers except a handful in each of the cities of Washington, Cincinnati, Chicago and Boston … for many years, the tournaments were somewhat smaller, though larger in Ohio than elsewhere, and centered either around Cincinnati … or around Washington.”

Where did Cincinnati archers shoot? The clubs listed in Picturesque Cincinnati were strictly for sport. Although Maurice Thompson pushed the pleasures of bow-hunting, the Cincinnati clubs gathered on suburban lawns and impaled straw targets. Those lawns were owned by some names quite prominent in Queen City Society.

Archery required a fair amount of open space and the wealthiest citizens of Cincinnati and its suburbs, like the Timberlake family of Erlanger, turned over their lawns to amateur clubs intent on firing projectiles at hay-stuffed targets.

Photo digitized by Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

The Westwood club, for example, met on the verdant swards of Ratonaugh, the estate of James N. Gamble on Werk Road. Gamble, at that time vice president of the Procter & Gamble Company, not only hosted the archery club, but was an active participant. When all the Ohio archery clubs met at Cincinnati’s Gibson Hotel in 1879 to create the Ohio State Archery Association, Gamble was elected second-vice-president.

Harry L. Wright, prominent Cincinnati attorney and sponsor of the Sagittarian Archery Club of Walnut Hills, was elected president of the state association. Another attorney, W. Gholson Miner, of Cincinnati’s Toxophilite Archery Club, was recording secretary.

College Hill was so enthusiastic about archery that it maintained two competing clubs who drew large crowds when they went head-to-head. The Laboiteuax family hosted the first range on their property, but the club grew so large it splintered, with the renegade Waverly Club challenging the original College Hill Club. Amos Worthington, who made his fortune as a wholesale grocer, turned over his College Hill pasture to the club, of which his son was an active member. When even that expansive estate proved too small for the nearly 50 archers of the College Hill Club, they moved their meetings to the Holenshade property on which the Female Seminary was located. An 1878 meet between the College Hill Club and the Sagittarians of Walnut Hills was dominated by the Walnut Hills Club, mostly due to very low scores achieved by Ida Holenshade and especially one of the Misses Worthington who seem to have secured a place on the team through their hospitality rather than their skills with a bow. Home base for the Walnut Hills Club was the estate of Benjamin Eggleston, partner in a pork-packing firm.

Cincinnati was so obsessed with archery that the daily newspapers carried scores from neighborhood contests and unlikely vendors—Robert Clarke Booksellers, for instance—offered archery supplies for sale.

The newspaper columns filled with groan-worthy archery humor, often based on the homonyms “beaux” and “bow” as in this bit from The Cincinnati Star [August 16, 1879]:

“The ladies are this summer taking more kindly to archery than they ever took before; and we might add that they do more damage with their eyes to their beaux, than with their arrows.”

So intent were the city’s archers that they could not let winter halt their pastime. The bow-string twangers chipped in and rented the Power Hall wing of Music Hall to install a winter range. The Cincinnati Zoo hosted the statewide Ohio archery tournament for several years.

Part of the appeal for archery lay in the inclusion of women. Most of the athletic endeavors available before archery emerged were strictly in the male domain—baseball, football, cricket, even horseshoes. Archery offered a chance to mingle with the opposite sex while engaging in a competitive pursuit. Most of the newspaper coverage, while including scores achieved by both men and women, took pains to comment on the feminine pulchritude on display, as in this Enquirer [August 28, 1880] observation:

“The Cincinnati beauties were out in force to give éclat to the occasion.”

While the sports pages carried the scores, the women’s pages carried notes about the most up-to-date fashions to be worn on the archery range. Despite the inherent sexism, archery did offer women a rare opportunity to excel in a man’s domain. Cincinnati produced some outstanding women archers in the early days of the sport, most notably Matilda “Lida” Scott Howell of the Tusculum Archery Club. After winning the Ohio championship in 1881 and 1882, Lida Howell competed in 20 National Archery Championships between 1883 and 1907, taking first prize in 17 of them. During the 1895 match, she set records in the Double National Rounds with scores that would not be surpassed until 1931. In the 1904 Olympics, she earned three gold medals. Lida was inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 1975.

Lida’s husband was no slouch. Millard Howell, a coffee wholesaler, never achieved hall-of-fame status but, in 1899, he and Lida won the National Archery Association’s National Championships, the only time in the history of the association that husband and wife won titles in the same year.

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