In 1874, Major Walter Wingfield created marketing history by packaging racquets, nets, posts and balls into sets to sell as the first outdoor tennis sets. Early racquets were also lop sided however as the game progressed so did the desire to provide racquets more suited to the game and so began an amazing evolution of design, materials and ingenuity. Racquets were being made for ball games and Real tennis from the early 16th century so by the time lawn tennis came into being the skills of racquet making and stringing were highly developed.
Real (Court) Tennis uses lopsided racquets and the pictures below are of the oldest surviving racquet known dating back to 1858, courtesy of Rolf Jaeger (Tennis Heritage).The picture right is from the National Archive of Australia ref. NAA A6135, K19/5/81/4 and shows the very unusual court featuring the angled roof effect which is included in the field of play.
From 1874, the migration of tennis to other countries was quite rapid, as tennis sets like this one proved very popular. We know that tennis sets arrived in Australia soon after they were launched in 1874. A “Wingfield” set arrived in Queensland from the UK in August 1876. In Melbourne, a tennis set certainly arrived in Melbourne to the MCC (Melbourne Cricket Club) pre 1877 and we know that a retail store in Tasmania was advertising “new style” (non Wingfield design) lawn tennis sets in January 1876. The set pictured below shows a cork handled racquet, brass measuring tape, court makers (very rare) and a multi-press which holds more than one racquet. If you have a set let us know.
From the inception of lawn tennis racquet design evolved quite quickly in the first fifteen years from the lob sided style to the vertical shape which has persisted through to current times. Mind you along the way many designers have reverted to unusual shapes as you will see under the unusual racquets section.
This photo below shows the progression.
a (lightweight) lobbed racket, circa 1876, by Henry Malings, a version of Real Tennis racquet
a Sphairistike racket by French and Co., circa 1875 and stamped accordingly
a (larger framed) lobbed racket by Jefferies, circa 1878. and
a more modern (in 1889) square headed and laminated racket by F.H.Ayres, circa 1886.
Racquet makers sprang up everywhere in the USA, France and the UK as the game blossomed. Often racquet making was an add-on business for example , you will find early wood racquets made by Winchester (famous firearms maker) and very often famous makers like F.H.Ayres, Horsman and Wright & Ditson were making other sporting goods for cricket and baseball.
Patents were taken out for all aspects of racquet design around the world. Head shapes, throat shapes, stringing styles, weight and even string tension adjustment. The diversity and the craftsmanship is what attracts so many racquet collectors into the hobby.
Today, the various wooden handles provide considerable interest to collectors. Up until the late 1920′s most racquets had wooden handles after which leather grips became more commonplace.
You could imagine how slippery a wooden grip might become, so ingenious designs included full cork, inlaid cork strips, grooves of varying designs and quite radical handles shapes to help prevent loss of control.
In addition to the famous fishtail, above, we have the bulbous, swallow tail, baseball, fantail and numerous groove patterns. Even when wooden handle shape was quite normal many designs focussed on the groove patterns varying by number, thickness or checker patterns.
You will notice also that the throat sections generally show a convex or concave shape. All through the history of racquet design these shapes are a recurring theme.
In April 2009, we received this photo of yet another new racquet handle shape which many collectors had never seen before.
Not only were wood shapes interesting, some of the racquets designed for the more fashionable players featured some very intricate detailing such as this carved handle, inlaid mother of pearl or intricate inlaid wood grips from the late 1880′s.
While wood racquets were the dominant choice of materials, from mid 1880′s tennis racquets made of metal began to appear. It would be fair to say that most people relate metal racquets only to the late 1960′s when Jimmy Connors started to use the very unique, Lacoste (France) designed T 2000 by Wilson.
This racquet by Hillman Herbert Cooper, courtesy of USA Collector Randy Crow, even includes a leather strap tension adjustment system.
Hobbies metal racquet with spring tension system.
Courtesy Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.
Another Hobbies Model with cord grip
The most successful brands to be produced in metal came from the 1920′s in the form of the Dayton (USA) company which produced metal frame /wood handle racquets from 1923-to the mid 1990′s and the UK Birmingham Aluminium Company’s all 1924 all aluminium racquet called the ‘Birmal’ and like some of Hobbies product featured cord grips that you might expect to have found on early golf clubs. The strings were often also metal wire offering players year round “all condition” equipment, where wood /gut was subject to damage in damp conditions.
Birmal Aluminium Tennis Racquet c 1924 (sold in Australia)
A Dayton (USA) metal head/strings with wooden scored grip