Quoits or as it sometimes was called in colonial British America--"pitchers," is a traditional lawn game which at that time involved throwing a metal (usually brass or iron) ring to land over one of two pins set about about 11-18 yards apart. The stake or pin, called a "hob, spud, spike, meg, or mott," was embedded in the center of a patch earth, often clay. The game is similar to horseshoe pitching and ring toss.
The quoit is a circular disc with a 4 inch hole in the middle which can weigh up to 10 pounds, although a weight of approximately 5 pounds is more common. This is thrown over the "hob," a stake or pin pounded into soil or clay, often set within a box-like framework. The game was played by 1 to 4 contestants per side. Each "pitcher" stands at one stake or pin and throws his quoit at the opposite stake or pin. The player or "pitcher" is usually given two attempts at hitting the central hob. A quoit which lands on the hob is called a "ringer" and scores two points. The first player to reach 21 wins the game. Players also try to land their quoits in ways which block further attempts by other competitors.
There is evidence of a similar game played by ancient Greeks & Romans before spreading to Britain. It seems likely that the Romans introduced quoits during their occupation of Britain, from the 1st to 5th century. There are regular mentions of the game in England after 1388, although the game was banned in the 1360s by Edward III who believed it to be foolish.
English soldiers, arriving in the colonial New York area, introduced horseshoe pitching there. Some settlers, especially the Scots, coming into the British American colonies also brought along quoits. Thus, both games had devotees in the 17C & 18C centuries in America. American soldiers in the Revolutionary War found it easier to play horseshoes. Quoits had to be carried along with the equipment; shoes were available whenever there were horses & "smithies."
Quiots for Everyman
In an earlier posting, it was noted that colonists played quoits on the Boston Commons. Playing quoits on the common was open to all. The game was played in the streets, on the public greens, and at outdoor taverns throughout the 18C.
Although the game with organized teams remained strong in New York State from the 18C to mid 19C, quoits was viewed differently in the New England and the South during the first half of the 19C.
In the 1771, Connecticut Courant, a churchgoer denounced "the open Tolerance of our Youth to play Quoits in the street."
By 1787, the Massachusettes Legislature passed an act for The Due Legislation of Licenced Houses declaring that "no taverner, innholder, or victualler shall have or keep in or about their houses, yards, gardens, or dependencies any dice, cards, bowls, billiards, quoits, or any other implements used in gambling."
A 1788 article on drunkeness in the Pennsylvania Mercury and Universal Advertiser equated the immorality of drunkeness with cock-fighting, tobacco-chewing, and playing quoits.
An essay in the August 22, 1787 Pennsylvania Gazette noted, "A number of labourers play at quoits for
the whole day at the taverns, running in debt for liquors, while their wives and children want bread."
Some above the Mason-Dixon Line disagreed with the banning of quoits as a public pastime. In the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Independent Gazetteer in 1790, one editorial writer calling himself A Freeman, expressed his concerns. "If one man, in a leisure hour, is fond of the Theatre, another of shooting at a target, fowling, or hunting, another of pitching quoits, another of playing billiards, shuffle board, cards, back-gammon, or chess, another of dancing &c, why should they be deprived of one more than the other?" The writer felt that only the barbarous customs such as bull-baiting and cock-fighting should be prohibited by law.
The Newburyport Herald on March 20, 1801, carried the following warning against the idle game of quoits, "Is there any harm in boy's pitching coppers?...I have seen their sports terminate in oaths, blows, and bloody noses...From coppers to quoits, from quoits to cards, and by degrees to all manner of crimes."
A few years later the Farmer's Cabinet New Hampshire, carried another admonition, "I know that there is in every village, a great manny idlers, lounging about the streets and tippling houses, drinking, swearing, and pitching quoits, and playing chequers, or ten pins...I don't know how long it will be before many of them will be in jail."
In South Carolina, the Southern Patriot carried a glowing endorsement of quoits as a gentleman's sport. "To do the business with grace and applause, you must throw your coat off, and never use gloves or thumb-cover. the quoits should be made of brass and well polished; iron is too rough and has to the eye a dead, heavy appearance; brass glitters in the air, and when one or more quoits are around the meg the bright metal is quite and assistance to the player. Four on a side is the best number for an interesting game. We observe that this amusement is growing popular hereabout, and we take occasion to say it is a good omen; when such games are popular with the best classes, it is a sure sign that gambling, drinking, and other vices are sinking into merited disgrace and neglect...It is pleasing to contrast such sports with the sickly misery of the card table, and the beastly scenes of a drunkery."
However, some of the warnings of New Englanders did seem valid, when the newspaper in Alexandria, Virginia, carried the following report, "Shocking Murder.--A man by the name of Gollyhorn was murdered in Dumfries, Virginia on Tuesday night last, by a person named Burgess. The parties were engaged in pitching quoits, when a quarrel ensured, during which Gollyhorn kicked Burgess in the face--after which Burgess procured a butcher's knife and returned to the place he had left Gollyhorn, and found him asleep on the step of a house, and upon his waking plunged the knife into his body. the deceased walked about twenty steps and dropped dead. Pursuit was immediately made after Burgess, who was apprehended and conducted to Bren't Ville, to await his trial in November."
Quoits for Southern Gentlemen
During the late 18C in the new republic, one of the most famous very private quoit clubs consisted of a group of men that met on Saturdays during the spring & summer seasons at Buchanan's Spring in Richmond, Virginia.
The club was also called the Richmond Sociable Club, or the Barbecue Club, and included members such as US Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835), Defense Attorney for Aaron Burr - John Wickham (1763-1839), US Attorney General William Wirt (1772-1834), US Senator Benjamin Watkins Leigh (1781-1849), the Reverend Mr. John Buchanan, and Parson John Blair.
U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall
A second Virginia quoit club was started in the early 19C and met at nearby Clarke's Spring. The two clubs were not competitors, but rather, served as alternates in each other's games.
Richmond had many clubs for its males in the early 19C, but quoits, a game of skill rather than luck, plus an excellent meal proved to be the basis for one of the most appealing. Quoits was popular game during the colonial period, because the equipment was simple to make.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) about 1791. Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia.
Thomas Jefferson, a young lawyer attending court in Staunton, noted in his memorandum book June 21, 1769, that he had lost sevenpence ha’penny playing “at pitchers” with Thomas Boyer. The players at those June courtdays were evidently out of Jefferson’s league, for he lost another ha'penny two days later in a contest with a Mr. John Madison. Playing quoits at courtdays was a particularly popular pastime in Virginia, which may be how Chief Justice John Marshall became such an expert at the game.
The origins of Richmond’s most famous quoit club were reported by the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine in 1829: This club is probably the most ancient one of the sort in the United States, having existed upward of Forty years. It originated in a meeting, every other Saturday, from the first of May until the month of October, of some of the Scotch merchants who were early settlers in that town. They agreed each to take out some cold meats for their repast, and to provide a due quantity of drinkables...They occasionally invited some others of the inhabitants, who, finding the time passed pleasantly, proposed, in the year 1788, to form a regular club, consisting of 25 members, under a written constitution...which prohibited the use of wine and porter.
United States Attorney General William Wirt
And so, a company of gentlemen having met at the Richmond Coffee House in the city of Richmond on Saturday the 13th Dec 1788…resolved to form themselves into a society by the name of the Amicable Society of Richmond…a week later, John Marshall was elected to membership, and on February 7, 1801, the Episcopal Priest John Buchanan was elected president of the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club. It was, afterall, his property they would be playing on for the next few decades.
The Buchanan Spring was on the property of Father Buchanan whose farm, Gielston, lay just north of Broad Street & Hancock Street in Richmond. The spring was in a garden-like setting with a grove of towering old oaks, which the rector readily opened for picnics. The Richmond Light Infantry Blues and the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club regularly took advantage of his hospitality.
The original membership of the Quoit Club was limited to 25, and that his number was not increased until 1853, when the limit was raised to 30. Membership was kept exclusive in the club where two adverse votes would disqualify a prospective member. According to the 1829 Turf Register article, for some years after the founding of the club no vacancies occurred, and the idea was spread about that one could ensure longevity by becoming a member. “The Arch Destroyer, however, at length, appeared in all his strength, and made such havoc, that only one of the original members, (the venerable Chief Justice of the United States,) is now living…” A small membership prevented the growth of cliques within the club and allowed all members to participate in lively, open discussions & humor.
George Wythe Mumford recorded in The Two Parsons; Cupid's Sports; The Dream and The Jewels of Virginia some additional distinguished members of the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club: Dr. John Brockenbrough, the president of the Bank of Virginia; Dr. William Foushee, physician; Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer; Daniel Call, lawyer; Thomas Rutherford & Charles Ellis, merchants; Major James Gibbon, the hero of Stony Point; William Munford, a member of the Virginia Executive Council; Dr. Peter Lyons, physician; Colonel John Ambler; Colonel John Harvie; James Brown Jr., merchant & second auditor of the State; “besides others, equally meritorious, full of life, joyous and grave, in every way qualified to add to the merriment and sober pleasantries of such a party.”
The constitution of the club also provided honorary, but active, membership for the governors of the Commonwealth of Virginia during their terms of office. One peculiar rule of the Buchanan Club which caused some hardship was the interdiction against political discussions at the meetings. To politically argumentative Virginia men, this restriction was difficult to observe, and Munford records a fine of one basket of champagne levied against two imprudent members by John Marshall.
Marshall's fine for the gentlemen was alcohol. The Club's original constitution included a prohibition against the use of liquor & wines except upon rare occasions, but this proved to be an extreme hardship, so the rule was not allowed to stand for long.
The 1829 Turf Register reveals, Some years ago, an amendment was made to the constitution, which admits the use of porter. Great opposition was made to this innovation, and the destruction of the club was predicted as the consequence. The oppositionists, however, soon became as great consumers of malt and hops as their associates…
The Buchanan Spring club members rapidly accustomed themselves to the presence of liquor at their meetings. Chester Harding, an artist who was painting a portrait of John Marshall, was invited to attend a meeting of the club, and he wrote, I went early...just as the party were beginning to arrive. I watched for the coming of the old chief. He soon approached with his coat on his arm, and his hat in his hand, which he was using as a fan. He walked directly up to a large bowl of mint-julep...and drank off a tumbler full of the liquid, smacked his lips, and then turned to the company, with a cheerful, “How are you, gentlemen?”
The recipe for the punch often served to the Quoit Club in the “Big Bowl” called for lemons, brandy, rum, and Madeira, poured into a bowl one-third filled with ice and sweetened.
Besides their own members, the club welcomed out-of-town guests, or “strangers” as they were called. Members of the club would call at the best hotels in the city on club day to determine if there were any distinguished travelers registered to invite to the club meeting. The sponsoring member was expected to contribute the cost of the guest’s meal. One of the frequent visitors to the club was General Winfield Scott. He especially liked hog jowl and turnip tops, which he called “pig’s cheek and salad.”
The "strangers" occasionally wrote of their welcome & entertainment by the club. Early in the morning of the meeting day, the members whose turn it was to act as caterers for the day would meet either at the Old Market on Main Street, or at the “New Market” on what is now Marshall Street. As it was then the custom for gentlemen to shop for their families, the caterers probably met a number of the other members strolling about the market. Some few followed John Marshall’s example and carried their baskets on their arms, but most would be followed by a son or servant, who would carry the burden.
As gentlemen stopped carting food to the club, there was a great rivalry among professional caterers to produce the best meal possible from the strictly limited sum allotted from the club’s treasury. However, caterers occasionally stretched the budget a bit, and paid the excesses themselves, as on June 30, 1838, when G. W. Munford & J. Rutherford were caterers. The club had given them $45, but they each contributed an additional 80 cents to pay the total bill.
Their account includes a pig, 47 pounds of mutton, 15 pounds of beef, 18 pounds of sturgeon, 12 chickens, and 2 large hams. To this, they added cucumbers, cymlings, beets, cabbage, potatoes, snaps, onions, herbs, mint, eggs, butter, cheese, lemons, sugar, pepper, capers, mustard, cayenne pepper, crackers, vinegar, lard, flour, and bread.
By this time, liquor was established as a necessity of the meetings, and the caterers ordered one and one-half gallons of brandy, one and one-half gallons of rum, one-half gallon of whiskey, 12 bottles of porter, and a pint of wine, plus 30 “segars.”
The caterers contracted with the well-known Richmond African American, Jasper Crouch to be butler & major-domo of the meeting. Jasper Crouch charged $3 for his services and the use of his cart to move the supplies to the meeting place, and he paid the cook and other servants himself. He also furnished such other necessities as firewood & ice.
In the middle of the warm summer afternoon, the members of the club would stroll out Broad Street toward the Buchanan farm. It was the custom for the members of the club to walk to meetings, even though most had horses or carriages. Near the groups of newly arriving, conversing gentlemen was a fire where the foods for the meal were carefully prepared by several cooks. "The kitchen was just far enough off to be out of the way – but was in itself an attraction, and, to strangers, a curiosity, some of whom would go to take a look at the cooking process...The mode of roasting, too, was primitive...simply to build a platform by laying sticks across four stakes driven in the ground, and make a fire beneath the platform, and place the fish (or meat) upon it to be broiled."
When all the members had gathered and played the morning round of quoits, they would seat themselves around a long pine table under an open arbor for the meal. The main course of roast pig gave to the Buchanan Springs Quoit Club its informal name of the “Barbecue Club.” Cayenne pepper, which was heavily used in the preparation of the pig, made welcome the punch, porter, & toddies served at the table together with the juleps. Accompanying the roast pork were fish, other meats, and vegetables of the season. One guest recalled that he had never again eaten sturgeon cutlets to equal those prepared for the club.
According to George Munford, the only dessert was a “steaming juicy mutton chop, cooked to a turn, and deviled ham, highly seasoned with mustard, cayenne pepper, and a slight flavoring of Worcester sauce,” but another guest at one of the dinners mentioned fruits and melons which were served with the juleps at the end of the meal.
As John Marshall was considered the best player of the Buchanan Spring Club, he usually headed one team, and was often opposed by one lead by Parson John D. Blair. They each chose four partners, and the selected men doffed their coats and procured their quoits from Jasper Crouch, the custodian of the “weapons” of the club. Most of the players used smooth hightly polished brass rings, but the Chief Justice used extra large, heavy, rough iron rings which he threw with great power and accuracy.
"Mr. Marshall, with his long arms hanging loosely by his side, a quoit in each hand, leaning slightly to the right, carried his right hand and right foot to the rear; then, as he gave the quoit the impetus of his full strength, brought his leg up, throwing the force of the body upon it, struck the meg near the ground, driving it in at the bottom, so as to incline its head forward, his quoit being forced back two or three inches by the recoil. Without changing his position, he shifted the remaining quoit to his right hand, and, fixing the impression of the meg on the optic nerve by his keen look, again threw, striking his first quoit and gliding his last directly over the head of the meg. There arose a shout of exulting merriment."
Marshall was not only the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, but he was also the chief judge of all disputes over the nearness of quoits to the meg, as the iron target stake was called in Virginia, and Artist Chester Harding wrote: “…before long, I saw the great Chief Justice of the …United States, down on his knees measuring the contested distance with a straw, with as much earnestness as if it had been a point of law; and if he proved to be in the right, the Woods would ring with his triumphant shout. What would the dignitaries of the highest court of England have thought, if they had been present?”
As the members aged, some did not choose to participate in the active sport but preferred to remain at the table under the arbor to watch the game & discuss topics of the day. One who seldom particpated was Senator Benjamin Watkins Leigh. "Mr. Watkins Leigh, by common consent, possessed one of the finest intellects, not only in this fraternity, but in the State, and was gifted as a conversationalist; others were eminent, some for wit, some for anecdote, some for song, and taken together, there was an amount of wisdom, experience, learning spirit and culture which afforded the finest opportunity for enjoying a rare social intercourse."
Justice Marshall did not just play quoits at these club gatherings, even in his advancing years, he was the leader of the convivial spirits who gathered to pitch quoits, drink julep and punch, tell stories, sing songs, make speeches, and play pranks under the trees of Richmond.
Some apprarently drank to keep cool in the warm afternoons, even the Chief Justice. One Virginian recalled: "I do indeed remember that Mr. George D. Fisher (who’s mother was a sister of Mrs. Judge Marshall) once told me that he went over to the Judge’s house one Sunday morning just before breakfast, and seeing the Judge drinking a glass of water at that unusual hour, he said to him, “I notice, Sir; that you seem to be a little thirsty this morning!” “Yes,” replied the old gentleman, with a twinkle in his eye, “I find that I didn’t drink quite enough mint julep last evening!”
For more on the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club see: "Quoits, The sport of Gentlemen" Virginia Cavalcade Magazine. Summer, 1965, and George Wythe Mumford's The Two Parsons; Cupid's Sports; The Dream and The Jewels of Virginia. 1884.