Saturday, October 5, 2013

"What's in a name?" - the Dolly Varden Base Ball Club of Jersey City

In June of 1872 some young men in Jersey City decided to form a base ball club.  To do so they needed to establish by-laws, elect officers, buy uniforms, find a field and, of course, choose a club name.  The last task should have been the easiest and they had almost 20 years of prior examples to draw on.  The possibilities included patriotic names like National, Union or Pioneer, sporting names like Olympic or Athletic and a wide range of other popular names such as Excelsior or Eureka.  None of these, apparently appealed to them since they resolved to call themselves the Dolly Varden Base Ball Club.

Jersey Journal - August 3, 1872

When I first saw the name in the New York Clipper, my first reaction was that like the Elizabeth Resolutes and their pink stockings, these were young men comfortable with their masculinity.  But even so why pick a woman's name for a base ball club?.  The only similar situation I could remember was the Flora Temple club of Paterson, but that female was a famous race horse so the athletic connection was clear.  Yet the name also rang a vague bell and a quick Internet search revealed why.  Dolly Varden was a character in a Charles Dickens novel, Barnaby Rudge, which I read easily 10 years ago.

Scene from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens 

Barnaby Rudge was an early work by the great British novelists, one of his two historical novels, set during the 1780 anti-Catholic riots in England.  One of the book's main characters is a locksmith named Gabriel Varden, one of the few voices of reason and restraint in the story (the novel originally bore his name) and Dolly is his "mad cap" daughter.  Restraint is not a word associated with Dolly who flirts with many, but cares for few, if any.  Interesting, but no clear connection to the United States, much less base ball.  Furthermore, Barnaby Rudge was published in 1841, what possibly could be the base ball connection? But surprisingly there is one.  According to something else I found on the Internet, the first professional women's base ball team was an 1867 African-American team in Philadelphia called the Dolly Vardens.  But even so, why would a Jersey City club model itself on a women's team and African-American one at that?

Dolly Varden dances and dresses

Most likely they didn't, rather it appears the Philadelphia women's choice of the name anticipated a fashion craze that reached its height in 1872.  The starting point appears to have been the Dolly Varden dress which featured bright, colorful patterns, usually with some kind of floral design.  But it didn't stop at dresses as the style also extended to hats, parasols, paper dolls and even Dolly Varden dances.  The craze even brought on a revival of Dickens work, adapted as a stage play focused on the heroine and named, of course, "Dolly Varden."  A sense of the scope and rapid growth of the fad can be seen in the number of hits produced by searching for Dolly Varden on all of the newspapers on the Genealogy Bank web site -  just 15 in 1871 compared to almost 3000 only a year later.

British stage listing indicating popularity of the novel adaptation into a play called "Dolly Varden"

Jersey City was certainly not immune as evidenced by 93 hits in the 1872 Jersey Journal up from zero the year before.  Many of the listings were ads for different Dolly Varden products, enough saturation to provoke one Jersey City man to claim (tongue in cheek, one hopes) that he was the proud owner of a Dolly Varden whip!  Within this context, it's probably not as surprising someone got the bright idea to name a base ball club in Dolly's "honor."

Jersey Journal Ad, April 1, 1872 promoting Dolly Varden fashions

 But what was their real intent?  Possibilities range from suggesting they deserved an equal level of popularity to making fun of the whole "nine days wonder."  Certainly the name wasn't always used in a complimentary manner.  In September of 1872 a Republican speaker in Jersey City lambasted the Democrats as the Dolly Varden party.  Unfortunately I couldn't find out much about the Dolly Varden players.  (It would also be interesting to find out what their uniforms were like). While at least two box scores survive, the common nature of the names has prevented specific identifications.  There was a man named Carrick on the club and two of the three Carrick's in the 1872 Jersey City Directory were in the dry goods business which could be the connection.

The Dolly Vardens pack it in - Jersey Journal, May 5, 1872

Dolly Varden's stay at the top of the fashion world lasted about as long as the fictional character's attention to her latest beau.  A search of the following year revealed only seven hits in the Jersey Journal, almost half of which were houses of ill repute called Dolly Varden homes.  The base ball club didn't waste time in jumping off the band wagon either as less than a year after their formation, the Dolly Varden Club became the Independent Club, reverting to one of the old patriotic names.  How much on the field success they achieved under their new name (or the old one for that matter) remains to be discovered.  But no matter what, they certainly earned a place on the list of most creative team names!

1 comment:

  1. The notion that there was a base ball nine of African-American females formed in Philadelphia in 1867 has no basis in fact. It is a "fact" that exists solely on the internet.