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Let’s Bat that Around – The Game of Battledore and Shuttlecock



Most of us reading this article have played Badminton at one time or another. When I was growing up as a part of the Baby Boomer generation it seemed like there was a net strung up in most playgrounds, campgrounds, churches, and backyard picnics. Its popularity came from the fact that it was simply good, wholesome fun. What almost none of us understood was that Badminton was a modern invention (mid-1800s) derived from a much older game played by both children and adults for entertainment since at least the 14th century. That game was “Battledore and Shuttlecock.”


The Evolution of Shuttlecock Games

It is almost impossible to figure out just where shuttlecock games originated. In fact, it is quite possible that they sprang up in multiple parts of the world independent of outside influence. Ancient drawings appearing to depict the game having been played in Greece and in Asia. Games with a shuttlecock are recorded at least as early as 2400 years ago. These games can be divided into three groups: those where the shuttlecock is struck with the foot, the hand, or a bat/racket (battledore).

Battledore and Shuttlecock in Ancient Greece
Battledore and Shuttlecock in Ancient Greece

In China, Jianzi, Ti Jianzi, or Jianqiu is a traditional Chinese game in which players aim to keep a heavily weighted shuttlecock in the air using their feet and other parts of the body - but not their hands. The first known version of jianzi was in the fifth century BC in China. The name Ti Jian Zi means simply “kick shuttlecock.” Many famous generals in Chinese history used the shuttlecock game to relax and exercise their troops. During the Song Dynasty (960-1278) the game was renamed to Jianqiu, from the Chinese word for “arrow” that sounds precisely as the word “shuttlecock”.


Chinese documents show that shuttlecock kicking came into being in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and became popular in the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties. In the book The Source of Things published in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), it is recorded that:

“Nowadays, children take lead and tin flakes as well as copper coins, tie chicken feathers onto them and call them jianzi, which is then kicked in groups of three or four during walking or running.”


During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties, the game became more popular, and the kicking skills improved. According to A Book of Customs of the Imperial Palace and Capital City Beijing, shuttlecock kicking was practiced and admired by the residents of Beijing, and there were professional shuttlecock kickers outside the city gates. They played the game like dancers without stopping, which was quite impressive!

Chinese men playing Ti Jianzi
Chinese men playing Ti Jianzi

In Miscellany of the Customs of Beijing of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it is written that a shuttlecock can be made by sewing leather and copper coins together, tying eagle feathers together, and then fastening them with leather straps. During the reign of Emperor Guangxu of the Qing Dynasty, there was a centenarian scholar who could play the game in dozens of ways.


During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial concubine Jin was very fond of shuttlecock kicking. Every afternoon, she took her eunuchs and maids to the imperial garden to kick shuttlecocks together. During the game, she never thought of her superiority, but tucked her skirt in her waist, and kicked shuttlecock in a team with her servants. Jin was quick in her movements, knowing how to kick it in front of and behind her and kick it to her right and left, which often led to applause from those who played with her. It was quite a scene to see them kick it merrily after a snow fall in the imperial garden.


In Vietnam, the game called da cau, involves kicking back and forth a small birdie, a cau, like a badminton bird. The shuttlecocks were made of metal coins and feathers in the old days. In southern Vietnam, the cau was replaced by a shuttlecock made from a leather ball wrapped with string and weighted with three long feathers. Historic Vietnamese annals mention kickball tournaments as far back as the 11th century. Wood carvings of shuttlecock players have been found on 17th century Vietnamese temples.


Another Southeast Asian form of kickball is known as takraw and is first described by the Malaysians. It was played with a hollow rattan or basket-work ball. An individual or a group of players in a circle would keep the ball in the air by kicking it with a foot or knee and preferably with the insole. In Sumatra and Java, feathered shuttlecocks were made by sticking chicken feathers into a small bamboo stick.

Japanese Courtesan Striking a Shuttlecock
Japanese Courtesan Striking a Shuttlecock

Hanetsuki is a Japanese traditional game, similar to racket games such as badminton but without a net, played with a rectangular wooden paddle called a hagoita and a brightly colored shuttlecock, called a hane. Often played by girls at the New Year, the game can be played by any gender in two fashions: by one person trying to keep the shuttlecock aloft as long as possible, or by two people batting it back and forth. Players who do not hit the shuttlecock get marked on the face with India Ink. Traditionally, the longer the shuttlecock stays in the air, the greater protection from mosquitoes the players will receive during the coming year.


In North America, a game of shuttlecock, sometimes played with a wooden battledore, is common among the tribes on the Northwest coast. The game is called kwaitusiwikut among the Pima Natives of Arizona, where the children sometimes amuse themselves by tossing into the air corncobs in which one to three feathers have been stuck. The Salish Natives of British Colombia and Washington use a battledore made either with several unpainted wood slats lashed to a handle or made of a wooden plaque with a handle. The shuttlecock consists of a small piece of twig or a branch, stuck with three feathers. In the Kwakiutl game of quemal, two or more usually play; if there are many players, they stand in a ring. They kick always to the right and in front of the body, and the one who lasts the longest without missing wins.

Reproduction Corn Husk Shuttlecock
Reproduction Corn Husk Shuttlecock

The Zuni play with shuttlecocks made of thick bundles of corn husk, tied around at the top having two to four feathers inserted and batted with the hand, and a similar object was found in a pre-European cliff-dwelling in the Canyon de Chelly Another Zuni game called Po-ke-an used green corn husks neatly interlaced and wrapped into a flat square about an inch to two inches square, and on one side are placed two feathers, upright. Using this shuttlecock and their hand for a battledore, they try to see how many times they can knock it into the air. Another Zuni game called Po-ki-nanane is so named because the sound produced by the shuttlecock contacting the palm of the hand, is like the noise made by a jack rabbit upon the frozen snow.


These games are played by the younger boys, but just as often by their elders, and always for stakes. One bets that he can toss the shuttlecock a given number of times. While ten is the number especially associated with the game, the wagers are often made for twenty, fifty, and sometimes a hundred throws. In the case of a failure the other player tries his skill, each party alternating in the game until one or the other tosses the shuttlecock (only one hand being used for a battledore) the given number of times, which entitles him to the game and the betting pot.


In the southern hemisphere, there are shuttlecock games played by indigenous peoples as well. In Brazil, the game is called peteca which comes from the Tupi language, meaning “to hit with the hand.” The game was regularly played on occasions of celebration in conjunction with dances and songs. It was also played during winter, to keep the bodies of the players warm. In peteca, the game is played on a court, divided by a net, where two teams of one or more players each use their hands like rackets to hit the peteca - a shuttlecock made of rubber with stuffed feathers - from one side to the other.


Battledore and Shuttlecock in England

Battledore and Shuttlecock was a popular game in England, played in public and private pleasure gardens & garden parklands since at least the Middle Ages. While it began as a children's game, adults could not resist the game. It is represented in a 14th century illustration, the original of which occurs in Mr. Edward Douce’s collection of manuscripts of the fourteenth century at the Bodleian Library. By the late 16th century, it had become a popular children's game.

14th Century Battledore & Shuttlecock Illustration
14th Century Battledore & Shuttlecock Illustration

In the 17th century, Battledore, or Jeu de Volant as it was called in France, had become an upper-class pastime in many European countries including England. In the Two Maids of Moreclacke, a comedy printed in 1609, it is said “To play at shuttle-cock methinks is the game now.” And among the anecdotes related to Prince Henry, son of James I, is the following:


His highness, playing at shittle-cocke with one far taller than himself, and hittyng him by chance with the shittle-cocke, upon the forehead, remarked, “This is the encounter of David and Goliath.”

Women Playing Battledore & Shuttlecock (17th Century)
Women Playing Battledore & Shuttlecock (17th Century)

Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1660, gives us a general view of the sports most prevalent in the seventeenth century.


“Ordinary recreations we have in winter, as cards, shovelboard, chess-play, the philosopher’s game, small trunks, shuttlecock, billiards, music, masks, singing, dancing, . . . merry tales of errant knights, queens,. . . witches, fairies, goblins, and friars.”


Battledore and Shuttlecock’s popularity continued to increase throughout the 18th century as shown by the paintings, wall tiles, and etchings of children with the equipment and adults playing the game. These included works by William Bell (1771), John Sadler (ca 1759), and Francis Hayman (ca 1760).

Battledore and Shuttlecock Enamel on copper box 1760-75
Battledore and Shuttlecock Enamel on copper box 1760-75

Even politicians became enamored with the game. The World newspaper, on 13 January 1790, reported on Charles James Fox and his mistress (later his wife), the former courtesan Elizabeth Armistead (who had dallied with the Prince of Wales for a time). Ending their gossipy tidbit with a Latin motto, dulce est desipere in loco [it is pleasant to be frivolous at the proper time], they sarcastically reported on the pair leaving Bath, saying that:


Charles Fox and Mrs. Armistead, set off for town yesterday, he, though in high health, has very rarely appeared abroad, and not once at any place of public resort. His mornings have been chiefly spent in sweet converse with his DULCINEA – occasionally, indeed, in the manly amusement of Battledore and Shuttlecock.


In the 19th century, we find that Jane Austen played the game with her nephews. In 1808, she wrote:


Yesterday was a very quiet day with us; my noisiest efforts were writing to Frank and playing at battledore and shuttlecock with William. He and I have practiced together two mornings, and improve a little; we have frequently kept it up three times, and once or twice six.

Edward Hughes Ball Hughes
Edward Hughes Ball Hughes

Another aficionado of Battledore and Shuttlecock during the Regency era in England was Edward Hughes Ball Hughes, a dandy who was known as the “Golden Ball” due to his lavish lifestyle. “Golden Ball” himself, once one of the richest men in England, lost most of his fortune playing battledore and shuttlecock. Eventually, he was forced to move to France, like many other dandies who found the cost of living lower in France-and their creditors mercifully far away.


In the 1840s, Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre:


"But I stayed out a few minutes longer with Adele and Pilot—ran a race with her, and played a game of battledore and shuttlecock."


Beginning around the 1870s, a new shuttlecock-based game, Badminton, was named for the country estate of the Duke of Beaufort in Gloucestershire where it was first played in 1873. Badminton is derived directly from Poona, a shuttlecock and racket game which was played by British army officers stationed in India in the 1860s. By 1875, officers returning home had started a badminton club in Folkestone and it continued to grow in popularity.


The Game in America

The game of Battledore and Shuttlecock came to North America with the earliest colonists. In the Dutch colony of New Netherland (consisting of parts of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island), the Dutch settlers enjoyed many recreational pastimes including, bowling, battledore and shuttlecock, handball, and stoelbal (or stool-ball) a version of cricket.


In the early years of English settlement, recreational activities were discouraged by law in both Massachusetts and the Jamestown colony, but for varied reasons. In New England, the Puritan leadership saw games such as this as sinful while in Jamestown it was seen as taking colonists away from work that was needed to ensure the colonies early survival.


Despite pronouncements against sports in Jamestown and New England, most American colonists played English sports. In Williamsburg, Virginia they took part in bowling-type games, handball, wrestling, as well as Battledore and Shuttlecock. In New York, they bowled and played Battledore and Shuttlecock, tennis, and cricket.

Boy Possibly of the Crossfield Family-1770-1775 (Note Red Battledore)
Boy Possibly of the Crossfield Family-1770-1775 (Note Red Battledore)

As we move into the 18th century here in the English colonies, we see documentation of the growing demand for this sport. The Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore has, in their collection a 1742 order of battledores and shuttlecocks sent to Maryland from an English merchant. Also, during this period American gentry began to have portraits of their sons and daughters painted with their bright red battledores and shuttlecocks. Based upon these portraits, Red was the prevailing color for battledores among American gentry.


In 1764, the Boston Gazette and Country Journal carried an advertisement selling imported "Battledores and Shittlecocks," and in 1770, the Boston News-Letter advertised the sale of "Battledores and Shutlecocks." The 1782 Royal Gazette in New York City offered "Battledores and Shuttlecocks for the Season.” Interestingly, this was during the American Revolutionary War. Advertisements for battledores and shuttlecocks appeared in both the New York Packet and the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser in 1790.

Children of Nathan Starr Middleton - 1835
Children of Nathan Starr Middleton - 1835

During the 19th century, American girls were encouraged to play Battledore and Shuttlecock to support good health. In 1828, the Republican Star and General Advertiser of Easton, Maryland, published an article on Exercises Most Conducive to Health in Girls & Young Women. The article read:


"Nearly the same exercises with the exception of wrestling, cricket, quoits, & those sports properly termed athletic, which are proper for boys, may be recommended for young girls--trundling a hoop, battledore, trap ball, and every game which can exercise both legs and arms, and at the same time the muscles of the body, should be encouraged."


The January 10, 1824, issue of the Washington National Intelligencer carried the following advertisement:


“The subscriber has just received imported direct from London to his order a few dozen pair of battledores and shuttlecocks, No. 1, 2, 3, and 4 from the manufacturer, Durley, said to be the only man in England who understands the manner of preparing the skin to cover the battledore so that it will not yield to the changes of weather, but remains inflexible till worn out by use. The birds are far superior in size and beauty to the ordinary kind.”


An 1831 notice in the Baltimore Patriot advertised for sale "Battlecocks and Birds."


The game continued to be popular, with both children and adults on into the latter-part of the 19th century when it was replaced, as in England with Badminton and Tennis.


The Equipment for the Game and How it was Played

The first item of equipment needed is a “racket” called a battledore. The battledore was a small, lightweight racket, made of parchment or rows of gut stretched across wooden frames. For the parchment covered rackets, battledore makers often used leaves of old and sometimes valuable books to cover their rackets. A 1792 story in The Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Evening Post related that:


"A page of the Second Decade of Livy was found by a man of letters on the parchment of his battledore, as he was amusing himself in the country. He ran directly to the maker of the battledore; but arrived too late; the man had finished the last page of Livy in completing a large order for these articles about a week before."


The other piece of equipment needed to play was the shuttlecock. The shuttlecock was a cork to which feathers were attached to form a cone shape. The French botanist, zoologist, and painter François Alexandre Pierre de Garsault, during the first half of the eighteenth-century, described battledore and shuttlecock as it was played in France, where it was known as jouer de volant (the flying game). He said feathers from pigeon’s wings were used in the shuttlecock.

Battledores and Shuttlecocks
Battledores and Shuttlecocks

Because the shuttlecock was a feathered projectile, its inherent aerodynamic properties made it fly differently than the more ordinary balls used in most racquet sports today. The feathers created higher drag, causing the shuttlecock to decelerate more rapidly than a ball. On the other hand, shuttlecocks had a higher top speed compared to balls in similar racquet sports, so shuttlecocks could be a little tricky to control. Since shuttlecock flight could be affected by wind (because of its lightness), the game was sometimes played indoors, often producing predictable havoc with indoor furnishings and decorative objects.


The game itself is quite simple. The object is for players to bat the shuttlecock from one to the other as many times as possible without allowing it to fall to the ground. There is no net and the game, when played well, is more of a cooperative nature than a competitive one. As an inexpensive, easy, and fun game, it was thought eminently suitable for children, as well as adults. It could be played anywhere - indoors or outdoors - and developed hand-to-eye coordination while supplying plenty of physical exercise. For more of a challenge, if a group of friends were playing, two shuttlecocks could be used. It was usually played outdoors during warm weather as a casual recreational activity, often in private & commercial pleasure gardens.


So, Battledore and Shuttlecock was a non-competitive game consisting of two people simply hitting a shuttlecock backwards and forwards with a bat or racket as many times as they could without allowing it to hit the ground. In 1830, the Somerset family in England set the record for the number of consecutive hits – 2117!


Thank you for joining us for today’s post exploring Battledore and Shuttlecock. Hopefully, this article has given you an urge to try out this forgotten sport. Please join us again in two weeks as we continue our “beginning of summer” series examining outdoor sports and entertainments from the 18th and early 19th centuries with a look at Lawn Bowling and Trap Ball.


While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.


Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts. Also, take a moment to learn about our upcoming “A Seafarer’s Ball” event on June 11.


References

Cohen, Barbara. "Shuttlecock." 01 June 1995. Things Asian. 16 May 2022. http://thingsasian.com/story/shuttlecock.


Di, Deng. "A Shuttlecock Can Make Your Day." 03 July 2020. China Today. 16 May 2022. http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/ctenglish/2018/cs/202007/t20200703_800212542.html.


Holliman, Jennie. American Sports, 1785-1835. Thesis. Durham, NC: Seeman Press, 2003.


Kirsch, George B., Othello Harris and Claire Elaine Nolte. Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.


Prindle, Tara. "Cornhusk Shuttlecock Game." 2022. NativeTech - Native American Technology and Art. 12 May 2022. http://www.nativetech.org/games/shuttlecock.html.


Sarudy, Barbara Wells. "Indoor & Outdoor Games at Public Pleasure Gardens & Parks - Battledore & Shuttlecock." 08 January 2018. Early American Public Parks. 16 May 2022. https://publicpleasuregarden.blogspot.com/2017/02/sports-in-public-gardens-grounds-brief.html.


—. "Sports & Games - General History - Battledore & Shuttlecock." 16 May 2019. Early European Public Parks. 15 May 2022. https://westernpublicpleasuregardens.blogspot.com/2019/05/sports-games-general-history-battledore.html.


Strutt, Joseph. Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. London: Methuen & Co., 1801.


Worldhistory.us. Life in Regency England, Part 2: More than Games. 01 November 2018. 20 May 2022. https://worldhistory.us/european-history/uk-irish-history/life-in-regency-england-part-2-more-than-games.php.

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