Outdoor Entertainments – Quoits, The Sport of a Virginia Gentleman.
As a child growing up in the Ohio River Valley, I remember being given a game of “quoits” to play with out in the yard. It consisted of an upright peg set at the intersection of a wooden X and several “rings” made of rope. The object, I was told, was to throw the rings and have them land over the peg. I never really cared for the game much and as I got older moved on to occasionally pitching horseshoes, a game that was extremely popular in that area. The real game of quoits, however, has a history dating back several hundred years and is still played today in the United Kingdom as well as some areas here in the United States. As it turns out, just as it acted for me as a “gateway” to playing horseshoes, it was, in many respects, the predecessor of the game of horseshoes here in the United States.
Many “histories” of the game of quoits (also sometimes called coits) trace the origin of the game back to ancient Greece. In doing so, they claim that throwing the discus was the origin of the game of quoits. Unfortunately, this theory ignores several points that tend to invalidate that theory. First, throwing the discus was a game designed to highlight strength in that the winner was the person who could throw the discus the farthest. Quoits, on the other hand, is a game of accuracy and skill where the object is to put the ring over a wooden or metal peg (called a hob) driven into the ground. Secondly, in discus, the thing that is thrown is a solid disc while in quoits, the object that is thrown, as we shall see later in this article, is a ring. In fact, Samuel Johnson in his 1755 “Dictionary of the English Language” notes that:
The discus of the ancients is sometimes called in English “quoit,” but improperly; the game of quoits is a game of skill; the discus was only a trial of strength, as among us to throw the hammer.
I suspect that this “confusion” over the origins of quoits may come from the fact that back in the 14th, 15th, 16th, and early 17th centuries, another usage of the word “quoit” was as a verb meaning to throw something.
Other, more reasonable evidence associates quoits with what is today the United Kingdom. While there is no empirical evidence one way or another, there are claims that the game was played in Roman-occupied Britain (1st–5th century). Another theory argues that it may have been developed in medieval Britain, perhaps when peasants heated and bent horseshoes into rings and tossed them at iron pegs driven into the ground. Whatever the origin, the game was certainly being played in England early in the second millennium in roughly the form known today wherein metal rings are thrown up and down a pitch with target pins at either end embedded in areas of soft clay. It seems to have been associated with agricultural and working-class people, particularly with the mining industry. Quoits of this era generally were made from poor-quality left-over metal from mine forges, and therefore the primary areas of quoit playing seem to have centered around mining communities.
The game became firmly rooted in England. In the 14th century, quoits had become so popular that Edward III and Richard II prohibited it to encourage archery. By the 15th century, there is evidence that it had become a well-organized sport, not the least of which are the many attempts to eradicate it from the pubs and taverns of England owing to its being perceived as encouraging the development of a dubious character.
The earliest description of the game that I was able to find, comes from the book, “The British History, Briefly Told; and a Description of the Ancient Customs, Sports and Pastimes of the English” that was published in London in 1840. It describes the game as follows:
"The quoit is a circular plate of iron, perforated in the middle, and made larger or smaller, to suit the convenience or strength of the players. To play at this game, an iron pin, called a “hob,” is driven into the ground; and at a distance of eighteen or twenty yards, another similar pin is also fixed. The players stand at one of these pins, and throw an equal number of quoits at the other; the nearest of them to the hob are reckoned towards the game. When they have cast all their quoits, the candidates go over to the point at which they have been throwing, and when they have determined the state of the game, they throw the quoits back again at the hob where they had before stood; and thus continue to act on alternate sides, till the game is ended."
Although not specified in this source, other sources say that a quoit which landed on the hob was called a “ringer” and scored two points. If no one scored a “ringer” then the closest one scored one point. The game was played to a winning point of 21.
Quoits Crosses the Atlantic
The Immigrants, from the British Isles brought the game of quoits with them when they settled in America in the 1600’s. These settlers, especially the Scots, coming into the British American colonies brought along their love of quoits. Thus, the game had devotees in the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Quoits or as it sometimes was called in colonial British America — “pitchers,” was a traditional lawn game with the hobs set in the center of “pits” often made of clay.
Colonists played quoits on the Boston Commons and the games were open to all. Throughout the 18th century, the game was played in the streets, on the public greens, and at outdoor taverns. However, in some areas of the country, the church began to campaign against the playing of quoits. In 1771 a churchgoer, in the “Connecticut Courant”, denounced, “The open Tolerance of our Youth to play Quoits in the street.”
By 1787, the Massachusetts 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.”
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.” And a 1788 article on drunkenness in the “Pennsylvania Mercury and Universal Advertiser” equated the “immorality of drunkenness with cock-fighting, tobacco-chewing, and playing quoits.”
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” in New Hampshire, carried another admonition, “I know that there is in every village, a great many 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.”
Not everyone above the Mason-Dixon Line agreed with the banning of quoits as a public pastime, however. 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 barbarous customs such as bullbaiting and cockfighting should be prohibited by law.
The opinion on the game of Quoits in the southern states was quite different than in New England. In South Carolina, the newspaper, “The Southern Patriot” carried a glowing endorsement of quoits as a gentleman’s sport, writing:
“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.”
Some of the warnings of New Englanders did seem valid, however, when, in June 1824, 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 in Virginia
As shown from the above murder report, quoits caught on in Virginia. It was played in Northern Virginia, and in Richmond as well as at many other venues throughout the state. A July 13, 1836, advertisement in "The National Intelligencer" (Washington, D.C.) touted facilities for "the manly and healthy amusements of quoits, ten-pin, fives, &c." on the premises of O’Ferrall’s Coffee House (later known as the Fairfax Inn) in Berkeley Springs, Virginia. (Today this is in West Virginia.).
By 1830, playing quoits in the streets of Richmond had become such an issue that on May 10, the Common Council of the City of Richmond passed an ordinance saying:
That no person shall raise or fly any Kite, or play at Ball, Bandy, Quoits, or throw stones, or other missiles; or discharge Arrows from and Bow or Cross-Bow, in any Lane, Street, Alley or Highway within the City, nor throw stones or other missiles, nor run foot races, nor play at any sport or play whatsoever, in and upon the Public Square of the same, or on the Yard of the City Hall, under the penalty of three dollars for each offence;. . . “
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, one of the most famous 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, The Fairfield Sociable Quoit Club, also called the Richmond Sociable Club, the Buchannan Springs Quoit Club, or the Barbecue Club, included judges, lawyers, doctors, and merchants. The Governor of Virginia received a general invitation to attend as soon as he assumed office. In addition, two churchmen, one Episcopal and one Presbyterian regularly attended as “honorary members.” The membership included men such as US Chief Justice John Marshall, Defense Attorney for Aaron Burr – John Wickham, US Attorney General William Wirt, US Senator Benjamin Watkins Leigh, the Reverend Mr. John Buchanan, and Parson John Blair. At club gatherings, Richmond's influential men enjoyed food, drink, recreation, and conversation. Political discussion was strictly prohibited in the club's Constitution, as a means of preserving the sociable atmosphere among members of differing political views.
John Marshall was renowned among the gentlemen of Richmond as a formidable quoits player. In those days, the Supreme Court justices rode circuit, and Marshall came to Raleigh twice annually for 32 years to preside over the North Carolina Circuit Court. When he came to Raleigh, he played quoits with locals in the street outside the boarding house where he stayed, a couple of blocks from the law school.
Another stop on his circuit was Fauquier County Virginia. During one of his yearly visits to Fauquier, where the proper implements for playing quoits were not available, a guest at a barbecue in that county told of arriving to see an old man appear from a thicket which bordered a stream. He was carrying as large a pile of flat stones as he could hold between his right arm and his chin. He stepped briskly up to the company, threw down his load and exclaimed, “There! Here are quoits enough for us all!” The visitor was surprised when he found that this plain and cheerful old man, dressed in shirtsleeves and waistcoat, was, in fact, Chief Justice John Marshall.
As a member of the Barbecue Club, Marshall was known for imbibing their famous punch. According to tradition, the Richmond Light Infantry Blues used the same recipe for years. While we cannot confirm the “exact” recipe for this punch, one account says that it was made with, “lemons, brandy, rum, and madeira poured into a bowl one third filled with ice (no water) and sweetened.” As one can see, this was not a drink for the young or faint-hearted.
This recipe, like many other early punch recipes, does not specify quantities but relies on the skill and judgement of the maker to work that out. What follows is a modern adaptation from the well-researched book “Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl” by David Wondrich.
2 cups sugar
16 oz of strained lemon juice (juiced from the peeled lemons)
750 ml Jamaican rum
750 ml VSOP Cognac brandy
750 ml rainwater Madeira
TO MAKE THE PUNCH
Prepare an oleo-saccharum* of the peel of twelve lemons and two cups of light raw sugar (Turbinado or something similar). Add 16 oz of strained lemon juice and stir until the sugar fully dissolves. Add one 750 ml bottle each of Jamaican Rum, VSOP cognac, and Rainwater Madeira. Stir well and pour into a punch bowl filled 1/3 of the way with ice cubes. Stir and let stand 20 minutes before serving.
* Oleo-saccharum is a pharmaceutical term for oil-sugar. To deliver the best and most complex flavors to the Punch one needs to extract the citrus oils for inclusion into the concoction. These oils, contained in the skin of the citrus, add a fragrance and depth that marks a truly excellent Punch. The easiest, and best, way to incorporate this oil in Punch is to extract it with sugar. While the old-school way of preparing the oleo-saccharum is to rub lumps of sugar on the rind of the citrus, most of us today do not get our sugar in cones where we need to “nip off” lumps.
By far, the most effective modern method is to peel the fruit with a sharp, swivel bladed vegetable peeler, trying to get as little of the white pith as possible with the peel. These are then muddled firmly in a sturdy bowl along with two ounces of sugar per citrus fruit peeled, and then left to sit in a warm place for at least a half of an hour, and preferably twice that. During that time, if the peels are fresh, the sugar will draw out an impressive amount of oil. After muddling the peels again, to incorporate the citrus oil, remove the peels and the sugar is ready for use.
Thank you for joining us for today’s post on the largely forgotten game of Quoits. We hope you found this post interesting, and we hope it piqued an interest in playing this game that was once the favorite of Chief Justice John Marshall. Please join us again in two weeks for another look at the social, political, and military history of the early United States.
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Johnson, Samuel. Dictionary of the English Language. Vol. 2. London: W. Strahan, 1755. 2 vols.
Library of Virginia. "John Marshall." 8 January 2001. Library of Virginia. 13 April 2022. https://www.lva.virginia.gov/exhibits/marshall/index.htm.
—. "This Day in Virginia History; August 15, 1833." 2016. Virginia Memory. 13 April 2022. https://www.virginiamemory.com/reading_room/this_day_in_virginia_history/august/15.
National Intelligencer. "O'Ferrall's Coffee House." National Intelligencer 13 July 1836: 4.
Richmond Common Council. Ordinances of the Corporation of the City of Richmond, and the Acts of Assembly. Richmond, VA: John Warrock, 1831.
The British History, Briefly Told. London: John Harris, 1840.
"The Richmond "Barbecue (or Quoit) Club." American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. September 1829: 41-42.
Walker, J.M., ed. Rounders, Quoits, Bowls, Skittles and Curling. London: George Bell & Sons, 1892.
Wondrich, David. Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. New York: Penguin Group, 2010.