Did you know mini-golf was hugely, monstrously popular in 1930? Neither did I. A report from August 1930 listed 25,000 miniature golf courses in the US. By 2001, there were 7500. On a per capita basis, that’s eight times as many mini golf courses in 1930 as now. Mini golf was huge.
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Let’s start our investigation of this phenomenon with regular (maxi?) golf. Hilariously, the first known mention of modern golf was a 1457 decree by James II banning the game because it distracted people from archery. The ban was lifted in 1502 by James IV, for apparently no reason other than he liked golf and wanted to play.
There were still earlier precursors to the game, although whether they were direct ancestors or if “hitting a ball with a stick” is something like a human universal is unknown. The pre-common-era Roman game of paganica involved using a stick to whack around a leather ball stuffed with feathers. Chuiwan, played between the 8th and 14th centuries in China, was almost certainly a direct forebear to modern golf: players used a selection of clubs to knock a ball into a hole. Eventually the game made its way to Europe, where the Scots made it their own.
The origins of miniature golf are similarly nebulous. For one thing, you have to separate the general concept of “golf, but smaller” from the obstacle-ridden novelty that it has become. In the late 1800s, for example, the St. Andrews golf club, demonstrating a valorous dedication to Victorian gender roles, created a putting green annex for use by female players—necessary because decorum dictated that women could not raise a club above the shoulder.
Putting courses such as that popped up here and there, but the first notable course that pulled the game more towards the “amusement” end of the spectrum was a rich man’s beguilement. In 1916, a North Carolina man named James Barber hired a designer and landscaper to create a wee little golf course, which he named “Thistle Dhu” (say it out loud). It featured tree, water, and sand hazards, required bank and carom shots, and even had a refreshment cabana after the first nine holes.
A 1919 article takes readers on a tour of the course, which fascinatingly allowed the use of non-putter clubs for tee shots on the 5th, 8th, 12th, and 17th holes. The essay tells us that getting over the shrubbery obstacles requires a “mashie” pitch on 8, and on 12, a “mashie niblick.” Thanks to wiki’s very helpful page on “obsolete golf clubs” I can tell you the former is a 9-iron, and the latter is a 7-iron. Other obsolete golf clubs include the Brassie (3-wood), spoon (5-wood), baffing spoon (7-wood), and “sabbath sticks” which were clubs disguised as walking sticks, to avoid the church’s ban on golfing on the sabbath.
The early 1920s brought technological innovation to mini golf. The story goes that a cotton processing plant owner named Thomas Fairbairn noticed how the cottonseed hulls littering the factory floor would compact and fuse when crushed. It made, he thought, for a great putting surface—nevermind the sticky, oily residue it left on shoes and clothes. He patented the “artificial green” and got out of the cotton business, founding Miniature Golf Courses of America.
The game spread across the United States in the 1920s. In New York, more than 150 rooftops were dotted with mini golf courses, using the cottonseed greens. Of course, it later turned out that duo selling those courses were a pair of grifters who hadn’t licensed the patented technology. Depending on which history you read they either absconded with the profits under cover of darkness, or were forced to pony up.
Until this time, courses were not businesses but amusements and entertainments for the well-to-do. Garnet Carter, proprietor of a struggling hotel and golf course in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, developed a mini golf course to boost business. His wife Frieda designed the course, replete with winking garden gnomes and fairy tale regalia, and obstacles like rock tunnels and fallen trees. Called Fairyland, it turned out to be rather too successful, as Carter discovered how difficult it was to keep a grass surface playable when people walk across it all day.
In 1927, Carter patented the “Tom Thumb” course, and shortly thereafter merged with the cottonseed-surface company to produce a sort of mini golf monopoly. They didn’t own the courses, though: they sold them. Like starter kits: for a price of around $4,500, the potential putt-puttpreneur received the design, layout, landscaping, tools, obstacles, putting surfaces, even putters and balls.
People bought and bought and bought. Even for a fad, the growth was astonishing: that August 1930 report listed 25,000+ courses but also claimed that more than 15,000 of them had opened since the first of the year. Thus, in the first 8 months of 1830, more than twice as many courses opened as currently exist in the US. An estimated 2+ million people were playing mini golf daily, and the total investment in mini golf was said to reach 125 million dollars. The industry employed some 100,000 people. Or how about this: one of the main obstacles was hollowed-out logs. Carter’s company ran through the supply of those and was forced to buy full trees and perform the boring themselves.
Two 1930 articles attempted to explain the craze. Popular Science notes the positives: the game can be played outdoors at night, it allows city dwellers a semi-rural experience, it gives the “average” man a chance to try golf (“hitherto denied him by cost”), and even cites the development of the cottonseed artificial green.
The author then throws up his hands: the “most comprehensive explanation,” he says, is that the game “fit in with some odd quirk that somehow existed in the tastes of a great many people at the same time.” Which does not distinguish it from the pet rock or the chia pet or any other fad. (Also, to wax philosophical, I’m actually fascinated by the implied assumption that tastes and preferences exist latently in all of us, waiting to be elicited by some kind of entrepreneurial prestidigitation. Is the belief that people were primed to like mini golf itself, rather than any similar diversion?)
A Harper’s article goes much more sociological. Citing the psychological and economic reverberations of the 1929 stock market crash, it theorizes that mini golf achieved such rapid popularity largely because it was a cheap and frivolous diversion at a time when economic cataclysm left people with little money and lots of free time. Much like, the author says, how “radio…and mah jongg came to popularity after the slump of 1921 … novelty and cheapness together make an appeal hard to withstand.” Even Herodotus discusses the famine-stricken Lydians developing dice and knuckle bones and ball games as diversions. It was cheaper than Prohibited liquor, could be played by both men and women—the 18th and 19th amendments, the author says, having “given America a definite addiction to coeducational amusement.”
Indeed, the Harper’s piece argues that not only did the stock market crash spur the fad, but through its sheer popularity and economic weight, the sport had staved off a more ruinous economic downturn, one that the milquetoast Hoover was powerless to prevent. Humpty dumpty fell off the wall, the bottom came rushing up at us, and we’d mini-golfed our way out of it. Talk about a hole in one (jumps out window)! In an alternate universe, the Joads travel to California to open a mini golf stand.
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Of course mini golf did not save the economy. The depression only deepened, and within a year there were almost no mini golf courses left. Not even the deluded creativity of the showman could save the doomed enterprise: some courses had, according to Popular Science, added “the extreme in freakish obstacles. This is a live bear cub in a cage. Players putt their balls through the cage, and if the bear is in a playful or antagonistic mood he tries to stop them.” Maybe if they’d removed the cage.
Vanity Fair also wrote on mini golf in 1930, and they went in hard on the game as bourgeois affectation. I unfortunately cannot access the whole article, so all I have is this tantalizing snippet: “it took miniature golf, with its foreshortening, to reveal inescapably the game’s grotesqueries. Midget golf has reduced golf’s perspective to half an acre, and what was lately a social privilege turns out to be a Rube Goldberg whimsy.”
Anyway, with almost all the courses closed, the entire enterprise lay fallow until 1938, when the Taylor brothers revived the sport by introducing the novelty obstacles we today know and love: windmills and ramps and clown faces and the like. The new courses were so popular that pre-fab units were sent overseas to entertain soldiers in WWII and Korea.