Lawn Parties: Fun…for Some

By Sue Matheson, 2015

One of the public’s favorite forms of entertainment in 1905 was the “lawn party.” Huge tents, colorful flags, a merry-go-round, and athletic games attracted hundreds of people to summertime galas held on the grounds of churches and hospitals in Cambridge. These parties lasted into the evening and often included full orchestras and dancing. They were similar to carnivals, with shooting galleries, tug-o-wars, and plenty of food. One newspaper article describing an upcoming lawn party stated that the church grounds would be “brilliantly lighted by incandescent lamps and thousands of Chinese and Japanese lanterns.”

But there were troubling aspects to these lawn parties, too. A lawn party held in the city on July 1, 1905, included a game called the African Dodger, whereby a black man stood behind a canvas sheet, poking his head through a hole in it. Partygoers threw baseballs at him; if they hit him, they won a small prize. This game was common at circuses around the country from the late-19th century to as recently as 1945. It is unclear when the game was no longer allowed in Cambridge, but sometime prior to 1915 John Thomas Harrison, an African-American and an editor, stopped the practice of the game at a street fair in Cambridge.