Museum Moment: Curtis Sisters Wear Out Competition at Women’s Amateur

Oct 13, 2011

By Robert Alvarez

Margaret Curtis, a native of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., was born Oct. 8, 1883, the youngest of 10 children, to Greely S. Curtis, a veteran of the Union Army in the American Civil War, and Harriot Appleton Curtis, daughter of industrialist Nathan Appleton. Margaret and her sister, Harriot, two years her elder, were encouraged to take up golf by their cousin , Laurence, who served as the second president of the United States Golf Association from 1897 to 1898.

Each summer, the Curtis family left their home in the city for the cool ocean breezes of Manchester-by-the-Sea. Margaret and Harriot spent much of their youth honing their golf skills on the grounds of the family’s seaside estate at the nearby Essex County Club. They also enjoyed other activities with their eight brothers and sisters on the estate’s private beach, including swimming, climbing trees, riding horses, sailing and playing tennis.

In 1894, the sisters played their first round of golf at Essex. James, their older brother and a freshman at Harvard University, won the club championship that year. By 1896, the sisters were competing in and winning club events.

In 1897, at the age of 13, Margaret qualified for her first U. S. Women’s Amateur Championship, to be played at her home course, Essex County. Young Margaret witnessed the second of Beatrix Hoyt’s three consecutive Women’s Amateur victories, a feat accomplished by only four players since (Alexa Stirling Fraser, 1916, 1919-1920, Glenna Collett Vare, 1928-1930, Virginia Van Wie, 1932-1934, and Julie Simpson Inkster, 1980-1982).

Harriot Curtis broke through first in a national championship, winning the 1906 Women’s Amateur at Brae Burn Country Club in West Newton, Mass. One year later, Margaret claimed her first championship by defeating her sister in the final at the Midlothian (Ill.) Country Club. In 1908, Margaret won the U.S. Open women’s doubles tennis championship with partner Evelyn Sears, becoming the only woman to ever hold a national title in both golf and tennis simultaneously.

In 1911, future President Ronald Reagan was born, as was actress Lucille Ball. A tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City claimed 146 lives, mostly women. The Penn State Nittany Lions and Princeton Tigers shared the national college football championship, the Philadelphia Athletics beat the New York Giants to win the World Series, and in golf John McDermott became the youngest to win the U.S. Open, while Harry Vardon won his fifth of his six British Opens. It also marked the year in which Margaret Curtis would win her second of three U.S. Women’s Amateur Championships.

The younger of the two Curtis sisters was considered one of the favorites to win the championship, along with Dorothy Campbell of Canada, who won the 1909 and 1910 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championships and the 1909 British Ladies Amateur, and Frances Griscom, the winner of the 1900 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

The 17th U.S. Women’s Amateur was played on the Old Course at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., from Oct. 9-14. There were approximately 65 entries. Halfway through the championship the weather turned wet and cold, softening the fairways and allowing the greens to hold approach shots, but making putting conditions difficult. Margaret Curtis and Lillian B. Hyde, two of the longer-hitting competitors, emerged from the pack to square off against each other in the championship final. Hyde consistently outdrove Curtis, but Margaret held a distinct advantage around the greens, winning the match, 5 and 3, to capture her second Women’s Amateur title.

Anyone who attended this championship, or any other in the early 1900s, would have observed the competitors wearing the latest in ladies golf fashion. It wasn’t until after World War I that women’s golf dress became much less constricting. Bustles, full-length skirts, bonnets, corsets and boots were replaced with berets, blouses or cardigans, calf-length tweed skirts and purpose-made golf shoes.

The Curtis sisters grew up in an age when the public perceived fashion as being as important as a woman’s skill on the golf course. It was critical for a woman who played golf to pay attention to detail. Everything had to match or “contrast in good taste.” A passage in Harper’s Bazaar, an American fashion magazine, stated that, “Much of the interest in watching a game of golf upon well-laid links is centered upon the bright flecks of color that represent the pretty costumes worn by the women players and fully half of the pleasure in playing is found in the possession of a smart and comfortable costume.”

While the clothing may have seemed impractical, or even an encumbrance, it had evolved from traditional styles which one might have seen while walking about town on any given afternoon. Long skirts, prone to being dragged in the mud, were replaced by “short skirts.” One publication describes the skirt as being “really short, not simply a couple of inches off the ground – looks infinitely nicer and more workmanlike, and makes an inestimable difference in comfort.”

Boots, while expensive, were a necessity on the links. An article in a British publication suggested that, “A few extra shillings spent at the shop of a thoroughly reliable bootmaker need never be grudged, as it is well spent money.” Golf boots were to be “broad and flat, as high heels are totally out of place on the links, work havoc on the ground in wet weather, and are very unsafe, as there is always the danger of the wearer spraining her ankle.” It was also suggested that golf boots or shoes be outfitted with studs or nails so that a firm grip of the ground can be obtained in wet or slippery weather.

Magazine articles suggested, “If these little details receive attention a girl will always look nice, no matter how plain or simple her clothes may be, and she will find that she enjoys the game much better and can play just as well as if she had given in to the old belief that it is impossible to combine comfort and smartness.”

The Curtis sisters, while certainly fashion conscious, let their golf clubs and their later extensive efforts in the realm of community service do the talking, and in doing so left a tremendously positive mark on the history of the game.

The USGA Museum currently displays a period golf outfit much like that described above, along with an original straw hat worn by Harriot Curtis.

Rob Alvarez is the collection manager of the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to RAlvarez@usga.org.

Anyone who attended the 1911 U.S. Women's Amateur, or any other in the early 1900s, would have observed the competitors wearing the latest in ladies golf fashion. It wasn’t until after World War I that women’s golf dress became much less constricting. The USGA Museum currently displays a period golf outfit along with an original straw hat worn by Harriot Curtis.


Margaret Curtis (above) and Lillian B. Hyde, two of the longer-hitting competitors, emerged from the pack to square off against each other in the championship final. Hyde consistently outdrove Curtis, but Margaret held a distinct advantage around the greens, winning the match, 5 and 3, to capture her second Women’s Amateur title in 1911.


A passage in Harper’s Bazaar stated that, “Much of the interest in watching a game of golf upon well-laid links is centered upon the bright flecks of color that represent the pretty costumes worn by the women players and fully half of the pleasure in playing is found in the possession of a smart and comfortable costume.” While the clothing may have seemed impractical, or even an encumbrance, it had evolved from traditional styles which one might have seen while walking about town on any given afternoon.