Skip to main content

How did country clubs get their name? The origin story you likely don’t know

The weird (and sometimes shameful) origins of the American country club

The mere mention of a country club evokes a certain image. Whether you’re a long-time member or have only experienced them through movies like Caddyshack and yes, High School Musical 2, you can perfectly envision the sweeping lawns of bright green grass, the clean and luxurious facilities, and the fastidious, upscale appearance of the members. But how did these member-only clubs first begin? And why were they called “country clubs” to begin with? Keep reading to learn about the interesting (and occasionally shameful) history of country clubs.

man golfing at a country club
Jason Pofahl / Unsplash

How did country clubs get their name?

Country clubs originated in Scotland, but their American journey actually begins in China. In the 1860s, a young Bostonian named James Murray Forbes relocated to Shanghai for business. Forbes helped his family’s trading business, which trafficked spices, teas, and silks. The business was wildly successful, giving Forbes and his other trading buddies the cash needed to start their own social club in the city. They named the Shanghai club “The Country Club.”

Eight years later, Forbes returned to Boston with an excess of wealth. In 1882, he formed another club just outside of the city in Brookline. The sporting clubs offered facilities for croquet, lawn tennis, bowling, and golf (though not until later). He named this club after his original Chinese club. Soon after, the phrase passed into the mainstream, with Harper’s magazine using the phrase in 1895 to claim Forbes’ organization was the “essence of ideal country-club life.”

Group of people cheers-ing with wine glasses
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The nation’s first country club

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many affluent Boston families chose to move to Brookline and other newly developed suburbs. As the suburb grew, residents flocked to the country club, which presented an opportunity to socialize and showcase their affluence by engaging in more elite pursuits and recreation. Unlike downtown clubs, which were exclusively open to male members, many country clubs allowed women to spend leisure time with their husbands. Though they were not originally given full membership privileges, wives and daughters could participate in club activities.

When golf was added to The Country Club’s offerings, it stirred up a fair amount of controversy. Lovers of the new game went against Massachusetts’ Blue Laws, which restrict business operations on Sundays and holidays. These Sunday golfers led many to believe the game was corrupting public morals. And, one Sunday, more than 30 members were arrested for golfing.

A sordid past and uncertain future

The Brookline club provided a model for similar clubs around the country. By the time the 1900s rolled around, there were more than 1,000 clubs in the US, with at least one in every state and territory. If you’re googling “country clubs near me,” you’re still in luck. There are 9,052 golf courses and country clubs in the US in 2022.

While many things have changed about country clubs over the years, some remain the same. One of the main draws of the original club was exclusivity. New members had to be invited to join, allowing the elite to exclude people based on their social, racial, or religious background. These restrictive policies were commonplace at country clubs and barred Jewish people, Catholics, and African Americans from membership. The restrictions remained in place well into the late twentieth century (and may still be informally in place today).

Despite the abundance of country clubs still in business, their future remains uncertain. Over the last five years, the number of golf and country clubs has declined an average of 1.6% per year.  Younger generations just aren’t as interested in country clubs as past generations. Due to their reputation for discrimination, expensive membership fees, and old-fashioned rules, country clubs may end up another casualty of the millennial lifestyle.

From a Shanghai hangout to a refuge for Boston’s elite, the country club has come a long way since its conception. Their history of discrimination and exclusion has many wondering whether these outdated institutions still have a place in the modern world. But no matter how you feel about them in their current state, it appears—at least for now—that country clubs are here to stay.

Editors' Recommendations

Shannon Cooper
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Shannon Cooper has written about everything from pet care and travel to finance and plumbing in her seven years as a writer…
‘True Story’ Tells the Oldest Tale of All: You Can’t Escape Your Family
Kevin Hart and Wesley Snipes in Netflix's 'True Story.'

Kevin Hart and Wesley Snipes in Netflix's 'True Story.' Netflix

The look says it all: When the Kid (played by Kevin Hart) connects with his older brother Carlton (played by Wesley Snipes), he knows he’s in trouble.

Read more
You Should Listen Responsibly: Don’t Separate the Artist from the Music
Michael Jackson

I used to work a lot of weddings at a popular winery. One of the songs I heard most — and I mean most, as in regularly, even as a first dance track — was “Every Breath You Take” by The Police.
For those who don’t know, this song is pretty blatantly about infidelity and the ongoing surveillance of a former lover. Sure, it’s got a catchy melody and Sting is, well, Sting, but even the musician has wondered why the hit has been treated so positively. It’s a sad, sad song that chronicles cheating, stalking, and more ... a wedding classic.
Yet, in the wake of revelations about pop music stars like the late Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Ryan Adams, and more, the above seems pretty petty — forgivable, even. The real issue lies with artists attached to really disturbing, criminal behavior. Culture critics have wrestled with this for decades: Can we separate the artist from their actions?

Michael Jackson has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual abuse of a minor. The 2019 documentary 'Leaving Neverland' reignited the conversation. Jean-Marc Giboux / Getty Images
In the post #metoo era, the answer should be a resounding no. Is Thriller still a musical triumph? Undoubtedly. Is “It’s Your Birthday” a guaranteed party-starter? Sure is. But they’re also the work of predatory people who have seriously hurt a lot of people.
I’m not asking you to flee a clothing store because “Billie Jean” is playing or cancel your lunch at an area restaurant because “Same Girl” is emanating from the speakers. But I am suggesting that we acknowledge the larger picture, especially when it comes to pop culture icons. These are public figures that need to be vetted not just because of the massive optics they gobble up but the relative power their camps wield and the monetary value they hold.
We pick at politicians daily, why not the same for the most popular musicians? Unfortunately, the worst people are also capable of attracting the most diehard of fanbases. Toxic souls attract the same and they often like to crowd the same ship, even if it’s sinking (I’m trying mightily not to get into politics here).
Sweeping things under the rug never works, which is why, in the modern era, we simply can’t separate the music from the artist. There’s too much at stake. Hearing the work of troubled artists on your favorite streaming outfit should spark lively conversation. It should invite debate. It should welcome questioning.

Read more
How to Play Pool Like You Know What You’re Doing
how to play pool woman playing getty images

To start with some history, the game of pool as it is known today evolved from table sports popular principally among the aristocracy of the era spanning from Renaissance to Revolution (American or French, take your pick), gradually becoming a favored pastime of the masses during the course of the 19th century (unlike axe throwing, which is a favored pastime of the masses these days). The etymology of the word "billiards" can likely trace its roots to the French word "bilette" which meant "stick" or "mace."

Today, eight ball pool is far and away the most popular cue sport the world over. The sport has been the subject of literature (remember that famous pool player Minnesota Fats was originally the fictional creation of author Walter Tevis; pool shark Rudolf Wanderone later took the moniker for his own), cinema (The Color of Money, anyone?) and song (Rack 'Em Up is a lurid tale about the struggles of the table).

Read more