In this photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston, female students play basketball in the gymnasium at Western High School in Washington, D.C. about 1899. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Just a handful of years after the invention of basketball by Springfield College instructor and graduate student James Naismith in 1891, the game arrived at Bates College.

It first came to public attention on March 2, 1898, when the Lewiston Evening Journal noted that “two games of basketball between the ladies’ class teams” would be played that afternoon at Bates College.

Somebody in the newsroom must have grown curious because the next day’s edition provided some details.

The old gymnasium at Bates College. Bates Mirror, 1901

“What’s that you say? Never saw the Bates co-eds play basketball? Then life holds a new experience for you,” the daily wrote.

“They played two games yesterday. Class games, too, mind you, where class spirit and rivalry ran high,” the story said. “The gymnasium was crowded. The gallery was full and even the stairs were packed” with partisans of the different teams mostly seated in the rear.

“Then co-eds in bloomers had the floor and played the game,” the paper said.


“At 2:45, the referee tossed the ball and the fun began,” it said, though perhaps it wasn’t all that much fun since the story immediately added that “at first, it was slow. The girls seemed to fear that they might be rude to one another or that the ball might be injured, so they clasped it tenderly in their arms and usually two clasped at the same time.”

“Then they would fall gently,” the story said, “smile sweetly and wait for the referee to come and start it all over again.”

“Later in the game, this style of play wore off. Smiles gave place to set expressions of determination and the game was more interesting,” it said.

The sophomores won the first game against the first-year students by a score of 12-1, the paper said, which may have been the first basketball game ever played in Lewiston. There’s no record of an earlier one.

The second game, between the juniors and seniors, “started with a snap quite different from the first and was much better to watch. Teamwork and accurate passing gave the seniors the advantage and they won 10 to 0,” the Journal wrote.

It said the two winning teams would later play for the school’s championship, but it’s not clear if they ever did.


By mid-March, interest in the game must have grown.

Bates College announced that more than 50 of its athletes would give an exhibition at Lewiston City Hall on a Thursday night, March 17, 1898, to show off their skills in everything from tumbling to sword-fighting.

Entry ticket for an athletic exhibition by Bates College female students at Lewiston City Hall about 1900. Private collection

Basketball, though, was the big draw.

The Journal said that basketball was ”the most popular indoor game at all the leading colleges” because it “combines the earnestness of football, the activities of polo, the pleasure of both and roughness of neither.”

The newspaper, not surprisingly, was on hand for the big event.

It said the hall “was crowded with interested people” who found the basketball game “the liveliest and most dashing part” of the exhibition, “far ahead of anything of its kind in the history of Lewiston athletics.”


The unnamed reporter said the game “embodied the best parts of football and tennis” and rewards “quickness of thought and eye, agility of movements and litheness of body.”

“Consequently, mere brute strength does not go,” the story said. “The big man is no better than the little man in this game.”

The point of the game, the Journal said, is “to drop the ball, which is a foot thick, into baskets of cord held suspended high above the players’ heads at each end of the hall. It is a sort of indoor football.”

A depiction of an 1896 women’s basketball game in California. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The students played positions called centers, fielders and guards, the story said. The sport’s rules listed in the account were largely the same as basketball relies on today.

“Everyone went wild over it,” the paper reported. “Everyone who has seen a game is anxious to see another.”

Before too long, Bates men also began playing basketball.

The college team played its first game against an outside opponent when it defeated the Lewiston-Auburn YMCA team, also competing for the first time, by a score of 41-23 in 1902.

The Bates men’s team played its first intercollegiate basketball game in 1908, losing 21-7 to Colby.