The phrase “Gentlemen’s Club” has universally become a not-so-subtle euphemism for, well, a strip club. But that’s not how Gentlemen’s clubs started.
In their original form, gentlemen’s clubs were a staple of upper class society — and everyone kept their clothes on, unless they were changing into their tennis whites in the locker room. Traditional gentlemen’s clubs first appeared on the scene in Britain as early as the 18th century.
These were members-only, private, typically very exclusive clubs. Membership was often associated with some other aspect of a person’s life, such as where you went to school.
We often talk about social and recreational clubs as serving as a “third space” — not work, not home, but somewhere to spend time. In most cases, the original gentlemen’s clubs were a second space, because most members didn’t hold traditional jobs. They lived off estate money or other aristocratic income sources. The club served as a place to get away from the pressures of family and/or political obligations.
Members indulged in gambling (which was, at the time, mostly illegal outside of the clubs), discussions, sports, food, drinking, and making social connections—often in an attempt to climb further up the social ladder.
These clubs replaced coffee houses as the place to spend time, to see others, and to be seen. They were absolutely central to many men’s lives and sense of personal identity.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these Gentlemen’s clubs branched out slightly from aristocratic circles and gained popularity among upper-middle classes. They also spread outside of England, with clubs springing up in the United States as well as throughout the British diaspora.
Some clubs began to permit women to join, though there was still an air of exclusivity at many establishments. The focus turned from aristocratic social climbing to socialization, recreation, and athletics, though there was still plenty of eating, drinking, and merriment.
These clubs as we knew them largely became a thing of the past by the mid-20th century, but there are still a few left — and they’re coveted by the people who spend time there. Let’s just avoid the term “Gentlemen’s club” — for a host of reasons.