American women had been playing chess long before establishment of the USCF in the late 1930s. In fact, as early as the mid 1890s, an officially conducted match was played between two highly considered lady chess players to determine the best female chess player in America.
"Mansfield Daily Shield," Dec. 21, 1894
WOMEN CHESS PLAYERS
Mrs. Showalter and Mrs. Worrall Matched
Both Rank Very High - Mrs. Worrall Has Beaten
Steinitz and Mrs. ShowalterLasker, Each Woman
Receiving a Knight as Odds.
The chess match is now in progress between Mrs. Nellie Love Showalter, of New York City, and Mrs. Harriet Worrall, of Brooklyn, for the woman's championship of the world. It is strictly conducted, no one being admitted to the room in which the games are in progress, save the principals, umpires, referee and scorer.
The referee is Mr. John D. Elwell, of the Brooklyn Club. The umpires are Mr. Richard Buz, of the Manhattan club, for Mrs. Showalter, and Mr. Walter Frere, of the Brooklyn club for Mrs. Worrall.
Mrs. Showalter, the charming wife of J. W. Showalter, the champion chess player of America, is only twenty-three years old, and was challenged by Mrs. Worrall to play a match of seven games up, draws not counting.
Mrs. Worrall ranks high among chess players and reckons her victories as far back as the days of the great Paul Morphy. She and her husband spent years in Mexico and there, for lack of other entertainment, the evenings were generally spent in playing match games of chess. Mrs. Worrall won the sobriquet of the "Mexican Champion," and in 1859 played several games with Paul Morphy, receiving from the champion a rook and scoring an occasional draw.
Capt. Mackenzie allowed her a pawn and two moves and she was more successful. In 1885, at the Manhattan Chess club, she played a game with Herr Steinitz and beat him, he giving the odds of a knight. She has played with varying success against Mr. Walter Frere, her umpire, and Messrs. E. Delmar, Frankenberg Doyle and Chaplain Bengless, of the United States navy.
Mrs. Worrall's record in games played with men ranks her equal to any of the second class, while among women she has found few opponents worthy of her skill.
Mrs. Gilbert, of Hartford, Conn., considered one of the finest correspondence players in the world, was vanquished by Mrs. Worrall without difficulty. Mrs. Worrall is a quiet, gentle, womanly woman, with calm eyes and low voice. When playing she leans back in her chair, often with one arm thrown over the back, and the other resting in her lap, while her eyes fix themselves steadily on the board. She is a widow and lives in Brooklyn.
Mrs. Showalter is a Kentuckian and possessed of all the Kentucky woman's charms.
"Don't say that my husband won me at a game of chess," said she, when interviewed, and her big blue eyes opened wider in her excitement. "Let me see. I was married at sixteen and now am twenty- three, that makes seven years' playing with the champion chess player of the United States. It would be funny if I did not know a little, would it not? I never played with a woman before and would not have thought of challenging Mrs. Worrall. I always think I see ahead about eight moves; sometimes I don't carry right, but more often I do. When I make a blunder it makes me ill."
Mrs. Showalter is petite with golden brown, curly hair. She wears when at play a simple black blouse and greenish gray skirt, plain and of light weight, clearing the floor. Her curls are pusked back and caught up with a jeweled comb. She takes off al her rings but two, a plain circle of gold and a gem setting.
At half-past two o'clock the ladies enter the parlor of 438 West Twenty-third street, when playing in New York, each taking her place at the board. Mrs. Showalter sets her feet firmly, and resting her elbows on the table, runs her fingers up through her wealth of hair. If the game is long and exciting, before its close the comb falls to the floor and the mass of curls rests on her shoulders in wild confusion, each ringlet seemingly aiming to reach the chess board and assist its mistress to win the game.
Mrs. Showalter has a dimpled face rather round and exceedingly sweet in expression. Her eyes are large and limpid and violet blue in color. Her complexion is fresh and ruddy, and she speaks in contralto tones, with a slow, measured thoughtfulness for which no one is ever prepared. It is naturally supposed that a quick impulsiveness goes with the makeup of such a vivacious little body.
She has defeated some of the most celebrated chess players in the world and even played with some champions. Her husband, who won first prize in the United States Chess Association four consecutive times, began playing match games with her by giving her odds of a queen. Now she receives only odds on pawn and two moves.
"My first great victory," she says, "was in a match game I played with Arthur Peters, who won the "free for all" tournament in the United States association at Lexington, Ky., in 1891. I go with my husband when he plays, and when he went to Kokomo, Ind., to take part in the Lasker-Showalter match for the championship of the world. I met Mr. C. A. Jackson, champion of Indiana, and answered his challenge to play a match - I drew the first game and won the next three. When I first came to New York, I played with Mr. Lasker a match of five games up. He gave me odds of a knight and I beat him five to two,"
The fact that Mrs. Showalter has beaten Champion Lasker with the same odds with which Mrs. Worrall has beaten Herr Steinitz points to a very interesting match between the two women. A priviledge of a return match will be givin to the one beaten, then the victor will be prepared to defend the title of lady champion of the chess world against all contestants.
"Lasker had beaten everybody in Germany and England," said Mrs. Showalter; "then he came and beat my husband, and his astonishment, he said, was great that I could whip him with the odds he gave me."
"Is it hard work to play?"
"Indeed it is. There is a severe mental strain, and at the close of the game, I am thoroughly exhausted. I have regular stage fright, too, while Mrs. Worrall seems perfectly calm and collected."
Mrs. Showalter is fond of horseback riding, driving and walking. As a rifle shot she is energetic and charming. She fished, hunts and is an expert in all outdoor exercises.
At six o'clock the ladies take a recess, sealing the next move, which is made at eight o'clock in the evening. The game proceeds until eleven, when, if not finished, the next move is sealed until the next day. Not a word is spoken while the play lasts. There are no stakes. The match is for glory.
Mrs. Worrall spends her winters in Brooklyn and her summers at College Point. She meets Mrs. Showalter twice a week in Brooklyn and New York, alternately. The first game was won by Mrs. Showalter after sixty-eight moves. The second game was drawn after seventy moves. In the third game, Mrs. Worrall had the move and played the Scotch Gambit. The ending was neatly and favorably [illegible]. Mrs. Worrall lost a minor piece by miscalculation and was forced to resign on the thirty-second move. The fourth game was won very cleverly by Mrs. Showalter after thirty-one moves.
The fifth game was played at 30 Hanson Place, Brooklyn. It was Mrs. Worrall's turn to open the contest and she selected a Giuoco piano for the attack. Minor pieces were frequently exchanged, and nothing but kings, queens, rooks and pawns remained on the board after twenty-four moves had been registered. The score now stands three to one and one draw in Mrs. Showalter's favor. The contest is expected to last a month longer.
The article above actually coincided with the premature end to the match due to Nellie Showalter's illness.
This shows that Nellie was supposed to take part in a simul given by her husband on Dec. 1, 1894 . . .
"Brooklyn Eagle," Nov. 30, 1894
"Mrs. Worrall and Mrs. Favor of Brooklyn and Mrs. Showalter of New York will take boards in the simultaneous exhibition at the Brooklyn club tomorrow.
But she couldn't make it due to illness . . .
"Brooklyn Eagle," Dec. 2, 1894
"Notwithstanding the inclement weather a large number of chess enthusiasts assembled at the Brooklyn Chess club last night to witness a simultaneous exhibition given by the noted expert, Jackson W. Showalter. There were four woman players in attendance, Mrs. Worrall of this city, Mrs. and Miss Frere of Bay Ridge and Miss Hymes of Newark, and of these, Mrs. Worrall alone took a board against Mr. Showalter. Mrs. Showalter, wife of the expert, was absent, owing to illness, while neither Miss Steinitz, a niece of the ex-champion, nor Mrs. Favor of this city was present to play, as had been expected.
(of the 17 games, Showalter won 6, drew 4, lost 3 and 4 were unfinished. Mrs. Worrall lost her game)
Shows where Mrs. Showalter formally postponed the game . . .
"Brooklyn Eagle," Jan. 3, 1895
"In an interview with the Eagle reporter on Tuesday last, Mrs. John [sic] W. Showalter, who until recently competing with Mrs. Harriet Worrall of this city for the woman's championship of the United States, stated that she discontinued the match at the urgent request of her husband, she being also ordered to do so by her doctor. The severe strain consequent upon a contest of this nature had begun to tell upon her and she was force to seek a change of scene and action. Although convalescent she is not yet prepared to resume play but hope to be able to do so shortly. Mrs. Showalter spoke highly of her opponent, Mrs. Worrall, in consenting to wait when properly the latter was entitled to claim the match by forfeit.
Indicates that Nellie either took a while to recover, or developed a second serious illness in 1895 . . .
"Brooklyn Eagle," May 14, 1896
Showalter was accompanied by his charming wife, Mrs. Nellie Marshall Showalter, whose prowess at chess is second only to her husband's. Mrs. Showalter has recently recovered from a most serious illness and is still obliged to be careful of her newly regained strength, for which she expects the sea air of the East will be beneficial.
The date of Nellie's birth is usually given as 1872 or sometimes even 1874 (though in 1894 she said she was 23. While I couldn't find any documents supporting this, it seems her mother's name was Rebecca and she had two brothers, John and Will, and one sister named Minnie. According to the Showalter monument at the Georgetown (Ky) cemetery, she was born in 1870 and died in 19846, eleven years after her husband. They were married on Feb. 8, 1887 and had three children: Freeman Benoni (1895-1978), John William (1904-1995) and James Watterson (1907-1936). Curious enough, Jackson Whipps Showalter's father's name was also Freeman Benoni, while his two two brothers were also John William and James Watterson. Worth noting is that their first child was born on Aug. 16, 1895, exactly 9 months after Dec. 1894 when Nellie had to quit the match due to illness.
She died on March 25, 1946
I was able to find newspaper reports on the 5 match games:
Women's Championship Chess Match
Mrs. Harriet Worrall and Mrs. J. W. Showalter played the fourth game of the women's championship at 468 West Twenty-third street, New York, last night. At a Sicilian defense Mrs. Worrall made a mistake in bringing out the queen too soon. A net was woven around her queen by Mrs. Showalter which distinguished chess players present considered an artistic piece of work. Mrs. Showalter sealed the thirty-first move made by Mrs. Worrall and the game was adjourned until today.
-Brooklyn Eagle Nov. 17, 1894
All the games played in Brooklyn were at the residence of Mrs. M. R. Favor.
Mrs. Favor was apparently a respected woman chess player as is indicated by this short blub in the "Chess Player's Chronicle" on Dec. 20, 1882 -
In response to the printed statement: "Ladies do not shine greatly as Chess players," the "Newark Sunday Call" chess reporter asked: "How about Mrs. Gilbert, who beat Mr. Gossip, the English theorist, in four straight games ; Mrs. Warden, Mrs. Favor, Miss Ella F. Blake, Mrs. Henry Neil, Mrs. Edna Laurens, of this country ; Miss F. F. Beechey, who has won numerous prizes, Miss H. Down, Miss F. Down, of England ; and Miss Sofie Schett, of Austria, none of whom are mentioned? Truly, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.—"
Mrs. Favor was a rich socialite, active in charities and chess. She was a member of the Brooklyn Heights Chess club. Through the years she can be seen hosting many charity functions at her home at 30 Hansom place as well as playing in several simuls, including one against Hodges, one against Showalter and one agains Pillsbury (sighted). She also attended the world chapionship match between Steinitz and Zukertort.
More on Nellie Showalter
More on Harriet Worrall