Let me pause for a moment and get autobiographical. As a child--born in the 70s and reared in the 80s (1970s and 80s, mind you)--board games played an integral part of keeping my sister and I occupied. We were not particularly athletic, had lost most of Barbie's little teeny tiny high heels, and lived out on a farm where cable television was only a dream. Board games, therefore, presented a great rainy day respite, as well as an excuse to proscrastinate on important chores like cleaning the house or doing the dishes. We played games for hours; classics like Clue and Monopoly, Life and Careers. Sometimes I won, sometimes my sister won. Sometimes we followed "the rules," sometimes we created our own rules. But every time we enjoyed unfolding the game boards and worlds contained within.
Despite the commonly held notion that people, particularly children, had to make do with nothing but twigs and cornhusks in frontier times, toys and games were actually quite sophisticated in the 1800s. Recently, in the course of my work as educator at Log Cabin Village, I came across information relating to a 19th century board game called "The Mansion of Happiness." I was fascinated to learn the motivation and meaning behind this seemingly innocuous children's pastime. The game reflected 19th century values and morality, fed in bite-size doses in an effort to help parents rear upstanding citizens. I was prepared to write this amazing blog post about board games and 19th century values when I discovered the article below, written by Jennifer Jensen. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I decided to just share her article with you. It's lengthy, but well worth the read. Enjoy!
Teaching Success Through Play: American Board and Table Games 1840-1900
by Jennifer Jensen
In 1843 W. and S. B. Ives of Boston introduced Mansion of Happiness (see Pl. IV), one of the first board games published in the United States. The goal of the game was to be the first player to reach the "Mansion of Happiness," or heaven, by passing the virtues and vices of mankind along a sixty-six-space road of life. Fifty-five years later Parker Brothers of Salem, Massachusetts, published The Game of Playing Department Store (Pl. III), in which each player attempted to amass the most material goods during a shopping expedition. At first appearance, these two games have little in common but both taught nineteenth-century American children the value of success as it was interpreted at different times during the century.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, success in the new United States was equated with basic survival and godliness of spirit. Life centered on the home as the heart of economic production and of family community, and from the time they could walk, children were expected to participate in the family's daily work. Strict guidelines were enforced regarding their behavior, and transgressions were swiftly punished, for it was widely believed that children could only develop into productive adults with the firmest guidance. (1) These views left the average American child little time for leisure pursuits and education. Games were played, but not solely by children. The whole family took part in draughts (checkers), backgammon, and cards (which had been produced in Europe from medieval times).
By the 1830s, the hardships of the colonial era and early Republic had given way to increasing prosperity. Urbanization and industrialization transformed the political, economic, and social life of the United States, moving families into cities and changing the roles children played within the home. Moreover, mechanization reduced the hours worked by some laborers, increasing the time available for other pursuits. The home was removed as the center of work and became primarily associated with leisure activities and education. The definition of success shifted from mere survival to social advancement through education and religion.
Attitudes toward children also changed. Adults began to view childhood as an important period of life during which play, disobedience, and comical behavior were seen as natural preparations for future responsibilities. (2) Popular images of children during this period depict innocent creatures born without faults of character, (3) but society also recognized that children could be mischievous, curious, and impulsive. In order to grow into moral and industrious adults, they needed a stimulating environment that was also safe and protective. Parents, particularly mothers, became responsible for providing this environment. Since it was believed that the roots of all future actions were found in childhood, the primary concern of mothers was bringing up children who were literate and moral. Strict regulations regarding children's behavior were relaxed, but diligence was expected in learning, religious piety, and personal appearance. For the first time, most children were also introduced to the entirely new concept of unregimented, unrestrained leisure. After lessons and chores were completed, the remainder of children's time was free for whatever activities they chose to pursue.
The number of goods manufactured solely for the use of children rose dramatically Educators stressed the importance of having children engaged in amusements that were morally uplifting and instructional, so these new games and toys overwhelmingly emphasized spiritual values and literacy. Parents and teachers hoped that they would give children useful skills and shape their future conduct. Victorian nurseries were filled with toys that were supposed to develop the manual skills of boys and the domestic skills of girls and to impart moral lessons to both.
These new attitudes combined with a burgeoning middle class and advances in papermaking, printing technology, and transportation that made printed materials more affordable and assured a lucrative market for board and table games. (4) In these games we can trace Americans' changing attitudes toward the definition of success. Since instruction was foremost in the minds of parents, the earliest games were uniformly didactic, imparting basic knowledge, teaching skills, and moralizing, albeit in a form that was intended to be palatable or even fun for children. Many were based on history and geography while others had biblical connotations that it was hoped would foster Christian goodness.
One of the earliest manufacturers of children's games in the United States was W. and S. B. Ives, the makers of Mansion of Happiness. A typical virtue-versus-vice race game, Mansion of Happiness was based on an earlier English game of the same name produced by Laurie and Whittle of London in 1800. The English game, in turn, was based on The Game of the Goose, which originated in Italy and was registered in Stationer's Hall in London in l597. (5) The goal of the game is to be the first to reach the seat of happiness-heaven--in the center of the board. A player spins the spinner and moves along a path on which more than half the spaces are illustrated with virtues and vices (see P1. IV). A player landing on a virtue moves forward and on a vice, backward, often all the way back to the start, depending on the severity of the infraction. Success, in the case of this game, was attained through virtues such as piety honesty, and charity and the avoidance of idleness, breaking the Sabbath, and other lapses in judgment. This idea was clearly laid out in the directions to the game:
“WHOEVER possesses PIETY, HONESTY, TEMPERANCE, GRATITUDE, PRUDENCE, TRUTH, CHASTITY, SIN CERITY...is entitled to Advance six numbers toward the Mansion of Happiness. WHOEVER gets into a PASSION must be taken to the water and have a ducking to cool him... WHOEVER posses[ses] AUDACITY, CRUELTY, IMMODESTY, or INGRATITUDE, must return to his former situation till his turn comes to spin again, and not even think of HAPPINESS, much less partake of it.”
It was hoped that children would take these principles to heart and connect them to the secular joys of play: competing for positions, projecting themselves into situations of good and evil, and enjoying the company of their playmates and family. (6)
Another game that shared similar values was Pilgrim's Progress (P1. II), published by McLoughlin Brothers of New York City in 1875. Instead of racing to the center of the board to be the first to reach heaven, the players start at the "City of Destruction" and pass biblical sites such as "The Cross," "The Valley of the Shadow of Death," and the "River of Life," on their way to "The Celestial City."
Even the mechanics of games with biblical themes were designed to inspire proper values. The puritanical belief that dice and gambling were tools of the devil persisted well into the nineteenth century, so they were forbidden in most American homes of the time. (7) Instead, a teetotem or a spinner was used to indicate how far a player progressed on a turn. A teetotem was a small top divided into segments that were numbered. It was spun, and the number that came to rest on the table indicated the spaces to be moved.
Biblically inspired games were based on the Protestant world view that success was reached by living a virtuous life. This definition of success began to change during the middle of the century. as Americans began to value capitalism over Protestant ethics. For the first time Christian ideologies were challenged by the emerging desire of Americans to get ahead financially Games that emphasized moral instruction were superseded by ones that centered on subjects such as industry, transportation, and current events. Winners were no longer the most pious players, but those who accumulated the most money or goods. (8) Even the antipathy toward dice gradually disappeared, and by the 1870s brightly colored dice and dice cups appeared in many manufactured games.
Slowly Protestant America began to perceive economic success in regard to accumulating material goods as evidence of God's blessing. In this way success in antebellum America was still seen in religious terms, even as it embodied capitalistic values. An example of this emerging shift in philosophy can be seen in The Checkered Game of Life (PL. I), which Milton Bradley (1836-1911) published at a small lithography firm in Springfield, Massachusetts, in late 1860, and which the Milton Bradley Company then sold door-to-door. Bradley did not copyright the game until 1866. Players travel through life, represented by a checkerboard, in the pursuit of happy old age, accumulating points by going to college and getting married while working hard and getting rich, and by avoiding such stumbling blocks as idleness, intemperance, gambling, poverty, ruin, and suicide. However, religion per se only shows up on the altar that represents marriage. This was the first game in which the ideal American life did not depend on salvation or religious involvement, and many games with similar moral thrusts followed. Instead of piety they emphasized secular virtues such as thrift, neatness, and kindness.
Mary Mapes Dodge (c. 1831-1905), a children's book author, and other reformers began to encourage parents and manufacturers to sermonize less and entertain more. (9) They thought the most effective way to get positive messages across was by stimulating the imagination and encouraging success through storytelling and play Games were expected to simplify the complex relationships between morality and the economic transformation the United States was experiencing. Just as in Mansion of Happiness, it was hoped that children would project themselves into the various situations and learn the implicit lessons of good and evil.
The Checkered Game of Life was the most successful game of its day. However, the economic depression that had begun with the Panic of 1873 and lasted through the end of the decade created an environment in which games about banking and financial success were rare. Financially inspired games did not become commonplace until the 1880s, the decade of financial giants such as John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), and Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). One of the first games that allowed children to emulate the success of these new capitalists was McLoughlin Brothers' Game of the District Messenger Boy or Merit Rewarded (P1. V). published in 1886. Based on the Horatio Alger concept that anyone, even the lowliest messenger boy, could one day hope to make it to the top of the corporate ladder, (10) the game was a race to become president of the telegraph company by moving according to the spin of an arrow around a grid of spaces, where the player advanced his way upward in the telegraph firm. An explosion of similar games followed, including The Errand Boy, Game of the Telegraph Boy, and Cash (PT. VI). All these games reflected the idea that success was equated with increased social status through the accumulation of wealth. They all insinuated that behavior shaped a worker's future, but paradoxically, the players could not control their behavior in the game, for the spinner determined their fates.
Games glorifying economic gain through banking and stock market trades emerged in the 1880s as the United States came out of the debilitating depression of the 1870s. The game Commerce (P1. VII) was produced by the J. Ottmann Lithographic Company around 1890. Its object was to corner the market in a single commodity. The game was played by dealing cards that represented groups of commodities, including butter, coffee, corn, flour, pork, and sugar. Players shouted out trades all at once until a single player had all the cards belonging to a single suit, thereby cornering the market.
Some games expressed cynicism about the country's emerging materialism, such as McLoughlin Brothers' Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall St. Game (Pls. VIII and VIIIa), based on the financial Panic of 1873. The manufacturer's directions have the positive tone of other finance games of the time, promising that players will "feel like speculators, bankers and brokers," but the game board itself offers a less optimistic message. Stylistically similar to the work of the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), the board depicts fashionably dressed bulls and bears, shearing luckless sheep, representing the public (Pl. VIIIa). Depicted in the corners of the board are the famous financiers of the day, including Jay Gould (1836-1892) and Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899).
Only men are portrayed pursuing careers and seeking economic gain in these games of financial success. Although we can presume girls played the games, it is unlikely that they saw their futures in them. Fear, rather than inspiration, was used to impel girls to their future roles as wives and mothers. The game Old Maid, a version of which was produced by virtually every game manufacturer (see P1, X), was based on the notion that there was no fate worse than life as an unmarried woman. The game--sometimes with a game board, sometimes without--consisted of decks of lithographed cards on which were depicted comical or serious likenesses of women in pairs and a single "Old Maid." The point was not to end up holding, or being, the latter.
There was, however, one game that may have inspired some girls to a fuller life. Round the World with Nellie Bly (Pl. IX), released by both McLoughlin Brothers and J. H. Singer, paid homage to the adventures of the famous journalist Elizabeth Cochrane (later Mrs. Robert L. Seaman; 1864-1922), whose career began when she responded to an article in the Pittsburg[h] Dispatch that denigrated women. The editor was so impressed with her writing that he offered her a job. Cochrane, who used the byline Nellie Bly, went on to work for the New York World and dedicated herself to reporting on the conditions in prisons and asylums, causing numerous institutional reforms. Her most memorable feat, however, was setting the world's record for traveling around the world-accomplishing it in seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes in 1889, beating the fictional hero of Jules Verne's classic Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). Based on the popularity of the game (it was printed through the 1920s), Cochrane's achievement commemorated in Nellie Bly was an inspiration to many girls. (11)
The competitive nature of American board games also reflected American opinions regarding competition itself. Americans justified their acceptance of competitive behavior by looking to Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871), which proposed that Americans achieved because of natural selection, since only the fittest immigrated there from Europe. (12) This idea led to a national self-confidence and the belief that competition stimulated achievement. Games created a small environment in which accomplishment and the means to reach it were instantly recognizable. They taught children how to compete and to enjoy it.
By the 1890s the American economy had shifted from one based on a scarcity of goods and their production to one centered on a surplus and its consumption. As families had more money to spend, leisure-related goods became part of America's consumerist culture. The idea of success as manifested in the accumulation of material goods is evident in games such as Game of Store, The Game of What D'ye Buy, The Good Old Game of Corner Grocey (P1. XI), and The Game of Playing Department Store (P1. III). The goal in these games was to accumulate as many goods as possible, coincidentally celebrating Americans' delight in the novelty of shopping for various goods under one roof.
By the end of the century the mass production of toys and games had rendered the arguments of parents and clergy regarding their moral value irrelevant. Progressive social reformers had convinced Americans that play was the antidote to a busy life and that play itself would instill suitable values in children. Games by their very nature would encourage success and the ability to achieve one's goals within the simple framework of their rules.
(1.) Karin Calvert, "Children in the House 1890-1930;" in American flame Life, 1880-1 93 : A Social History of Spaces and Services, ed. Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1992), p. 75.
(2.) Ibid., p. 85.
(3.) Ibid., p.77.
(4.) Among these advances were the introduction of the rotary steam press' the replacement of rag fibers with vegetable fibers in papermaking, and improvements in chromolithography.
(5.) Play the Game, comp. Brian Love (Reed Books, Los Angeles, 1978), p. 9.
(6.) Mary Lynn Stevens Heininger, et al., A Century of Childhood, 1820-1920 (Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, Rochester, New York, 1984), p. 8.
(7.) James Mackay, Nursery Antiques (Ward Lock, London, 1976), p. 73.
(8.) Donna R. Braden, "The Family That Plays Together stays Together: Family Pastimes and Indoor Amusements, 1890-1930," in American flame Life, 1880-1930, p. 151.
(9.) Mary Mapes Dodge, "Children's Magazines," Scribner's Monthly, vol. 6 (November 1873), p. 353.
(10.) An example of a work by Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-1899) that demonstrates this point is Ragged Dick (Boston, 1868).
(11.) Founders and Firsts (American Cord Company Kalamazoo, Michigan, c. 1975).
(12.) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and the Selection in Relations to Sex (1871; Modem Library, New York, 1936), p. 508.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
Full citation: Jennifer Jensen "Teaching Success Through Play: American Board And Table Games, 1840-1900". Magazine Antiques. FindArticles.com. 23 Sep, 2009. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1026/is_6_160/ai_80864307/
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