In our new and strange world living with COVID-19, many American families are seeking a break from the screen time that inundates our work and school hours. People want ways to decompress and enjoy each others’ company without distraction. The popularity of puzzles and board games has surged in recent months, with some selling out on many popular online platforms. Even small, mom-and-pop puzzle distributors have been unable to keep up with the demand! Indeed, the ways that many families are passing time in the middle of this pandemic look quite reminiscent of late 19th-century and early 20th-century middle-class homes, where games were a key source of family entertainment. Tracing the popularization of these games reveals a story of shifting cultural values in American history, and women’s hidden roles in popularizing and designing them.
The New-York Historical Society’s past exhibition The Games We Played (and 2003 book of the same name by Museum Director Margaret Hofer), featured a fascinating, rotating collection of board and table games from the 1840s to the 1920s that provides insight into how earlier generations of Americans engaged in leisure within the home. For anyone curious about the history and derivation of the board games that now cover their coffee tables, hours could be spent exploring the Liman collection of games online.
Board and table games developed in the 19th century as industrialization and urbanization brought time for leisure and play into the homes of middle-class Americans. In these families, mothers governed the activities of the domestic sphere, often combining education and play to teach their children literacy and Protestant values. Most board games were developed to impart these lessons on morality, virtue, and proper social behavior on their players. For example, one of the first board games published in America was simply called Reward of Virtue created by W. & S. B. Ives in 1850. Versions of this game had first appeared in England as Reward of Merit (1801) and Mansion of Happiness: An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement (1800). In the American version much like those across the pond, players move counterclockwise in a spiral around a 36-space track and faced a series of “virtues and forfeits” with the goal of being first to arrive at the center space to claim the “Reward of Virtue.” These games were quite popular activities for both young boys and girls.
Toward the end of the 19th century, American culture turned toward capitalism and materialism. Tables games followed this shift, rewarding players with riches and status rather than virtue or heavenly reward. In District Messenger Boy, players begin as mere company couriers and climb the ranks to become president of the business; in the Game of Politics, players race for the seat in the Oval Office, celebrating their transition from rags to riches. Both games celebrate the ultimate upward mobility promised by Protestant values. The quest for material success and financial gain mirrored the belief that such rewards were from the Creator.
Girls playing these board games would be hard-pressed to find female leads navigating the winding game tracks on their table games. Indeed, working-class and poor girls were more likely to work in the factories that created the ornately painted boards and game pieces then to see themselves as the central characters. One exception was the “Old Maid” caricature in the reading and matching card games. “The damsel in distress” figure was also a regular occurrence, exemplified in the 1890s game Little Goldenlocks and the Three Bears. The box cover features a terrified Goldenlocks surrounded by three bears zeroing in, curiously or mouthwateringly, on her image.
There were some exceptions. The 1898 The Game of Basket Ball surprisingly features a coterie of 11 adolescent girls in playful athletic dress shooting late-19th-century hoops. The level of contact between four girls pushing and pulling to keep the point guard from the basket makes this version of the game look a bit like football than anything else. Yet, the board inside looks more familiar to a contemporary eye: Girls appear on each side of a multi-colored square-patterned “court” for a friendly game of five-on-five. Perhaps this version of the Basket Ball turned heads, but it also reflected a real-world shift: women’s teams began cropping up in 1891 at women’s colleges such as Smith, Sophie Newcomb, Vassar, Wellesley, and other schools across the country. Perhaps this travel-size game of basketball kept the nation’s first female ballers entertained when they were off the court.
Since the leisure and education of children in middle-class homes were the purview of the women of the household, it should be no surprise that a few of the first American game designers were women. Accreditation and authorship are difficult to assert as many of the first American games ideas were borrowed from the British. Nevertheless, hidden behind prominent American distributors and publishers like W.&S.B. Ives and the Parker Brothers were women like Anne Abbott.
From Massachusetts, Abbott is believed to be the designer of the wildly popular 1843 card game Game of Dr. Busby. According to author Douglas Guerra, Abbott was initially turned down by major game distributors in Boston and Salem, including W.&S.B. Ives. Even Milton Bradley rejected the game arguing that there “was no recognized demand for such merchandise.” Undeterred, Abbott again pitched her game to Salem’s Ives Brothers who ultimately purchased the game for a “nominal fee.” Dr. Busby sold more than 16,000 copies in its first 18 months. Compared to Mansion of Happiness, another Ives game, which sold only four to five thousand copies in its first year, Dr. Busby was an incredible success.
Abbott, who went on to design the Race of Improvement (1844) and Master Rodbury and His Pupils (1844), was in the company of other business-minded “Salem ladies” and Massachusetts women like Eliza W. Ward and Louisa C. Tuthill who created a memory and anagram games. The Ives published Tutill’s memory game Characteristics of Distinguished Persons, male or female, but reductively listed the creator as “A Lady” on the box.
These hidden ladies of game design were not just a thing of the 19th century. Monopoly, one of America’s most popular games, was derived from a self-published folk game by a radical progressive named Elizabeth Magie. Magie’s 1903 Landlord game was meant as a protest against greedy monopolists and power-hungry property owners who impoverished their tenants. She created two sets of rules for the game: a monopolist version and an anti-monopolist version; the monopolist version of the game was more popular. For years, the game was credited to a man named Charles Darrow, who sold the game to the Parker Brothers in the 1930s. Magie’s made only $500 for the game that made Darrow and the Parker Brothers millions.
As we brush the dust off our puzzles tins and hunker down for another long weekend of board gaming and bread baking, we’d do well to remember the gendered history of table games keeping us company in our homes today.
Written by Pamela Walker, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.