Board games show U.S. cultural history

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Feb. 4, 2003 at 3:19 PM
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NEW YORK, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- An unusual category of Americana is being accorded a fun-and-games exhibition at the New York Historical Society that reflects the nation's cultural history from the 1840s to 1910.

"The Games We Played," on display through April 14, includes 150 examples of board games that entertained Americans of all ages in evenings at home before the advent of radio and television. As an offbeat show, it is unexpectedly interesting, and the games themselves make a colorful though quaint display. There are three play stations at which visitors can try their hands at antique games.

Just as the origins of such contemporary board games as "Monopoly "and "Star Wars" can be found in cutthroat capitalistic pursuits and the conquest of territorial space, the inspiration for Victorian and Edwardian era games was often about reaching the top of the corporate ladder or following America's imperial "manifest destiny." After all, competition is what games are all about.

This particular collection was put together by the late Arthur Liman, the noted New York trial lawyer who investigated the Iran-Contra affair, and his wife, Ellen, an author of books on collecting. Mrs. Liman recently gave 500 American board games to the historical society, many of them manufactured by McLoughlin Brothers which was absorbed by Milton Bradley, one of today's contemporary game manufacturers, in 1920.

The earliest game on display, "The Game of Dr. Busby," was the first popular card game in the United States based on European games using "suits" of cards, in this case suits comprising members of the Busby family. It was published by a W. & S.B. Ives, a Salem, Mass., chromo print company in 1843 and the printed cards were hand-painted with watercolor.

By the 1870s color prints had displaced hand coloring, resulting in brighter and bolder graphics and eye-catching printed packaging. John McLoughlin was a pioneer chromolithographer and his family firm dominated the games field for years. In those days card games sold for 25 cents and elaborately boxed board games for $3, considered affordable by most middle class families.

The Civil War witnessed an upturn in game sales, a phenomenon usual in wartime, and the Spanish-American war saw publication of a series of patriotic games, especially by Chaffee & Selchow, a New York firm.

Many of these games published in 1898 and 1899 focused on Theodore Roosevelt's exploits at San Juan Hill in Cuba at the head of U.S. Cavalry volunteers he called his "Rough Riders." On exhibit are games titled "Rough Rider Ten Pins," "Roosevelt at San Juan," and "Uncle Sam at War with Spain," as well as "Mimic War" and "War at Sea or Don't Give Up the Ship."

Games based on the popular Horatio Alger stories about achieving success through hard work and the right financial investments were big sellers. Some of these suggested that happiness resulted from living a morally good life but more often than not happiness was equated to material success as in Milton Bradley's "The Checkered Game of Life." It sold an unprecedented 40,00 copies in 1866 and was reissued in 1960 as "The Game of Life."

A game named "Merit Rewarded" traced the rise of a messenger boy to corporation president and another named "Commerce" celebrated cornering the commodities market, but McLoughlin's 1883 "The Game of Bulls and Bears," was the ultimate game of Wall Street strategy. The game box's cover was designed by famous political cartoonist Thomas Nast and shows nattily dressed bears preparing to fleece sheep-like investors.

A real rarity on display is "Monopolist" (1885), reflecting the struggle between capital and labor. The object of the game is to break a monopoly and become a monopolist yourself and has nothing to do with the Atlantic City real estate game published in 1935 under the title "Monopoly," still the nation's most popular board game.

As the nation expanded westward, geography became an important topic for games as well as jigsaw puzzles. American Publishing in Hartford, Conn., was particularly successful with a game called "Rambles Through Our Country" issued in 1890, followed by "North Pole by Airship" and "A Horseless Carriage Race," dealing with a cross-country automobile competition.

The most popular travel game of the age was "'Round the World with Nelly Bly," based on a promotional trip made for the New York World newspaper by Bly, the nom de plume of reporter Elizabeth Cochrane. She set out to beat the 80-day fictional trip of Jules Verne and made the circumnavigation in 72 days, resulting in the 72-stop race game published in 1890.

One section of the exhibit deals with racial stereotypes as illustrated by an 1874 McLoughlin jigsaw puzzle titled "Chopped Up Niggers" and such "pickaninny" games as "The Watermelon Patch" (1890) and "Jim Crow Ten Pins" (1900) that offered a chance to knock down minstrel figures. Obviously game manufacturers were not seeking to do business in the black community.

Other displays deal with alphabet and anagram games, fortune telling and magic, and technical advances such as the telephone. A 1902 game called "The Sociable Telephone" connects players with two wooden blocks on a string. One player poses questions and the other must answer with a humorous sentence selected from printed game cards.

Sounds like a good idea for a computer chat room game.

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