Needham History Center & Museum

Fun and Games for the Whole Family

In the 1800s, idle hands – especially children’s hands – were the devil’s playthings. Leisure was suspect, and “Fun” was not a consideration. Games were meant to teach the same lessons that kids learned school and church.

My ace Collections Manager, Susan Jarvis, catalogued a number of 19th-century games in our collection – so, naturally, I have been playing with them. 

First up, there is Gaskill’s Popular Historical Game, or, History Made interesting for Young and Old (“Evenings Made Merry and Instructive. A Revolution in the Way of Learning History. A Useful Study and a Delightful Sport.”)  Whew! And all that on the lid of a box that measures 3” x 4”. The game consists of cards with a year at the top, the name of a famous person who was alive in that year, and three important events that took place during his lifetime.  The basic rule is that a player is told the name and the three events (but not the dates), and has to guess the year in question (within 10 years).  Here’s one to try:

Sir Isaac Newton:

  1. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes drives from France many industrious and wealthy Protestants.
  2. Enameled pottery made (St. Cloud).
  3. The Eddystone Lighthouse completed.

And no, you do not get to Google “Edict of Nantes.” The answer, obviously, is 1689 – the Edict of Nantes was 1685, enameled pottery was first made in 1688, and the Eddystone Light, on the coast of Cornwall, was completed in 1694. Bet you didn’t know that. OK, I didn’t either, but I have the answer card in front of me.  I also learned that the microscope was invented the same year that cotton was first planted in the US (1621), that the Saracens introduced the mariner’s compass into Europe from China around 1285, that the first saw mill in Germany dates to 1427, and that friction matches replaced the tinder box in 1834.

There is a stack of rebus cards.  These are hard!  This is a game for kids?  Rebus Puzzles are a combination of pictures, letters and (occasionally) words to write a phrase, story or message. These were popular puzzles in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Rebus puzzles were used in contests, on postcards, personal Victorian calling cards, greeting cards, Valentines and puzzle books.  

Detail from the game board of The Mansion of Happiness, 1843.
Detail from the game board of The Mansion of Happiness, published in 1843.

But my favorite of what we found is a board game called The Mansion of Happiness (“An Instructive, Moral, and Entertaining Amusement”), which is like a moralistic (OK, a more moralistic) Game of Life, with a little bit of Mystery Date thrown in.  “At this amusement each will find / A moral fit t’ improve the mind. / And shows (while Vice destruction brings) / That Good from every virtue springs.”  The Mansion of Happiness was published in the United States in 1843, one of the earliest board games, and in its day, the most popular.  The name derives from John 14:2 – “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” It combined the growing demand for leisure activities with the parental desire to impart strong moral lessons. Even the game pieces reinforced this lesson – dice were not used, because they were reminiscent of gambling; instead, a spinner called a tee-totum (a nod to the temperance movement) determined the moves.

The Mansion of Happiness was a basic spiral-chase game.  You spin the spinner to advance along the board toward the goal – The Mansion of Happiness.  But along the way you can meet with setbacks or advantages. For example, if you land on one of the Virtues (Piety, Chastity, Temperance, etc) you get to move ahead an extra six spaces; but if you land on Audacity, Cruelty, Immodesty, or Ingratitude you have to go back to your former space until your next turn, and (as the Rules state) “not even think of Happiness, much less partake of it.”

The punishment spaces (Poverty, the Whipping Post, House of Correction, Prison and Ruin, etc) are skipped over and not counted as you pass them, because “it would be cruel to punish a person for merely passing such a place.”  However, landing on such a spot incurs a penalty – if you land on Passion, you must move to The Water to cool yourself off; landing on Idleness sends you back to Poverty; if you land on A Robber, you must move to The House of Correction and lose two turns; and if you land on The Summit of Dissipation you move to Ruin.

So, middle-class 19th century families could spend one enjoyable and instructive evening learning obscure facts, and the next teaching their children to contemplate the Wages of Sin.  Truly, fun for the whole family in those long, long evenings before TV was invented (in 1927).

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum