Two hundred years ago, rural American children played games that both amused them and gave them the necessary skills—agility, dexterity, teamwork, problem solving—they would need for adult life. Today’s historical reenactments, however, have largely ignored the activities of children in our nation’s past. At a historical commemoration in Plattsburgh, New York, we engaged children in playing several dozen games from the early 1800s. We researched the value of these games—some competitive, some involving groups, some solitary—for children of the period and present our findings, along with descriptions of the games themselves. Many may be familiar to older Americans but are rarely played now. Nevertheless, as we learned, today’s children can find pleasure in active, nonelectronic pursuits.
The tower puzzle takes concentration. Photo: Stan Ransom.
Historical observances have become part of the social life of many communities today. The Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day bring forth parades, pageants, and re-creations of days gone by. Historic battles are reenacted. Plattsburgh, New York, for example, celebrates the Battle of Plattsburgh, which took place on Plattsburgh Bay on Lake Champlain...
Until recently these celebrations were largely adult affairs. My wife, Chris, and I wanted to provide children with an opportunity to participate in the celebration by playing early-nineteenth-century games. We approached the Battle of Plattsburgh Celebration Committee and with its encouragement came up with instructions and directions for playing old-time games and their variations. We anticipated that these games would fit into the New York State Education Department’s curriculum’s fourth-grade unit on the local community and seventh-grade state history studies, and we planned to encourage the teachers in our local schools to learn these historic games with their students, as part of their classroom activities.
|Rolling an old-fashioned hoop turns out to be engaging physcal exercise for todays children. Below: Bobbing for apples is equally engaging. Photos: Stan Ransom.|
...The games, we believed, would also help children understand historical events and show how people lived, worked, and used natural resources in the past.
Function of Games
In 1800,...[c]hildren were expected to participate in the life of the family and contribute to it. Parents depended upon their children to carry out necessary jobs—caring for younger children, sitting with aged grandparents, helping with farm chores, preparing food, spinning and sewing. ...Children’s games and activities circa 1800 therefore often related to adult work.
Children of the 1800s were also expected to develop a sense of cooperation and fair play, share possessions with siblings and friends, help neighbors and friends who were sick...Learning to play with others was important as preparation for working with others...
The ability to amuse oneself while adults were busy was important, and for this purpose there were such pursuits as puzzles, hoop rolling, top spinning, and other solitary pleasures....
Many games were taught to children by their parents, grandparents, or others in the extended family. Some games were played by particular ethnic groups and handed down from generation to generation; others were regional, with each community practicing its own variations on games.
The European settlers had learned some games from Native Americans and incorporated them into their own children’s games....
Walking on stilts can be a form of solitary play, as it surely was for children growing up on isolated frams in centuries past. Photos: Stan Ransom.
Games at the Event
...For the Battle of Plattsburgh Celebration we have a large tent, set up next to City Hall in Plattsburgh. The street in front is closed to traffic and marked with chalk to designate areas for hoop rolling, duck on the rock, and hopscotch and jump rope. On the grass beside the tent, we draw lines with white flour for sack races and potato races. Another area is reserved for the game of graces...
Helping us each year are twenty to thirty volunteers, many in costume. Some of our volunteers come from Plattsburgh State University, some are Girl Scouts with their leaders. We train all of them to play the games so that they can teach the games to the children....
Inside the tent, at picnic tables covered with white posterboard, children spin tops, color flags, and play checkers, Jacob’s ladder, tower puzzles, and cup and ball. Smaller children toss beanbags through holes in a board or throw rope rings around a stake or quoit board. Other children make “hummers” out of buttons and string and learn to twirl and pull the string to make the button spin and sing. Another inside game we provide is checkers....
Working on a hand loom, children can make pot holders and dollhouse rugs. Photo: Stan Ransom.
|Using two hand looms, Chris teaches children to make small pot holders and rugs for dollhouses. We plan to do more with hand looms, which were important in the early days of our country. Chris also wanted to teach children how to plant marigold seeds, and we were given much help by Sally Booth, a local gardening enthusiast; bulk seeds of an old variety came from Seeds of Change... |
A children’s parade is held each noon on Saturday and Sunday, led by a bagpiper in kilts, Gerald Tetrault, followed by the author in his 1812 costume carrying a large Star-Spangled Banner (fifteen stars, fifteen stripes), who in turn is followed by children, each proudly waving a paper flag or shouldering a wooden musket and wearing a tricorn paper hat made from a folded newspaper.
The children’s games have been well received by the community and the children alike. Parents are delighted to see their children participating in active games, and many have joined us as volunteers. We are pleased that people now better understand the importance of children’s games to historical celebrations—and to the community.
|Stanley Ransom (carrying the flag) firstname.lastname@example.org, www.stanransom.com) is a librarian and folk singer who grew up in rural Connecticut and played many old-time games while attending a fourteen-pupil one-room school. He is on the boards of the New York Folklore Society and Traditional Arts in Upstate New York.
|Sources for Old-Time Games|
The Cooperman Company
Essex Industrial Park #11
P.O. Box 276
Centerbrook, CT 06409-0276
The best place we found to purchase hoops and other equipment for game of graces, cup and ball, marbles, jacks, Jacob’s ladders.
James Townsend & Son, Inc.
133 North First Street
P.O. Box 415
Pierceton, IN 46562
Period clothing, artifacts, and some games.
Smoke & Fire Trading Co.
P.O. Box 166,
Grand Rapids, OH 43522
Period clothing and some games.
P.O. Box 1050
Madison, VA 22727-1050
Wooden toys and lap looms.
P.O. Box 1049
Madison, VA 22727-1049
Vermont Country Store
P.O. Box 6998
Rutland, VT 05702-6998
Hopscotch and marble mats.
Oriental Trading Company, Inc.
P.O. Box 2308
Omaha, NE 68103-2308
Good for quantities of inexpensive prizes.
Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 15700
Santa Fe, NM 87506-5700
Heirloom garden varieties.
Tower of Hanoi
Instructions for old-time games
Arnold, Arnold. World Book of Children’s Games. World, 1972.
Bancroft, Jessie H. Games for the Playground, Home, School and Gymnasium. Macmillan, 1916.
Beard, Lina. Handicraft and Recreation for Girls. Scribners, 1904.
Book of Parlour Games. H.C. Peck, 1853.
Foster, Sally. Simon Says...Let’s Play. Dutton, 1990.
N.E.W.S. Home Amusements. An Appleton Home Book. Appleton, 1884.
Round Games for All Parties. London, Lacy, 1854.
Zubrowski, Bernie. Tops: Building and Experimenting with Spinning Toys. A Boston Children’s Museum Book. Morrow Junior Books, 1989.
This article appeared in Voices Vol. 30, Spring-Summer 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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