Journal Opinion, May 16, 2012
“The boys and girls, enjoying themselves, playing goal and tag, and pizen, and hide and seek, and blind man’s bluff, and igh spy, and wolf, and shouting and yelling till the woods rang with echoes.” This is a description of youthful fun at the May, 1780 Training Day in Warren, described in William Little’s 1870 town history. The games those children played were handed down orally from generation to generation and are an integral part of the memories of many area residents. Some are still being played by children today.
On Wednesday, May 23, the Bradford Historical Society invites area residents to join in a time of sharing of those memories. The program will be held at 7 p.m. at the Bradford Academy and will have enough active participation to bring out the child in the willing. The Society’s current museum display of antique toys will be at its display of games and toys at the 2012 Vermont History Expo at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds on June 16-17. When at the Expo, remember to stop by the BHS booth.
The original theme of this column was to include both toys and games, but there was so much information, that the toy, cards and board games portion will have to wait for a future column. This column deals with the games children organized for themselves, without adult supervision, and with a minimum of equipment, in what is now known as “free play.”
The history of games is as rich and varied as the imagination of the children who created and enjoyed them and may not include the favorite pastime of some readers. While varied, the amazing thing is how similar some of these games are from place to place and time to time.
It is thought that children’s games played in earlier societies were a way of preparing youngsters for adult roles through imitation. The rough and boisterous team games prepared boys for their participation as hunters and warriors. Playing house readied girls as homemakers. While few of my youthful companions ever became cps or robbers, it might be supposed that by playing that game we learned skills used later in life. There is no doubt that games contributed to the social, emotional, physical and intellectual growth of the children who played them.
Many of the games passed down through American history have their origins in the European countries from which the immigrants came. The term “game” comes from the Old English word gaman, meaning joy, fun and amusement. Some games, like blind man’s bluff, are thought to have origins as far back as ancient China. Hopscotch and marbles were played in classical Rome and Greece.
“Children’s Games,” a 1560 painting by Flemish artist Pieter Breughel, included over 200 children playing at least 80 games familiar to him. Many of those games, including leap frog, tug of war, crack the whip, follow the leader and marbles are still being played by children 450 years later.
Games were sometimes connected with historic events or individuals. But not always. It was thought for a time that Ring Around the Rosie described the great plagues of the Middle Ages and that London Bridge Is Falling Down referred to a 12th century attack on London, but both explanations has been generally discounted by folklorists.
In the rough life of early New England there was little time or tolerance for children’s games, except on festival days. There were few exclusively children’s games. Early school did not encourage games as a part of study, considering them frivolous. Some games that were played in Colonial times included hopscotch, jacks, cat’s cradle, cup and ball and stoole ball.
Work was made easier by the introduction of games. Husking and paring bees had an element of play involved. Other games, often in dance form, may tell of the way in which work is done. “Oats, Pease, Beans and Barley Grows” and “Threading the Needle” are two possible examples.
An article in 1847 edition of Vermont Agriculturalist entitled “The Mother’s Part,” autioned against too much play. “Children must play, but at the same time, they should be taught that play is not the principal thing. They should have set time for play, as well as other things.” A 1910 article warned against “vagrant street games” as appealing to “the inferior side of a child’s nature.”
Some games originally began with young adults for whom dancing was prohibited. In the 19th century in Haverhill, young people gathered to play Blind-man’s Bluff, turn the plate, chasing the squirrel and simon says, with kisses, “willingly given and quickly taken” well into the evening. These seem to be forerunners of spin the bottle and post office enjoyed by teens in later years.
In an effort to preserve the oral tradition of games, a number of collections were published. In 1869, Laura Valentine authored Games for Family Parties and Children.
In 1883, folklorist William Wells Newell, in fear that children’s traditions could become extinct, published a collection entitled Games and Songs of American Children. They both describe, by category, familiar games as well as others that have disappeared or undergone name changes.
Some of the game categories included blindfold, contest, trade, fortress, memory and chase as well as marriage and love games for those who were older. Specific games played in New England included the familiar and those lost to memory: Go In and Out the Window, Farmer in the Dell, I spy, callie-ball, genteel lady, hawks and hhickens and knights of Spain. Many of these games migrated across the country and variations appeared. Many of these games also appear in other cultures, sometimes with variations.
These collections can be accessed on Google Books, along with descriptions of many of the games mentioned in this column. I also reread two other interesting collections: The Great American Depression Book of Fun by John O’dell and The Foxfire Book of Toys and Games, edited by Linda Garland Page and Hilton Smith. Both books include “reminiscences and instruction” gathered in the early 1980s.
About that same time, my students conducted a series of interviews with elders who were area youngsters between 1890 and 1920. They mentioned a number of the games that had been played in earlier times. Many, who grew up in rural areas, agreed with one man who grew up on a West Corinth farm: “My life was pretty full with working on the farm, but when I did have free time we used to play stickball.” Depending on the season, they went sliding, skating, fishing, swimming and hiking.
As before, some diversions were limited by sex, location or family circumstances. Several women, who talked of playing dolls, said that baseball, bikes and swimming were not “lady-like.” Kids in rural locations with few others around were less likely to play group activities than those who were in town, except on the playground at the district school. Several mentioned that school recess allowed time for hop-scotch, tag and ball games. One elder said: “Our play we made ourselves. We made our own fun, made our own play.”
Bradford historian Harold Haskins who grew up in the early 20th century mentioned the restrictions on play on Sunday: “I can clearly remember when boys and girls quite generally were not expected to engage in games or play on Sunday.” He recalled that on a Sunday afternoon in 1907, “town officials” stopped a gang of boys from playing baseball on a remote field.
As these games passed from rural to urban settings, variations appeared. My friend Robert Robb who grew up in Detroit in the 1930s and 40s, told me of street games regularly played, including kick the can, tippie and tappy on the icebox.
Growing up on Bridge Street in Orford in the 1940s and 50s, play was a regular activity for the neighborhood children. We could be gone from home for hours at a time and play was only interrupted when a mom called one of us home for a meal. Seemingly carefree, and depending on the season, we wrestled, played tag, and hide and seek and pick up ball, went biking, fishing and sliding, had snowball fights and played lawn games such as mother may I and red light, green light. Imagination and innovation were the source of games. We had vines and tires to swing on and brooks and lakes for swimming.
Nothing was more enticing than a good mud puddle or better yet, a small stream of water for building dams or sailing homemade boats. Scrap lumber, a cardboard box, an abandoned car or an improvised clubhouse, sometimes tree high, could be combined with imaginations running wild to fill a summer afternoon. There were, of course, games that our parents knew nothing about.
Games often led to dirty or torn clothes and bruised bodies, a problem when Saturday night was your only bath night and mothers, in addition to being family doctor, had to spend most of a whole day doing the family laundry. It is a wonder most of us grew up with body parts intact.
When I caddied at Lake Morey Golf Course, the benches in the caddy shack were worn through from the jackknife game of mumblety-peg. In the school yard, we played marbles and red rover” and pick up games of baseball and soccer. With age, organized sports, dating and jobs left less time for informal games. But older kids sometimes duped younger ones into nighttime game of snipes, literally leaving youngsters holding the bag.
This is a boy’s perspective on games. While some of these activities included the girls in the neighborhood, girls had their own exclusive pastimes. They were more likely to play dress-up, hopscotch, house and school, paper dolls, jacks or jump rope, with no boys allowed. Of course, they also had games that were a complete mystery to yucky boys, which often included a lot of giggling.
Some games such at tick tack toe are now available as computer games. My 10 year-old grandson, Trever Robbins, tells me that play for boys his age means playing computer games on Nintendo DS, Playstation and Xbox, alone or with friends. In addition to organized sports, he tells me that they still, play army, complete with toy guns and forts, and tag and just plain “racing around.” My granddaughter, Rachel Jacobs, 13, a talented soccer player who also plays video games such as Angry Bird and Draw Something, told me about clapping games, jump rope and hopscotch played with her girlfriends.
“The saddest feature of our modern social condition and overcrowding in towns is that children have forgotten how to play.” No, this is not the editorial comment of a current observer. It is from an 1895 article in The Contemporary Review by Charles Roberts. Elders such as me often fuss over the loss of the games we played as youngsters, especially as a response to a grandchild’s plea, “I’m bored.” It has been said that “A true game is one that frees the spirit.” If you are lucky you might get them to teach you their new games while you teach them your older ones. It will free the spirits of both of you.