Game boards: An expression of early American play

In the early days of the colonies, life was hard, and the colonists spent most of their time working to ensure their survival. Entertainment was a low priority.

So, board games were largely the province of the aristocracy until the late 18th century, and they were devoted not so much to amusement as to instruction, particularly concerning geography, and moral and mannerly conduct.

The Mansfield/Richland Public Library
The predecessor to Monopoly, The Landlord’s Game was designed to show the evils of real estate ownership.

There were some such as draughts (checkers) or chess that could be found throughout the colonies, but certain colonies did not welcome games. The Pilgrims and Puritans of New England viewed games as instruments of the devil and had laws against gambling games. The strict behavioral game guides of the Puritan-dominated 17th century were not much fun at all. The moral fervor of the period was reflected in a game whose title said it all: The Game of Pope or Pagan, or the Siege of the Stronghold of Satan by the Christian Army, published in 1844.

Although, in 17th and early 18th century colonial America, the agrarian life of the country left little time for games, checkers, bowling, and card games were not unknown. As the colonies grew and life became easier, the colonists found more time to enjoy themselves. Gambling games became popular with men living in Virginia and were played openly both in private homes and public taverns.

Well into the 1800s, most board games played in North America were of European origin. As leisure time continued to increase for early Americans, board games became a larger part of country living and friends and family spent time together playing checkers, parcheesi and Chinese checkers. The earliest 19th century U.S. board games were hand-painted, and are treasured by collectors. Farmers improvised these game boards, sometimes painted on old dresser bottoms, breadboards, old wooden advertisements or wood scraps for their families, using kernels of corn and beans as the earliest game tokens.

By the mid-1800s, small publishing companies began to produce games in the United States. The McLoughlin Brothers, who mass-produced board games starting in the 1850s, employed lithographic printing techniques to create incredibly beautiful games coveted by collectors. Technological progress after the1860s led to a major game industry and, so, board games as we know them today emerged out of the Victorian Era.

If early American board games were big on morality and scholarship, those of the late Victorian age were obsessed with money and success and espoused the American dream as something gained through hard work and good behavior. Game boards such as the 1843 game The Mansion of Happiness, or the 1886 Game of the District Messenger are examples of some of the most vibrant and beautiful pop art of the Victorian era, offering visions of sylvan paradises and vigorous cityscapes.

Museum of Play
Parcheesi game board, circa 1900, from a New York State family who referred to it as the “slave board,” features African American figures.

In 1883, at the age of 16, George Parker, bored with playing Everlasting, a game that taught morals and values, altered it to self-publish his first game, called Banking. It became a game about earning money speculating on stocks. In 1934, in the middle of the great Depression, a down-on-his-luck engineer named Charles Darrow came to George Parker with a hand-painted game called Monopoly, based on buying and renting real estate in Atlantic City. Parker rejected the game, giving Darrow a list of “52 reasons” the game would fail, including the fact that it took more than 45 minutes to play.

Having initially underestimated the appeal of being able to accrue imaginary fortunes that most people would never see in real life, Parker Brothers agreed to publish Monopoly, and it was a resounding success.

Most historians agree that Monopoly was derived from a 1904 game called The Landlord’s Game, created by Elizabeth Magie-Phillips, a devotee of Henry George, an economic-reform advocate who insisted that no one should make a fortune from property ownership. Her game, which usually used the local streets of the players, was, ironically intended as another moral lesson, designed to show the evils of the real estate market. However, by the 1940s, games no longer suggested that virtue or merit would help you win. In fact, as in Monopoly, ruthlessness would often lead you to the game’s end goal, which was money, a job promotion, or property.

Museum of P
Early checkers game board, which is marked for advertising a Syracuse wagon manufacturer, dated about 1900. Chess and checkers boards were often hand-made.

Now termed folk art, many of the earliest game boards were strictly utilitarian in nature and were never intended to be “art.” Although the idea of utility is often associated with traditional folk art forms, early game boards demonstrate the endurance of utility as an impulse for creative expression. Many boards show a sophisticated, innate understanding of color and decoration and might reflect the transmission of cultural ideas, prevailing trends, and availability of materials. Antique game boards with interesting graphics, use of color or culturally derived designs continue to attract collectors and can range in price from $100 to the Parcheesi board that recently brought $11,115 at auction.

Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Va. Contact her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.

Michelle Galler
About Michelle Galler 26 Articles
Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.

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