Game On: AAS’s Game Collection

"The Improved and Illustrated Game of Dr. Busby." Salem, Mass.: Published by W. and S. B. Ives., [1843?].
The Improved and Illustrated Game of Dr. Busby. Salem, Mass.: Published by W. and S. B. Ives., [1843?].
This past summer we completed work to make the Society’s collection of over four hundred games more accessible to our readers and the scholarly community. Christine Graham Ward, the Society’s Visual Materials Cataloger, created detailed records for each game in our General Catalog. These records include a brief description of each game, a tally of all of the pieces (including whether the directions were included), and information on the date and publisher. Prior to this work, the games had been roughly organized by category and were accessed through a finding aide which had unfortunately fallen out of date and was of limited use. The collection includes card games, puzzles, paper dolls, and board games ranging in date from the eighteenth century to the 1920s. It also contains objects used by school-aged children, including slates, quills, nibs, and even a pencil made by Thoreau & Co. in Concord, Massachusetts.

Chiromagica. New York: McLoughlin Bro's. N.Y., [between 1869 and 1877].
Chiromagica. New York: McLoughlin Bro’s. N.Y., [between 1869 and 1877].
The Society’s collection is particularly strong in holdings of games related to texts or produced by book publishers. For example, fifteen games by W. & S. B. Ives, a book publisher in Salem, Massachusetts, are preserved in the collection, and many are associated with books produced for children under the Ives imprint. The first boxed paper doll issued in the United States, Fanny Gray, was based on a popular children’s book The History of Little Fanny—both were published by Crosby, Nichols & Co. of Boston. (You can find a full print-friendly version of Fanny here!) Nearly one quarter of the games in the collection, including the fortune telling game Chiromagica (the precursor to the Magic 8 Ball), were published by McLoughlin Brothers of New York between 1858 and 1920. AAS holds a major repository of McLoughlin material, including books, illustration designs, printing blocks, manuscripts and puzzles. Other children’s book publishers, including F. R. Lockwood in New York and Peter G. Thomson of Cincinnati, are represented in the game collection as well. These connections between books and games are of great interest to book historians and to students studying child life. Now that the games are cataloged, we are hopeful that they will be used as evidentiary resources by scholars across many genres.

Flora McFlimsy. Cincinnati: Peter G. Thomson, [between 1877 and 1889].
Flora McFlimsy. Cincinnati: Peter G. Thomson, [between 1877 and 1889].
After each game was cataloged, it made the journey to our in-house photographer where it was recorded visually through digital imaging. Each puzzle was put together and photographed, and each paper doll and all his or her outfits were recorded, back and front. Board games were unfolded and those all-important directions booklets were photographed from start to finish. These photographs are linked to our catalog records and are available freely via the Society’s digital asset management system. Once photography was complete, the games returned to the Graphic Arts Department, where they were rehoused in acid-free materials and placed in our climate controlled stacks, awaiting paging by readers. Indeed, since the cataloging project was completed, we have seen an uptick in use of the games by readers. Over the summer, we posted several highlights from the collection on the Society’s social media outlets, including Facebook and Instagram, and had enthusiastic response from our followers and friends. Our outreach coordinator even inaugurated a video series, The Gamebrarians, to showcase one card game in the collection.

The Checkered Game of Life. Springfield, Mass.: Published by Milton Bradley & Co., 1866.
The Checkered Game of Life. Springfield, Mass.: Published by Milton Bradley & Co., 1866.

Access is always at the heart of what we do here at AAS, but what, you might ask, is the big deal about historic games? Are they as important as the Bay Psalm Book, or The Massachusetts Spy? Aren’t they just for kids? When the Society was preparing for our bicentennial in 2012, we brought a number of eminent historians into the library and asked them to select an item to discuss. Professor of American history at Harvard University and AAS member Jill Lapore selected the 1860 Milton Bradley board game The Checkered Game of Life, calling it one of her “favorite objects in all of American history.” The game brings players through the stages of life, with pitfalls like intemperance and bonuses like achieving education along the way, to the final square of “Happy Old Age—50.” Lepore went on to state that the game “reveals to you a whole different world of how people in the nineteenth century thought about the course of life—where we begin and where we end—what our journey is all about. You can read in this simple object that story.” That is the power of toys and games. The stories we tell our children as we read or use paper dolls or play board games are the stories of our culture, our beliefs, and our very position in time. We are delighted to make this collection more accessible.

The work to catalog and digitize the games was made possible by generous support from Jay and Deborah Last and an anonymous donor.

Published by

Lauren Hewes

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

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