Play is a universal aspect of childhood, with toys and games found everywhere from prehistoric archeological sites to our living room floors as we avoid stepping on little bits of Lego and Barbie doll shoes. Knowing how children (and adults) played and what they played with paints a vivid picture for me of what life was like in an historical era. I feel a little transported to that era myself. That is the crux of world-building, a skill every writer must have whether they are creating their own fantasy world, or recreating an historical one. So I was thrilled when my most recent project found me writing about a group of children and I had to figure out how to play with them. How often do you get to research toys and get to call that work? What fun!
I was surprised to find that many of the toys and games of the Georgian era would be familiar to children and parents of today. While some have fallen out of common use, many toys common to that period are tucked away in playrooms, bedrooms and living rooms of our own homes today. Our ancestors would either make toys and games at home, or, as became increasingly common into the late Georgian era, purchase them at a knack shop or a nicknackatory. I love that name!
The production of consumer goods vastly increased during the 18th century meaning a much greater variety of toys were available to children and their parents, beyond the simple wooden dolls, miniature animals or hobby-horses of earlier periods. Moreover, parents of this era did not commonly subscribe to the early philosophy of making children into miniature adults, but rather allowing them to be children and amuse themselves accordingly.
While toys were often expensive, poorer families could buy cheaper ones made out of paper - soldiers, dolls, rooms with figures to put in them, all to be cut out and made up by the children at home.
Children love to play outside. Many of the pass times our 18th century ancestors enjoyed would seem so familiar that contemporary children would not hesitate to join in the fun.
Skipping rope was a common pastime for both boy and girls. In fact, during the medieval era, only boys skipped rope as strenuous exercise was not considered healthy for girls. During the Regency era though, girls clearly enjoyed the sport as well.
Hopscotch is another equally ancient game. It may have originated in ancient Rome, but was certainly popular in the 17th century. In the game, players draw out a grid of numbered rectangles in a specified pattern. They toss a small object into the numbered spaces and hop or jump through the spaces to retrieve the object.
Continuing the theme of ancient games, children of both sexes enjoyed the game of battledore and shuttlecock, a predecessor of badminton. . Drawings from ancient Greece suggest this game originated there over 2000 years ago. Players, armed with rackets, tried to bat a feathered shuttlecock back and forth, without a net, and keep it in play as long as possible
Lydia Maria Child in her book, Girl’s Own Book (1833), suggests: Little girls should not be afraid of being well tired (playing battledore and shuttlecocks) that will do them good but excessive fatigue should be avoided especially where it is quite unnecessary.
Girls risked little fatigue with the game of lawn bowls, a game originating in the 13th century. In this game, the objective was to roll balls so they would stop close to a smaller ball. The game was prohibited by multiple monarchs including Edward III and Richard II for fear it might impinge on the practice of archery. Ironically archery was another common outdoor sport for our Georgian ancestors.
Games with hoops were also popular. Boys would roll metal and wooden hoops, propelling them with another stick. Girls would play the more sedate game of graces. Girls would hold two slender sticks and catch a ribboned hoop on the sticks. They would then throw the hoop to another player by crossing the sticks, allowing the hoop to slide down, then rapidly pulling the sticks apart.
Other popular outdoor amusements included games of rounders, an ancestor of baseball played by boys and girls, titter tatter, the old name for a see-saw, variations of blindman’s bluff, tag, various kinds of races. When a body of water was available, children could play ducks and drakes by skipping a flat stone across the surface to see how many time they could make it skip. Ice skating and swimming were also popular near the water. Only boys swam though, as bathing suits had not been invented.
Although mothers and nursery maids may have wished for it, children could not always play outside. When play took them inside, many of their toys bore a striking similarity to toys we ourselves have played with.
Rocking horses, then as now, were a staple of nurseries everywhere. My boys had one they loved for years. It is hard to imagine childhood without one!
Toy soldiers for the boys and dolls and doll houses for the girls populated houses with children as well. Initially, most toy soldiers were made in Russia, Germany, Prussia or Turkey. They were stamped and painted pewter figures. The ‘flats’ were sold by the pound and were cheap enough that small boys could amass an impressive force of troops.
Dolls with changeable clothes and houses for them to ‘live’ in first appeared on the marked in the mid-18th century. Dolls could be made of paper, papier-mâché, rags, wax, wood, ivory or porcelain. Elaborate clothing and furniture for dolls could be made or purchased for a little girls most beloved companion.
Toy theaters complete with doll house like stage and backdrops and metal or paper characters were also comments. Children could act out familiar stories for their playmates or their families. Creative children might write their own stories or even draw or paint their own characters for their miniature stages. These remind me a great deal of some of my favorite toy from my boys’ childhood. They played with a castle complete with knights and jousting horses and a dragon and a pirate ship with pirates, an island, treasure and a giant ogre defending it. Shhh, don’t tell, but I never got rid of those!
Speaking of my favorite things, in 1817, one of my all-time favorites was invented, the kaleidoscope. I’m sure children of the era found it as endlessly entertaining as I do!
Spinning toys have always been popular. I remember a period when buzzers and tops were always underfoot in my kitchen, where the hard floor was more conducive than the carpet. Whirling toys made their appearance in English Literature as early as 1686 while at least 5 kinds of tops were known in the 15th century. Both boys and girls played with tops and buzzers, apparently noisy, dizzy things have a universal appeal.
Similarly, the clacking, inexplicable Jacob’s Ladder constructed of wooden blocks and ribbons fascinates today’s children as much as it did yesterday’s. I’ve lost track of how many of these I have purchased through the years as gifts.
Bilboquet was another favorite toy. I remember the very first one of these ball and cup games I got as a kid. How hard I tried to get the knack of getting that little ball into the cup. I never did get very good at it, but it was a good way to occupy a dreary afternoon. No doubt many Georgian mothers and nursery maids thought the same thing. The game could be made easier with a larger up in which to catch the ball, or could be made more challenging with a small cup or worse still, a tiny pin on which to catch the ball.
Children and adults played many games to keep themselves entertained during long evenings where the firelight was not strong enough to support other activities like reading or sewing.
Many games were quite familiar to us. Chess, checkers (called draughts), backgammon, cribbage and other card games, and dominoes in forms very similar to the ones played today were common.
Morris games including three, six, nine and twelve me versions have been played since 1400 BCE. This two player strategy resembles tic-tac-toe in the three man version, where the object is to get three of your pieces in a row, but unlike tic-tac-toe, the men can move along the game board. The game’s complexity increase as the number of men and the size of the board grow.
Other board games like race to the finish games and fox and geese became popular for whole families. Fox and Geese was played with pegs or marbles on a cross shaped lattice board. Many versions existed, but the goal of the game was for the geese to surround the fox so it could not move or the single fox to capture enough gees that it could not be surrounded. The same board could be used to play a solitaire game in which the goal was to remove pieces by jumping them and end the game with a single piece in a designated space.
More dexterous (and patient) players might enjoy the game of spillikins, an early version of pick-up-sticks and jack-straws. A pile of spillikins, which might be simple sticks or splinters or more elaborately carved pieces resembling tool and other objects, were dropped on a table. Players then tried to pick them up without moving any other piece in the pile. The player who picked up the most sticks won. In some versions different points might be assigned to different colors or shapes of sticks or another stick or hook might be available to help a player in their task. Evidence of this game has been found in 5th century BCE remains in India.
Similarly, evidence of the game we know as jacks and its earlier version, knuckle bones suggest they were played in the ancient world over 2000 years ago. Small animal bones or pebbles were the first paying pieces. Over time, the Jack stone was replaced by first a wooden ball, then a rubber one. The other pieces were replaced by the metal jacks of today which are said to be reminiscent of the original animal knucklebones. A wide variety of games can be played with these pieces.
Marble games appeared to have developed during the same period. Marbles have been made of a variety of material including clay, stone metal and glass. Like jacks, a wide variety of games may be played with these prized objects. At Oxford and Cambridge, students had to be prohibited from playing marbles on the steps of the Bodleian Library and Senate House.
Conkers resemble marbles a little, at least it does in my head. In France, the game was played with snail shells, in England, horse chestnuts were the medium of choice. The conker was strung on a string. Players would stretch out their string and take aim at another player’s conker and let it fly. The first to break his opponent’s conker won.
For our next family reunion I am planning to print out some morris boards and a fox and geese lattice and teach those games to my sons and nieces. I have a feeling they will enjoy them as much as children did 2000 years ago.
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Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision, The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn. Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.
Written content of this post copyright © Maria Grace 2014