Family History: Children’s Pastimes and Toys (the Letter ‘B’), Part 2

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards continues her series exploring the pastimes and toys our ancestors enjoyed when they were children, focusing on games that start with the letter “B,” Part 2. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 27,000 people to her family tree!

In examining children’s pastimes and toys from 1700 to 1950, we’re looking at a time when children worked more and had less free time than children today. By studying how they played, we can learn about an aspect of our ancestors’ lives not often dealt with in genealogy, and help bring those names and dates on the family tree back to life.

Illustration: children playing with a hoop
Illustration: children playing with a hoop

Bellman: One person is given a bell while everyone else blindfolds themselves. The bellman sneaks around the room periodically ringing the bell while everyone else tries to use the sound of the bell to lunge toward the bellman and catch him/her. It was played mostly in the Victorian era.

Blind Man’s Bluff or Buff (a “buff” is a “little push”): One person is blindfolded and other players form a circle around him/her. It was a popular game for colonial children and adults, and was played as early as 2,500 years ago in Greece. The game is variously known in Europe under a variety of names, such as: Mosca Cieca; Blindekuh; Blindbock; and Gallina Ciega (“Blind Chicken”). In France the game is known as Colin-Maillard (and is named for a medieval fight between a French lord of Louvain and a man named Colin who fought with a mallet and was blinded in the battle). It is played in many areas other than Europe: in Papua New Guinea the game is known as Kamu Namu; and among the Igbo in Nigeria, a version of the game is called Kola Onye Tara Gi Okpo. The English diarist Samuel Pepys reported a game played by his wife and some friends in 1664, and the English poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is said to have played it in 1855.

One way to play: the blindfolded person is spun around several times to become disoriented, then let go to catch one of the players. The blindfolded player has to guess whom they have caught. Another way to play: the other players form a circle around the blindfolded player. The players in the circle walk around until the blindfolded player claps three times. At this point, the players stop walking and the blindfolded player points to a player in the circle, having no idea who it is. That player steps into the circle and strikes the blindfolded person, hence “buff” the person in the center, then the blindfolded player guesses who it is. If the guess is incorrect, the blindfolded player chases the other player around the circle in order to catch him/her and tries to determine their identity by touching their face or hair. If the blindfolded player guesses wrong again, the captive is released and the game continues. Once the blindfolded player guesses correctly, he/she is no longer “it,” the blindfold is removed, and the person whose identity was guessed correctly is the next to be blindfolded.

Blindman’s Wand: This game is similar to Blind Man’s Buff, but Blind Man’s Wand is a version played in the 1800s. It is different in that it is played without the chasing and tagging. To play you must have at least three people, a stick-like object (such as a wooden spoon) to use as the wand, and a blindfold. The instructions are to choose a player to be your blind man, who stands in the middle of the other players wearing a blindfold and holding the wand. One of the other players takes hold of the other end. The blind man asks the player holding the wand three questions about him/her self (the person can disguise their voice to make it difficult for the blind man to guess who they are). Sometimes, instead of questions, children are asked to imitate the sounds of animals (barking like a dog, meowing like a cat, etc.). Another rule is the blind man is forbidden to ask who you are – but if he/she does, you can answer with a pretend name. The person who is identified the last wins!

Blowpoint: This game was played from the mid-1500s on and is not well known. It probably involved players using a peashooter to fire wooden or paper darts at a numbered target (or else at each other), although some later descriptions suggest it was a form of archery in which arrows were shot through a hollow log at a target.

Bubble Gum Sports Cards: Two children took the sports cards they had collected (from packs of the sports cards that came with bubble gum) and stood about ten feet from a wall. Each would flick their cards (one at a time) at the wall, and the one with the card closest to the wall got to keep both cards. The first baseball card was produced in the late 1860s by the New York-based sports company Peck & Snyder. It featured the members of the Cincinnati “Red Stockings” baseball club. In the 1880s, baseball cards made their first appearance in packs of cigarettes. The cardboard cards pulled double duty: they stiffened the flimsy cigarette packs, and helped as a marketing method by having cards that featured baseball players, vaudeville actors and actresses, war heroes, and Native American leaders in headdresses. By the 1880s, state laws were being enacted that prohibited the sale of tobacco products to children. In the early 1930s, the Fleer Company (the creator of Dubble Bubble) and Goudey Gum Company competed with other gum companies by selling baseball cards along with their gum.

Bubble the Justice: This was an 18th century version of a much earlier game called “nine holes,” in which players took turns bowling a metal ball along a wooden board with nine numbered holes or “pockets” drilled into it. The aim was either to land your ball in each hole in numerical order or to score as many points as possible. It was renamed “bubble the justice” as this was one of only a few games not outlawed in a clampdown on games in London taverns in the late 1700s, and a similar game became a favorite of children in later years.

Building Blocks: Wooden building blocks are a predecessor to our modern Legos. Blocks were used by children for everything from stacking a castle tower to building a bridge to making a playhouse.

More coming!

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