Family History: Children’s Pastimes and Toys (the Letter ‘C’), Part 1

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 “C,” Part 1. 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 reading and singing
Illustration: children reading and singing

Cat’s Cradle: This is a string game; its name’s true origin is debated, though the first known reference is in The Light of Nature Pursued by Abraham Tucker in 1768.

Traditional Cat’s Cradle requires two players who pass string designs to each other. It is a game involving the creation of various string figures between the fingers, either individually or by passing a loop of string back and forth between two or more players, each building on the last configuration. The type of string, the specific figures, their order, and the names of the figures vary from place to place and time period to time period. Independent versions of this game have been found in indigenous cultures throughout the world, including in Africa, Eastern Asia, the Pacific Islands, Australia, the Americas, and the Arctic. The goal of the game is to get to the last shape without making a mistake.

Chalk or Slate Boards: These were considered both a toy and a school tool that were used in classrooms during the 18th into the early 20th centuries. They were the equivalent to our scratch paper. They were used to practice Reading, Writing and Arithmetic for school, as well as to draw on in a child’s spare time. There was no waste, as they could be erased and written on again and again.

Most had an unfinished wood frame around the chalk board that was usually 7” x 10”.  Most students probably did not have erasers and just used a small rag (generally a damp one worked best) to wipe the board clean.

Change Seats: This game is a Victorian variation on musical chairs, in which one person is “it” and they stand in the middle while everyone else sits around them in a circle of chairs. The player in the middle asks someone in the circle, “Do you love your neighbor?” That person has the option to say “No,” which forces the people adjacent to them to run around the circle and try to grab a new seat, or they can say, “Yes, except those who wear __” (brown, blue, etc.), at which point anyone wearing that color has to scramble for a chair. The person in the middle will almost always get a chair because they are so much closer, so the one leftover player takes their spot. There’s no way to win the game, but the action offers multiple opportunities to land in someone’s lap or make a person blush by asking if they love their neighbor.

Charades: This popular game originated in the 18th century. A “charade” is a word game, usually involving riddles and guessing. This type of word game employs word imagery or double-meaning to help the guesser discover the word.

Checkered Game of Life (now known simply as “Life”): This board game was created in 1860 by Milton Bradley. It was America’s first popular parlor game. The game board resembled a modified checkerboard and the object was to land on “good” spaces and collect 100 points. A player could gain 50 points by reaching “Happy Old Age” in the upper-right corner, opposite “Infancy” where one began. Instead of dice – which were associated with gambling – players used a six-sided top called a teetotum, a form of spinning top. It has a polygonal body marked with letters or numbers, which indicate the result of each spin. Usage goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Chicken-Hazard: The origin of this game was a complicated Medieval English dice-throwing game. Chicken-Hazard was a low-stakes version that became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, probably descended from “Hazard” which was played for relatively high stakes by the upper classes and the wealthy.

Chuck-Farthing (now known as “Penny Pitching”): This was a game, said to combine skill and chance, that really did consist of chucking (throwing) farthings (a farthing was a British coin, one quarter of a penny). Farthings went out of use in 1960 and were replaced in the game by tossing pennies.

It seems, though, that coins weren’t always used, sometimes being replaced by rough-cast leaden counters, called “dumps” because they were dumpy in shape. The game was an old game, in which the player who pitched coins nearest to a mark was then allowed to gather and toss all the coins at a hole – and won those that went into it. There are a whole variety of games which simply involve the throwing of coins or discs at walls or at holes in a bench, chair, wall or box.

It was also called Pitch Penny, Penny Seat, Penny Slot, Tossing the Penny, and Penny in the Hole.

Cluedo: This game wasn’t invented until 1949 (and therefore barely makes it into our list of games from 1700 to 1950), but it had its forerunner in the rather more adult-orientated “Murder Dossiers” of the 1930s. These contained reproduction crime-scene photographs, testimony from witnesses, and clues such as hair, burnt matches and even a scrap of bloodied curtain. You had to read all the information, come to your own conclusion, and only then open the envelope containing the solution to the crime. This was the forerunner of the modern game of “Clue.”

Cock-A-Roosty: To play this game, one player is chosen as “it” and stands opposite all of the other players, who are lined up on one side of a road in their “den.” One by one, each player in the den has to try and get past “it” to reach “home” on the other side of the road, while everyone has to stand or hop on one leg the entire time.

More coming!

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