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

Criss-Crosswords: This game was the forerunner of our modern game of Scrabble and was invented in 1938. American architect Alfred Mosher Butts created the game as a variation on an earlier word game he invented, called Lexiko; he came up with the idea while reading a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” a character decodes a message by comparing symbols to letters.

Butts’ two games had the same set of letter tiles, whose distributions and point values were worked out by performing a frequency analysis of letters from various sources. It took Butts seven years to come up with the right balance of numbered letters. He figured out the value for each letter in the game by examining the frequency of letters used in newspapers like the New York Times and the Tribune. In developing his game from Lexiko to Criss-Crosswords, Butts added a gameboard of 15×15 spaces and a crossword-style gameplay. He manufactured a few sets himself but was not successful in selling the game to any major game manufacturers of the day.

A decade later, in 1948, James Brunot – one of the few owners of the original Criss-Crosswords game – bought the rights to manufacture the game in exchange for granting Butts a royalty on every unit sold. Although he left most of the game (including the distribution of letters) unchanged, Brunot slightly rearranged the “premium” squares of the board and simplified the rules. He also renamed the game Scrabble. This name is said to be either a real word which means “to scratch frantically,” or a combination of two words: “scraps” and “boggle.” In 1949, Brunot and his family made 2,400 sets but lost money. According to legend, Scrabble’s big break came in 1952 when Jack Straus, president of Macy’s, played the game on vacation and, upon returning from vacation, was surprised to find that his store did not carry the game. He placed a large order, and within a year, “everyone had to have one.”

Harriet T. Righter later licensed the game from entrepreneur James Brunot in 1952. “It’s a nice little game. It will sell well in bookstores,” she remembered saying about Scrabble when she first saw it. In its second year (1954) of being mass produced, nearly four million sets were sold!

Ironically, Alfred Butts didn’t like to spell.

Crokinole: This game can be traced back to 1876. It is a board game that remains very popular today. In Crokinole, there are two or four players in partnerships. The goal is to be the first team to reach 100 points by flicking small disks into a hole in the middle of the board called the “20 Hole.” Players earn 20 points for getting a disc into this hole. Several inches outside the 20 Hole are the posts, or pegs. These are bumpers that make it more difficult to get a disc inside that area. The outside edge of the board, which generally is lower than the main board, is the “ditch.” Discs which are removed from play are put in the ditch. If not in the center hole, then you want to flick your disk into a higher-value region of the board, while at the same time knocking your opponent’s disks into the ditch.

The Crokinole board is placed on a table so that every player has equal access to it. With two players, each receives 12 wooden discs of a distinct color. With four players, each partnership receives 12 wooden discs of a distinct color (each player within a partnership receives 6 discs). Partners sit opposite each other. The starting player is picked randomly, with the play always proceeding clockwise.

Once a game starts, the board may not be moved. Players may not move their chairs, nor may they lift themselves out of their chair. (This is often referred to as the “one-cheek rule,” as in “one butt cheek must always touch the chair.”) No player may touch the board unless it’s their turn to shoot.

The shooter places one of their discs on the starting line, with at least 50 percent of the disc within their quadrant. They shoot the disc by flicking it with their fingers (pushing it is not legal).

The first shooter, and any subsequent shooter who takes their turn with no opponent’s discs on the board, tries to shoot into the 20 Hole. If a disc lands completely within the hole, it’s removed and set aside for scoring at the end of the round. But if the disc doesn’t fall into the 20 Hole and instead remains on the board, and is either in the 15 Zone or at least touching the 15 Zone line, it remains on the board.

If there are no opponent’s discs on the board and a shooter’s disc winds up in the 10 Zone or the 5 Zone, it’s removed from the board.

If one or more opponent’s discs are on the board, the shooter must try to hit one of them. NOTE: This can be done directly, by ricochet off a post or another disc, or even by knocking another of the shooter’s discs into one of the opponent’s discs.

If the shooter fails to hit an opponent’s disc, the disc that they shot is placed in the ditch. In addition, if the shooter fails to hit an opponent’s disc but hits any of their own discs (or their partner’s), those are also placed in the ditch.

More coming!

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