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

Deer Stalker: This is a game in which two players are blindfolded. One is a “deer” and the other a” stalker.” The “deer” and “stalker” are taken to the opposite ends of a large table by the spectators. The action begins when they are directed by a designated bystander who shouts “Go!” The players have to move around the table and the stalker has to catch the deer – while the deer tries to escape from the clutches of the stalker.

Diablo: This game is making a big comeback in playgrounds today, based on a toy that became popular in Great Britain in the 1800s. It originated in China and is made of a spool-type object and two sticks with a piece of string to catch the diablo. The goal is to throw the spool as high in the air as possible and use the sticks and string to catch it. Different tricks can be performed with a lot of practice, and many children nowadays even compete against one another.

Dictionary: In this game, each person uses the dictionary in turn to look up a word and writes down the real definition – and then makes up two or three other definitions. The word and the definitions are then read to the rest of the players and each player has to guess the correct definition. The player gets points for each person he/she fools. The dictionary makes as many rounds as you like, and the player with the most points at the end wins.

Dolls: These popular toys have a long history and have been made from corn husks, rags, wood (often called “Penny Dolls”), handkerchiefs, or even spoons. From early history, girls have played with simple dolls made from corncobs or clay, and sometimes with more elaborate dolls later made from porcelain or wax. Girls dressed dolls and played with dollhouses that had miniature furniture and tea sets.

Dominoes: This game has a much-disputed history. You can find games similar to dominoes in most cultures. The Inuit game of “Á ma zú a lát” (meaning “standing upright side by side”) is similar to the game of dominoes. The European game of dominoes seems to have been borrowed from the Chinese (they may have originally been used as counters in dice games or in a method of fortune telling with dice in about 1120 A.D.), but only the math elements were retained. It has also been compared to Mahjongg.

Dominoes are flat, rectangular blocks called tiles or bones. Each tile has two groups of dots on one side (some may have pictures instead of dots for children) that range in number from zero to six. Tiles with the same number on both ends are called doublets.

Dominoes have had shapes other than the flat, small pieces we know today. In Korea, dominoes were long, cube-shaped, bone-faced bamboo pieces. In India, “pase” – dice-looking dominoes – are long, rectangular, cubed dice with pointed ends and are made of bone or ivory prisms, marked on four sides.

Dominoes was a popular game during Colonial American times and continues to be a favorite American game. Dominoes are popular with all ages.

One dominoes game is called Draw: tiles are put in the middle of the table, face down, and each player draws three tiles and looks at them. The rest of the dominoes are left face down in the “bone yard.” Whoever has the doublet with the most dots places it on the table, followed by the second player who puts a domino with a matching number of dots against the doublet. Doublets are put down sideways. The next player must play a match at the free end of a tile. If they cannot, the player must draw dominoes from the bone yard until a match is found. The first player to lay down all of their dominoes wins.

More coming!

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