- Historic Sites
Games People Played
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
Salem, Massachusetts, is rooted deep in the stony New England heritage of America. The capacious and functional houses that ringed the common remain, superbly maintained reminders of their prosperous Yankee history. So does Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dark and brooding House of the Seven Gables, looking as if Matthew Maule’s curse could still be lurking in its secret passage. And, of course, there are Salem’s famous witches- nineteen of them hanged in 1692.
But Salem’s history is not all, not even primarily, somber. In the early 1800’s, before the advent of steam, which forced ships to seek deeper harbors to the south, Salem was a busy international port and one of the most cosmopolitan communities in America. Its doughty captains plied the Orient and Africa trades, bringing back large fortunes and endless romance.
“The fruits of the Mediterranean are on every table,” wrote the English traveller and author Harriet Martineau in the iSßo’s. “They have a large acquaintance with Cairo. … They have wild tales to tell of Mozambique and Madagascar. … Anybody will give you anecdotes from Canton and descriptions of the Society and Sandwich Islands. They often slip up the western coasts of their two continents; bring furs from the back regions of their own wide land; glance up at the Andes on their return; double Cape Horn; touch at the ports of Brazil and Guiana … and land, some fair morning, at Salem and walk home as if they had done nothing very remarkable.”
These sailors, who were often away from home as long as three years at a time, felt they had earned the right to enjoy themselves on their return. Along with cargoes of spices and furs, they brought back games like chess and Parcheesi from the Orient to help while away the pleasant Salem respites between voyages. Playing games soon became as much a part of Salem’s history as witchcraft and sailing ships. Many communities like to call themselves the capital of this or that, often on little more authorityother than a proclamation by the local Chamber of Commerce. Salem, however, prides itself on being the “game capital of the world,” and to a considerable degree history supports the claim.
The board game, which means exactly what it says, a game played on a board, while a peculiarly American pastime, is as old as the written history of man. At a site near Ur of the Chaldees, archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley discovered a few sets of a forerunner of backgammon, inlaid with lapis lazuli, which have been dated as early as 3000 B.C. Arab children in the Middle East today play something called the Hyena Game, which is far older than the Koran. Typical of many such supposedly idle pastimes, the Hyena Game makes an entertainment out of hazards that may face the player in real life. For example, the player tries to move a token representing his mother with a load of soiled laundry to a nearby water hole and have her wash the clothes and get back with a clean burnoose without being eaten up by hyenas on the way.
Throughout history, men have invented games that reflect their societies, their hopes, and not infrequently their prejudices. A popular game appeared in England in 1774 called Royal Geographic Amusement; it gave players a chance to move tokens across a brightly colored map of the Continent and visit 103 European cities while experiencing vicariously the concomitant excitement and dangers of eighteenthcentury travel. Far worse than not passing Go, with its built-in twohundred-dollar bounty, was landing on the square allotted to the papal vassal city of Ferrara. The unlucky player who stopped there was thrown all the way back across the Italian Alps until presumably refreshing drafts of Protestant air could put him back in shape to travel again. Games, particularly when designed for the young, were expected to have some instructional value. The Royal Genealogical Pastime, which appeared in 1791, offered players a chance to move tokens over the escutcheons of fifty-two English kings and assorted noblemen since William the Conqueror and pick up a grounding in heraldry.
By general consensus the first American board game was The Mansion of Happiness, produced in 1843. Developed by Miss Anne W. Abbott, daughter of a New England clergyman, it was in the full Puritan tradition. Its publishers called it “an instructive, moral and entertaining amusement.” The key word here was clearly “moral.” By spinning an eight-sided wooden top called a teetotum—dice, even for so uplifting an enterprise, were forbidden—the player embarked on a journey that took him from the squares of Justice and Piety to—God and the teetotum willing—a pictorial representation of the eternal happiness that awaits the pious. There were dangers aplenty on the way. The squares of Cruelty, Immodesty, and Ingratitude were clear Stoppers. A Perjurer was sent back to the Pillory. A Drunkard wound up in the Stocks, and a Robber was sent to prison for two turns.