- Historic Sites
Games People Played
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
Another of the earliest games invented in America, the Checkered Game of Life, was conceived by Milton Bradley in 1860. One of the first major game publishers in America, Bradley later became a pioneer in American primary education and a leader in promoting the then strange and new idea of kindergarten for preschool children. His game relied heavily on moral instruction. The player attempted to move his token through School, Honor, and Truth until he finally arrived at Happy Old Age. Should he falter on squares allotted to such vices as Idleness and Crime, he could expect to fall into Poverty, Disgrace, and ultimately Ruin. Bradley was instrumental in making board games nationally popular during the Civil War when he devised a package called Games for Soldiers, which became a favorite with the Union Army. Made of pasteboard so that it added little to the weight of a soldier’s pack, the package held nine games: chess, checkers, backgammon, five versions of dominoes, and because Mr. Bradley was, after all, a Yankee tradesman, the Checkered Game of Life.
After the war, games of various kinds, often homemade, became popular national pastimes. The con- versational arts in much of America were not deeply cultivated at the time, and the wise hostess would often have a few such icebreakers on hand for dinner parties. Games for the whole family were acceptable as long as they taught moral or ethical lessons, and in many households, grouped around the hearth after dinner, such family play became almost an extension of the children’s Biblical instruction—for an aversion to what seemed like mindless fun persisted. In a forerunner of the editorial sniping at President Elsenhower and his golf, Benjamin Harrison was once satirized in a political cartoon for playing a game called Pigs in Clover when he was supposed to have had his mind on the weightier matters of state.
Games seemed to spring out of Salem naturally. Anagrams, much as it is played today, was invented by a local teacher about 1850. Authors, originally designed as a teaching aid in a Salem ladies’ school, first appeared in 1861. A quiet revolution in what was to become the game industry started from a most unlikely source in 1883. A shy, rather solemn sixteen-year-old Salem-born boy named George Swinerton Parker asked of his high-school principal in nearby Medford, where the family was living at that time, to be excused for three weeks before the Christmas vacation so he could go out and earn some money. It was an unusual request. Young Parker was descended from an old and substantial Massachusetts family that had settled in Woburn in 1645. His father, Captain George Parker, had been a sea captain until he was beached because of illness and went into the real-estate business. Captain George must have been something of a plunger. He speculated heavily in salt mines, a popular investment at the time. There was considerable money to be made in salt mines in those days, but unfortunately not in the ones Captain Parker had selected. From the time of his death, when George was ten, the family had repeatedly found itself a bit short of money. Young George decided to make some cash with the only thing he really knew about—games. He had been a dedicated gamester most of his young life. He played all the popular ones like Authors and Anagrams. But he found they weren’t as much fun as he thought they should be. He felt that The Mansion of Happiness was too “preachy” and deadly dull. Chess may have been too drawn out for his quick spirit, and checkers he liked not at all. “Duelling in a closet,” he called it. So he devised his own game, called Banking. Players could draw money from the bank at to per cent interest to underwrite various speculations. The contest was to see which player could amass the most wealth. Therein lay the first secret of the modern American home game. Instead of the most pious player reaping the most joy in the next world, the smartest player got the most money in this one. The rising tide of mercantilism was obviously shouldering aside the Puritan ethic. Banking was so popular with his friends that young George decided to try to market it himself. With the kind of bettor’s instinct his father would have admired, George spent forty of the fifty dollars he had earned by selling currants from the Parker garden on printing up five hundred sets of the new game. With the remaining ten dollars for expenses he set off for Boston and Providence with a valise stuffed with Banking games. He returned within the allotted time having sold all but a dozen sets to department stores and wholesalers for a net profit of somewhere around ninety dollars. A business that could return a sixteenyear-old boy close to a 200 per cent profit in three weeks was clearly something to think about. Think about it he did. After graduating from high school he worked briefly as a cub reporter for The Commercial Bulletin of Boston for three dollars a week. He returned home shortly thereafter, and in 1885 moved back to Salem and went permanently into the game business.