- Historic Sites
Games People Played
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
For the next fifteen years George Parker showed himself to be a dazzling entrepreneur and supersalesman. “I was 20 years of age,” he recalled, “tall, thin and pale, but full of determination.” When his friends were working at lowly jobs or were still in college, the spare young man was calling on the chief toy wholesalers of the day, as well as selling his wares directly to such stores as Partridge’s in Boston. While in his early twenties he began to sport a large Vandyke beard. The company legend has it that Parker grew it because he didn’t want his customers to realize that the owner, founder, director, and chief salesman of the company was so young a man. However, it is hard not to believe that George Parker, an unusually austere man for a gamester and whose only outside interest for the rest of his life was an occasional round of croquet, simply fancied himself in an imposing set of whiskers.
He revolutionized manufacturing techniques. Previously, board games had been individually constructed and colored by hand. To outproduce his competitors at a lower price, Parker set up one of the first rude systems of mass production. Taking a basic black and white lithograph of the game board layout, he lined up several female workers at a long table, each equipped with a small brush and single paint color. The first girl dabbed all of the reds and handed it to the next, who put in all of the greens, and so on.
Until he finally retired in 1945, George Parker was essentially an inventor of new games and an adapter of old ones. Traditionally, most board games, except for open strategy ones like chess and checkers, are called track games. In a track game a player proceeds along a prescribed route laid out for him by the dimensions of the board itself and tries to overcome various obstacles as he heads for a specific goal. Parker realized that although he couldn’t risk changing the basic trip—Peter Rabbit trying to find the hole in the fence in Mr. MacGregor’s garden or the intrepid girl reporter Nelly BIy trying to go around the world in eighty days—he could rearrange the scenery along the way. He worked out scores of variations on the basic track layout, taking advantage of whatever fads or national interests he could turn into a game. In the late iSoo’s George Parker’s company, now joined by brothers Edward and Charles to become Parker Brothers, was what Madison Avenue today would call a “trendy shop”—one quick to exploit the latest style of the day. Whenever there was a popular rage or an important news event, it seemed that there was a Parker Brothers game not far behind.
A pop sociologist could probably trace the story of America’s history and aspirations in the nineteenth century by the games people played. In 1889, when the country was deep in the Horatio Alger legend, the company successfully marketed The Office Boy, designed to illustrate “the haps and mishaps in the career of a businessman from his start as an office boy, gradually working his way up to the Head of the Firm. If he is careless, inattentive, or dishonest, his progress is retarded, and he is sent back, or kept in low positions; if capable, ambitious, and earnest, his promotion is assured.” When the Alaskan gold rush fever gripped the country, Parker Brothers produced a game called Klondike, allowing players to search for gold without leaving their living rooms. When railroads and steamships helped spur our congenital American wanderlust, those who couldn’t travel stayed home and played Pike’s Peak or Bust, Across the Continent, Round the World, or Crossing the Ocean. The Sunday excursion flavor of the Spanish-American War was captured in such popular games as War in Cuba, The Siege of Havana, The Battle of Manila, and The Philippine War. Shortly after the turn of the century the exciting news dispatches from Pretoria helped generate interest in games like Boer and Britain and The War in South Africa. In 1901 a series of popular bicycle games gave way to The Motor Carriage Game, complete with simulated breakdowns and flat tires. In the same year, when many Americans believed that all they needed to be rich was directions to Wall Street, Parker Brothers offered a stockmarket game called Wall Street, complete with the delicious symbolism on its box cover picturing a bull and bear getting together to shear a sheep. Even the newly popular toddlers’ companion, the teddy bear —named for President Theodore Roosevelt—was immortalized, after a fashion, in Teddy’s Bear Hunt Game.
Playing cards, unless they were graced with portraits of famous authors or suitably inscribed with Biblical sayings, were still classed as “the Devil’s picture books” in most good Christian homes. The theatre was generally suspect. Ballroom dancing was considered either indecent or the exclusive province of the rich, or both. But as America began to frolic its way through the Gay Nineties into the twentieth century, simply having fun for its own sake became a legitimate family endeavor, and making games turned into a big business.