Simple hunks of wood like the one on the opposite page were the video games of the nineteenth century. In homes and general stores and taverns, homemade wooden game boards were indispensable implements for an evening’s recreation. They were also, almost by accident, beautiful—commonplace objects rendered extraordinary through the decoration of anonymous craftsmen. Today they are recognized as highly collectible examples of folk art.
Board games are among our oldest diversions. Ancient racing games that scholars believe to be the precursors of backgammon have been found in Sumerian burial mounds and Egyptian tombs and dated as early as 3000 B.C. There is a reference to checkers in Chaucer, European immigrants settling in America and Canada brought board games with them from the Old World, and some eighteenth-century gaming tables (usually for chess or backgammon) exist today. The American craft of the game board reached its peak, however, in the nineteenth century. One of the earliest known examples is a checkerboard manufactured in 1824, now in the hands of a private collector. By the 1850s the homemade game board was well established as a simple, cheap alternative to the lithographed boards manufactured by Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley in the same period. Sign painters, carriage makers, and, above all, talented amateurs produced their own game boards for use by family and friends. Because it was overwhelmingly an anonymous craft, there are few records, and there is little in the way of formal scholarship. But much can be deduced about the makers and their times from the boards themselves.
There are few game boards known to have come from warm climates. Most can be traced, through hints in design or construction, to Northern states. Pennsylvania Dutch designs (such as hexes) suggest Pennsylvania; Germanic motifs (such as tulips) suggest Pennsylvania or Ohio. A unique game like A Trip around the World, which features a marine motif, including an unlucky whaler being taken on a Nantucket sleigh ride, clearly indicates that it came from the New England coast. (Its construction provides another clue: The joints of the end boards are mitered together tongue and groove, possibly to prevent warping.) All this suggests that homemade gaming was in large part a diversion for long Northern winters.
Certain common pictorial elements, like the sun, moon, and stars seen in the checkerboard shown here, were part of the standard decorative vocabulary of the time and can also be found on quilts, fabrics, and painted furniture. This serves to place game boards squarely in the late-nineteenth-century tradition of decorative objects that were made first of all to be used around the home. Not that the makers were blind to their visual appeal. Some game boards still have hooks of brass or iron attached; when not in use, they were hung as wall decorations.
There are many more checkerboards surviving than any other kind of game board, confirming that checkers was a far more popular game than others whose boards survive today: Parcheesi, backgammon, Chinese checkers, and rarer games like Ringo or Agon. Even within checkerboards there are differences, however—the board seen here features tin trays at the ends to hold game pieces, a relatively unusual touch—and some of these quirks can also yield hints of origin. Boards with more than the usual number of squares were probably used for draughts, a Canadian variant on the game that also trickled down into Maine. Game boards made of pine are probably rural in origin; harder, more expensive woods like cherry or walnut suggest an urban craftsman. Most boards are one-of-a-kind, but occasionally collectors will come across several boards that were clearly made by the same hand, suggesting that some makers set up small cottage businesses.
The craft of wooden game board making survived well into the twentieth century before it was put down by the mass manufacture of cheap paper boards. Perhaps because good boards were still being made as late as the 1940s, collectors of folk art came to game boards fairly late, after they had discovered (and driven up the prices of) nineteenth-century weather vanes and quilts. Twenty years ago, when the Connecticut collector R. Scudder Smith began buying game boards at antique fairs and flea markets, most were in the ten-to-fifty-dollar range. Today the price range is nearly one hundred times that, with the best pieces going for three to four thousand dollars in pricey New York galleries. Collectors, curators, and dealers offer a cautionary note, however: Because they are so simple, game boards are the easiest pieces of folk art to fake, and there are innumerable new copies in the marketplace. Perhaps there’s a perverse justice in this, the humble home craftsmen of the last century, long dead, having a last laugh on the collectors of today’s inflated art market.