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Games People Played

May 2024
18min read

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.

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.

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.

Board games were and still are the backbone of the industry. The excitement of Charles Lindbcrgh’s flight across the Atlantic was captured in a game called Lindy. When everyone seemed fascinated with the ways of wicked Hollywood, the perilous voyage from starlet to stardom was captured in a satirical game called Polly Pickles, Queen of the Movies, in which a little girl from the country tries to find happiness in Tinsel Town. In 1924 Mah-Jongg swept out of the Orient and quickly became the premier fad of the Roaring Twenties. Based on an old Chinese gambling game adapted by James P. Babcock, an American living in Shanghai, Mah-Jongg had been a great favorite of the European clubs in the Orient. Imported to America, it suddenly became not only a success but an absolute rage in this country. Americans paid from four to 150 dollars per set of its intricate compilation of ivory tiles and bamboo counters, and the cry “Pung!” was heard throughout the land. Interior decorators did a tidy business selling customers special Mah-Jongg accessories for parties. Some of the more opulent aficionados had an entire room in their homes redone àla Chine and dressed themselves in Oriental robes just to play. The crash of 1929 hit Mah-Jongg hard, and the fad quickly receded. When George Parker’s nephew Edward, who is now president of the company, joined the firm in 1934, he found hundreds of expensive sets gathering melancholy dust in the company’s Salem warehouse.

Hard times didn’t doom all board games, however. In fact, it was the Depression that spawned Monopoly, the behemoth of them all. In 1933 Charles Darrow, a one-time heating contract salesman from Germantown, Pennsylvania, was out of work, along with several million other men. To help while away the time until business picked up, Darrow sketched out a game on an oilcloth that covered his kitchen table. Remembering the happy days of the twenties when everyone had money and he could take his family to Atlantic City for holidays, he devised a game based on buying and developing real estate in that Jersey resort, which by then must have seemed as far away as Xanadu. Every space on the track represented some choice snip of Atlantic City property, ending with the famous boardwalk itself. For a few hours a night in the Darrow household he and his friends, clustered around the kitchen table, were no longer leading lives of quiet panic in the Great Depression. They were big-time wheeler-dealers carving out real-estate empires and throwing their cash about as recklessly as any robber baron. Darrow’s friends suggested he try to market his game. He made up a few sets and sold them to department stores in nearby Philadelphia. Encouraged by local sales, Darrow wrote to Parker Brothers, trying to interest them in handling Monopoly nationally.

Edward Parker, then just starting with the company, remembers the day well: “We played it several times, and although we personally enjoyed it, everyone felt it could never be a popular success. It violated several of what we thought were elementary rules for a family game. We always felt that forty-five minutes was about the right length of time for a game, but Monopoly could go on for hours. Also, a game was supposed to have a definite end somewhere. In Monopoly you kept going around and around. The rules, involving mortgages and rents, seemed much too complicated. The decision to turn it down was unanimous.”

A letter was duly dispatched to Darrow refusing his brain child and informing him, “Your game has 52 fundamental errors.” If Darrow had had a steady job at the time, Monopoly might have died right there. But since the game was just about his only asset, he went ahead like a man who invests everything he has putting up a hotel on Baltic Avenue, and continued to peddle his game locally. When Parker Brothers heard that Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia was stocking Monopoly in wholesale lots for the Christmas season, they reconsidered and agreed to take it on.

Apparently unaware of its fiftytwo fundamental errors, Monopoly proved to be an instant Wunderkind. Like the bumblebee, which by all laws of aerodynamics and nature cannot fly but somehow does, Monopoly took glorious wing. In 1935 a new game could break even by selling twenty-five thousand sets. A sale of a hundred thousand gave it the cachet of a runaway best seller. In the first year Parker Brothers sold more than one million sets. Still not believing in his gold mine, George Parker was convinced that the game was a lucky fluke, with no staying power. He sent a memo to his staff to halt all production of Monopoly sets as soon as the pre-Christmas orders were filled. With memories of surplus Mah-Jongg sets undoubtedly clouding his vision, he was determined to cut his inventory for the traditional postholiday lull. Instead, he was swept up in a deluge. During the Christmas season people who received sets for gifts had been playing furiously, and now their friends wanted their own. The Salem office was a madhouse of back orders, and the Parker staff had to stack them in laundry baskets in the hallways while they cranked out new sets. Ever since, Monopoly has been the largestselling game in America, and each year’s sales have outstripped those of the previous one. More than sixty-two million sets have been sold since its debut.


We can only guess at the reasons for the game’s immense popularity. Perhaps Americans simply grew tired of the Frank Merriwell spirit of good sportsmanship. For in Monopoly it matters not whether you win or lose but how foully you play the game. Bad sportsmanship is at a premium, and the most morally upright member of the community will think nothing of assaying a business ploy so sharp that Jay Gould would have averted his eyes. Comedian Shelley Berman claims, “It’s that … thrill you get when you know you’ve wiped out a friend.”

Psychologists point out that people who may be unsure of their status in real life can receive a direct and immediate reading on their abilities at Monopoly. They can find out right away whether they are winners dr losers. “The skill and luck factors in Monopoly are reassuring to many people,” popular psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers noted. “There is enough skill so if you win you can compliment yourself on being the best player, and enough luck so if you lose you can blame it on the dice. It can be very comforting.” Mr. Darrow, a millionaire from his Monopoly royalties, retired to the life of a gentleman farmer in Buck’s County to engage in his new-found interest of growing orchids, taking time for an occasional round-the-world trip that enabled him to kibbitz on Monopoly played in such distant spots as New Guinea and Sikkim. Anyone asking for tips on how to play his game received the same prudent advice: “Stay out of debt, and buy Boardwalk and Park Place.”

Whatever the appeal, Monopoly appears to know no time or border. At first Parker Brothers assumed it was an escape from the sad days of the Depression. But through boom and bust, inflationary spiral and recession, war and peace, its appeal has remained steadfast. There may now even be a bit of nostalgia involved. Whereas today the free lunch and nickel beer of the thirties are but a vanished memory, you can still buy a choice lot on Atlantic Avenue for the same $260 it would have cost you thirty-six years ago.

The game has been as successful in Europe as it has been here. In France they use a miniature chamber pot for one of the tokens, and in Italy Park Place and Boardwalk are Parco della Vittoria and Viale dei Giardini, but in both countries it is the leading board game. Even in Russia someone somewhere is playing this epitome of rampant capitalism. During the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow six sets were put on display; all six were stolen.

Monopoly players have tended to be in the great American tradition of goldfish swallowers and flagpole sitters. The records set by them today are equally bizarre. The record for the longest game of Monopoly ever played is 820 hours, set in 1971 by twenty players in Danville, California; they started at noon on July 21 and ended at 4 P.M. on August 24. The largest Monopoly game in history took place at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, in April of 1967. Students took over 258,500 square feet of the campus and used the streets and sidewalks as the board. Dice, in the form of huge foam-rubber cubes, were tossed off a three-story fire escape, and messengers equipped with walkie-talkies bicycled among the players to tell them where to move. The record for playing Monopoly underwater was established last year by a group of students from De Anza College in California; they rigged up special diving equipment to a respirator and played for twelve hours. The record for the longest Monopoly game played in a moving elevator belongs to a group of freshmen at Kansas University who, in 1970, played for fifty hours in a dormitory elevator as it traversed a reported 7,212 floors.

The post-World War II period was a boom time for the game business. Spurred by our growing affluence and increased leisure time, producing and selling board games today is clearly a big business. Industry sources expect to sell at least twenty million sets this year. Monopoly remains the best seller. Other successful Parker Brothers offerings, such as the detective favorite Clue, and Careers (which has been keeping up with the times by recently adding an ecology category), sell about one fifth as many sets. Parker’s competition in the game business is made up mostly of old-line firms that have been at it for generations. Milton Bradley, which makes many other educational products, is still one of the most important game publishers. In addition to its long list of topical games, the company still sells Game of Life as merrily as ever. The last of the big three who dominate the industry is Selchow and Righter, which holds the trade name to the ancient game of Parcheesi. It was Selchow and Righter who got the idea of putting together a word game played with little wooden tiles and a complicated scoring system that they called Scrabble. For a few years Scrabble soared, posing the most serious threat so far to Monopoly’s durable supremacy in the field. Parker Brothers, while still a family concern, is now a subsidiary of the giant General Mills Company. Milton Bradley is something of a conglomerate in its own right, having taken a series of smaller companies under its corporate umbrella. Selchow and Righter remains, doggedly, a privately held operation. Game publishers tend to be more than a little tight about giving out specific figures, particularly comparative ones, but as one company executive put it, “Competition remains brisk.”

As in any business, there have been many changes in the game industry over the years. The original Parker Brothers plant in Salem has sprouted a series of additions. Its old coloring tables have been replaced by highspeed presses. The wooden houses and hotels of the original Monopoly sets have been replaced by plastic ones, wood being simply too expensive now. The presses at Parker Brothers print up almost forty-six billion dollars in Monopoly money a year—considerably more than the United States Treasury and, some would say, of more stable value. But, in spite of modern techniques of marketing research, board games remain essentially a “seat-of-the-pants” business. The Harvard Business School has yet to figure out a way to predict which ones Americans will want to play. And the experts in the game business must sometimes wonder if they have an inkling either. George Parker invented more than a hundred successful games in his lifetime. He was convinced that his finest creation was a game called Chivalry, an elaborate strategy game somewhere between chess and checkers. Despite his best efforts the game was not a success. Mr. Parker could invent it, promote it, revise it, give it a new name—Camelot—publicize it, and advertise it, but he could never sell it. Conversely, in 1965 Parker Brothers did not spend a penny promoting or advertising Ouija boards, and sales tripled all by themselves.

Some games retain their popularity, unchanged, from the day they were first created. Except for a few design details Monopoly is exactly as it was in 1935. Other games bend with the times. The Game of Life, one of Milton Bradley’s biggest sellers to this day, is now no longer “checkered,” and the rewards are monetary rather than spiritual (although for traditionalists the moral version is still available, too). Other games will have a brief flurry of interest, fade away, and then reappear generations later in a contemporary form. Near the turn of the century there was a popular game for ladies and gentlemen called Old Maid … Old Bachelor, which reflected the accepted male-female relationships of the time. The woman tried to corral the man and head him toward the square representing the Church and matrimony. The man tried to slip away and head for a square showing a billiard table representing “the Club and … single blessedness.” In these days of feminine liberation there is a game being marketed called He-She-Him-Her. In this game the woman tries to move her token, a brass wedding ring, out of the Kitchen while the man tries to block the exits with silver bolts. The established firms, however, avoid introducing games on controversial subjects and would not dream of trying to sell an item based on Vietnam or racial problems. “We’re trying to bring families and people together, not divide them,” explains Mr. Parker.

On the other hand, there is now a series of small, specialized firms creating games that are distinctly partisan. There was a game popular among some extremely conservative groups called Victory over Communism. In this game the player answers questions on current events. If his answer is considered correct according to the doctrine of the group, everyone at the table yells “Freedom!” and the player advances along a board to liberate a captive nation. If all nations are not liberated within a certain time, everyone loses. Players of an anti-Establishment persuasion can amuse themselves by throwing dice and playing games designed to show ways of getting President Nixon out of the White House. Sex has not yet become a national track game, but organized crime now has an entry. A game called the Godfather is available, packed in a box shaped like a violin case.

Unconcerned that some behavioral scientists claim, somewhat patronizingly, that board-game players are simply people working off their aggressions in socially acceptable ways, Americans in increasing numbers go on blithely buying, playing, and enjoying their favorites. If there is a deep secret underlying the timeless appeal of board games, Aldous Huxley perhaps best expressed it: “With their simple and unequivocal rules [games] are like so many islands of order in the vague untidy chaos of experience. In games one passes from the incomprehensible universe of given reality into a neat little man-made world where everything is clear, purposive and easy to understand.”


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