Saturday, May 29, 2010

Playtime in the Parlour: Blind Man's Bluff, Tableaux, and Other Games

It's all well and good to tell children that there was no television "back in the day." It has become a standard explanation for the differences in life then and now when we talk to kids. But this "description" is sorely lacking in explanation. What filled the gaps in time when kids today spend 2-5 hours a day watching TV or playing video games? We've left a dreadfully fuzzy gap that even many adults can't fill in. Chores? Reading? What did people do in their leisure time?

Certainly the working classes and large arculturally-based populations in America filled their time with, well...work (though they too found time for their own relaxation and entertainment). But in the 18th and 19th centuries an increasing portion of the poulation, both children and adults, found themselves graced with large amounts of idle time on their hands.

It was a matter of status to fill this time in part with activities that loaned themselves to self-improvement. Reading books that would improve their intellect about science, music, art, and travel was considered important to becoming a well-rounded person (it was also useful for conversation at dinner parties). Visiting and letter-writing were ways to pass information and strength social ties. Horseback riding and walking increased in popularity for women as the century progressed. And needlework, painting or drawing, and music were all useful and acceptable artistic outlets for young women.


Games were never far from people's hearts however, and the parlor or drawing room became the place for leisure and entertainment as well as quiet study. While many of these games date back to the 18th century or even earlier, it is a little later in the 19th century that you begin to find them codified into books.

Changing attitudes on children's play meant that some were developed with children in mind. In the 1830s A Boy's Own Book was filled with "useful amusements" for young men. Some ten years later in 1843 A Girl's Own Book followed suit. Others were published throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.


Many games were developed with adults in mind as much as children. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the Church family at Olana regularly gathered in the Court Hall to play such games to pass pleasant evenings. A later text (Games for Everybody, published in the early 1900s) gives some idea as to the application of these games for adult gatherings.

"Every one is fond of having a good time when invited out to a party or social. Sometimes a stupid evening has been spent because either the guests were not congenial or the hostess had not planned goodgames. The purpose of this book is to furnish just what is needed fora pleasant home gathering, church social, or any other indoor occasion."

Some games could be mildly tititlating, encouraging players to challenge behavioral standards within a safe, structured environment. For instance Blind Man's Bluff, depicted above in an 1803 print or at right in a 1880s children's illustration, required a blind-folded player to touch his or her captive to try to discern their identity. The possibilities for mildly embarassing mishaps in mixed-sex groups remind me of the awkwardness of a junior high school dance.

A game described in a mid-century book Drawing Room Plays and Evening Amusements, held in Clermont's collections, is called "The Cherries." In it, cherries are taken by all of the members of the party but one, preferably unsuspecting, "victim." All of the other players chose a fruit to represent themselves, and the "victim" announces "I will exchange my cherry for a___"--let's say pear. The pear person then "has many ways of obeying this; he may either place the stem of the cherry in his mouth till the cherry touches his lips, and victim must then take, or he puts it in her hair, or his shoe, or anywhere." Judging from the description in the book, with a near-kiss being the first option for passing along the cherry, the close physical contact was at least half the fun.

While a few games in this book are indicated for young children, most appear to be for more mature players. This book also includes a selection of simple plays to put on at home, something the Church family also engaged in (if you scroll up, you'll notice what a fantastic stage and proscenium arch that space makes). Plays could enable amature actors a chance to pretend at new relationships or roles with other friends. For instance, two people could become friends, lovers, or enemies, all without the burden of being responsible for their own words ("it's all in the script!")

Another game, called "Tableaux" or "Tableau Vivant" was a popular favorite, in which teams grouped together behind a curtain and, using any available props, formed living pictures of familiar scenes. Fairy tales, paintings, and many others were appropriate. At this point, the curtain was whipped back, and the audience had to guess what it was that being portrayed. This game is sometimes still played with children under the name "Living Pictures" or "Living Portraits."

Much can also be made of the practice of paying "forfeits" for error or failure in a game. A good-natured punishment of sorts, these were invariably left up to the imagination (and dignity) of the players. A kiss, a silly rhyme, or recitation could all be ennacted by the player who made a mistake.
Parlor games fell out of favor somewhere in the early 20th century, though they do find ocassional homes amongst some groups of people. Some are particularly handy in the classroom on a rainy day. My favorite for this purpose is "Hide the Slipper," which is played sitting in a circle on the floor, but involves much less running around than "Duck, Duck, Goose." Others show up at ocassional parties--"Charades" was a favorite in the nineteenth century and can still be found sometimes today.
On the whole, life without TV was not only full of reading and self-improvement, but also could be lively, raccous, and a little bit risque. Even so, Parlor Games could also become ways for a family to share time together: when Drawing Room Plays and Evening Entertainments found its way into Clermont, it was as a gift from Grandmother Clarkson to Honoria when she turned five years old.

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