Friday, March 22, 2013

Games People Play: Keeping Busy Indoors at Clermont

Spring seems to be a little late in coming to the Hudson Valley this year.  I was just getting hopeful when a big snowstorm swept in on the first day of spring and ruined everything.  Even now that the snow is melting off, the annual big mud spots are moistening up, and parts of Clermont will require a good pair of Wellies to walk through.  Cabin fever is setting in.

So what did the Livingstons do on days like this, their hopes for spring frustrated by the realities of the weather?  Parlor games, cards, billiards, and even board games were all part of the entertainment arsenal for Victorian-era households in America, and Clermont has a number of things of this nature in its collections.  To distract myself from cabin fever, I thought I'd take a little survey of them.

Billiard Balls, c. 1895:  Sometime after John Henry took up as head of household at Clermont, he remodeled the south wing into a gentleman's parlor.  He had to rip out several walls to do it, and he actually combined as many as two or three rooms into one.  It is everything the modern romantic viewer could want in a late-Victorian parlor: dark oak paneling and a large fireplace flanked with the Livingston coat of arms.

Today we refer to this room as the Study, as his third wife Alice requested, but before she came along, this room was also graced with a large, ornate billiards table.

Like most competitive games associated with men, it could have rowdy some behavior associated with it.  Louisa May Alcott illustrated this in her 1875 book Eight Cousins. When Rose inquires of her cousin, "Are those boys bad?" he responds:

"Guess not, only rather wild. They are older than our fellows, but they like Prince, he's such a jolly boy; sings so well, dances jigs and breakdowns, you know, and plays any game that's going. He beat Morse at billiards, and that's something to brag of, for Morse thinks he knows every thing. I saw the match, and it was great fun"...

"If Prince likes any billiard-playing boy better than Archie, I don't think much of his sense," [Rose] said severely.

But nevertheless, billiards was not an entirely inappropriate thing to have in a wealthy household (as an interesting side note, there is an old myth about Thomas Jefferson and billiards at Monticello). Advertising of the era even sometimes even showed well-dressed ladies and children playing the game in order to demonstrate that it was safe and respectable for families in the home.

Alice Livingston apparently disagreed, as I hinted.  Sometime after their second daughter Janet was born in 1910, Alice asked John Henry to get rid of the billiards table and turn the room into a family haven: the Study.  It must have only been a few years later, because their older daughter Honoria, remembered being almost tall enough to see up over the side of it before it was gotten rid of.  Today, Clermont's study still includes a built-in rack in the corner of the room to hold the balls and cue sticks.  I personally find it ironic that John Henry's portrait is now hung in this rack, as though apologizing for the destruction of his little sanctuary.

Whist Counters, 1900-1925:  These belonged to Honoria Livingston, who lived until 2000, but they date to around the time of her parents' marriage and the time when she and her sister were young.

Whist is a four-person card game and a predecessor to Bridge and Hearts.  Cards and gambling of all sorts were wildly popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and they were rampant among both the lower and upper classes.  Our dear Nancy Shippen Livingston played Whist to pass the time with her friends in the 1780s, and Jane Austen included Whist in many of her books.  In Pride and Prejudice, it affords Mr. Wikham the opportunity for flirting with Elizabeth.

Mr. Wickham did not play at whist, and with ready delight was he received at the other table between Elizabeth and Lydia. At first there seemed danger of Lydia's engrossing him entirely, for she was a most determined talker; but being likewise extremely fond of lottery tickets, she soon grew too much interested in the game, too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prizes to have attention for anyone in particular.

And in Sense and Sensibility it is Mrs Jenning's go-to solution for making shy Marianne feel welcome and entertained in her home.  The fact that Marianne doesn't play the game is a stumbling block that she's not sure how to overcome:

"Is there nothing one can get to comfort her? Poor dear, it seems quite cruel to let her be alone. Well, by-and-by we shall have a few friends, and that will amuse her a little. What shall we play at? She hates whist I know; but is there no round game she cares for?"

Clermont also has--unaccessioned--a few decks of cards that belonged to Honoria in the mi-to-late 20th century as well as other accessioned items that have to do with card gaming.  These include what appear to be Poker chips and several card tables.  Some of our card tables date to the mid 19th century.  However, my favorite card table looks to be from about the 1950s or 60s and closely resembles the ancient one my parents used to unfold every Thanksgiving and use as "the kids' table."

Like both Bridge and Hearts, the game is played in groups of four and provides plenty opportunity for witty banter, particularly between the sexes.   I can just imagine Honoria and Rex (who was known to be quite the talker) sitting down to play together with another couple.

Assorted board games, 19th century:  Printed board games date back to the 17th century in America, but they certainly came into their own in the 19th.  Milton Bradley played a large role in this when he began making board games in the 1860s.  Starting with The Checkered Game of Life, the company developed beautifully-printed games aimed at children, but often enjoyed by adults.

The game at left "Halma" was developed in the 1880s and derived its name from the Greek word for "jump" (which is undoubtedly the reason for that stylish Greek warrior on the cover).  I'm fairly certain I discovered the pieces in another box (below, right).

In some cases, the cleverness of the product came from its imaginative packaging.  For instance, for all of Halma's allusions to exciting Classical Greek warfare, there were few slashing swords or phalanxes to be found inside the box.  It was a jumping game with small, brightly-colored pieces, not terribly unlike checkers or Chinese checkers.

Other games preceded Milton Bradley's influences.  Parcheesi, as seen at left, was a game that was linked with exotic India and was seen in America starting in the 1860s.  The board changed only very little over the next century, and when I first came across this board in collections, I felt a wave of nostalgia--Parcheesi had been one of my favorite games as a kid.

Even further back in history, and linked more with adults that children, were games like checkers, chess, and backgammon.  We know from oral histories that Honoria and Janet played chess with their father in the 1910s and 20s.  The game would have provided a way to interact with him socially long after his hearing had gone.  Clermont's backgammon board is almost splendid in its plainness.  Even the pieces, nestled way in the back, are cheap, lightweight plastic. 
This particular game was not a special treasure, just a means to keep busy on a rainy day.

Of course, there are more way to entertain your family indoors.  Music, parlor games (Charades, anyone?), and reading aloud to one another were all common.  There is something very nostalgic though about finding these more personal, even plebeian remnants in the Livingston household.  They give us a picture of the way private leisure time was spent and how it was thought of: be it a cheap backgammon board or a grand room for the game of billiards.  They all speak to how the Livingstons viewed those hours of freedom together.

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