British and French Tabletop Games from the 18th and 19th Centuries – an Awesome Experience

Hey hey! My sister and I went on a whirlwind tour of New England last week; we traveled over 2700 miles and saw some incredible and interesting things…

including an amazing exhibit at Brown University’s John Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island. The exhibit consisted of twenty-three Georgian, Victorian, and French board games, dating from the 1700s! There were also a few proof sheets for the box designs, some components, and several original rulebooks and storage solutions.  It was a really neat collection and I am so happy we got to see it (especially because we just stumbled upon it. We were hoping to see some books in the library’s rare books collection – a couple of books bound in human skin (ew! but perfect for a Halloween-esque vacation) and some of HP Lovecraft’s original works – none of which we were important enough to actually get see (they did show us photocopies…)).

Here’s a little bit of information from the library about the collection:

“As the turn from the 18th to the 19th century approached in Great Britain, parents and teachers embraced a suggestion from the philosopher John Locke that “learning might be made a play and recreation to children.” A market for board games for instruction and delight flourished, but very few examples survive today. Those that have survived open a window onto the time period in which they were created, reflecting its social and moral priorities as well as a wide range of educational subjects. The games themselves are beautifully detailed: produced by a handful of the best-known publishers of the era, the hand-color engraved games look as vibrant and colorful as they did two centuries ago. Many of the games in the Limans’ collection include not only a game board, but original cases and instruction booklets as well.” -

And here are some photos I took:

As I said, I am so very happy I got to see this display. The games were lovely and discovering some of the hobby’s history was really neat. As the exhibit opener states: “Board games are a revelatory window into the lived experiences of those who played them. The games displayed here celebrate mechanical invention, national pride and industry, and history both classical and contemporary that publishers perceived to be important to society.”

Many of the games seemed to place importance on a delicate balance of amusement and instruction, attempting to present themselves as educational and entertaining – the rulebook for The Noble Game of the Elephant and Castle, for example, contained over 80 pages of information “describing culture and customs through an Orientalist lens”. Talk about flavor text! I thought that some of games edged more towards propaganda then actual education (and the opener actually addressed this, stating that, until mass production became possible, the rich and powerful controlled which games were produced and what messages they contained), but I still found them to be fascinating.

The glimpses into the state of society at the time of production were interesting – one game, The Royal Game of British Sovereigns, contained ivory teetotums instead of dice because when the game was made dice were associated solely with gambling, and were “thus unsuitable for genteel homes”. However, it would seem cheating by way of adjusting the result to one more favorable has been always been around; one of the rulebooks, pictured above, had this to say:

“Before in this Game we proceed,

Permit me a few words to say;

I will not five minutes exceed,

Or detain you, good folk, from your play.

I wish to put all on their guard

Against certain tricks I have seen;

And think not my censure too hard,

When I call them both cunning and mean.

I observe even those whom I love,

If they like not the number they spin,

Will the Counter, or the Tee-totum move,

In hope by such cheating to win.” 

These games are hand-colored and every detail is precise and lovely. The designers didn’t hesitate to break the forth wall and my favorite instance of this is found in the artwork of Every Man to His Station, which depicts a group of children playing the game itself using a teetotum. It was interesting to see the emergence of some “modern” mechanics and gameplay and I thoroughly enjoyed my glimpse into the past. If you would like to see more pictures from this trip, or from any of my travels, follow me on Instagram at @sarahmtrager

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