Games Played In Olden Days, Too

Cinnamon Bair

Life was never easy in pioneer times. But that doesn't mean the pioneers never had fun.

Since the days the first crude historical accounts were chiseled into stone, the same surfaces have been used as game boards and score sheets.

"A diagram for Tit-Tat-Toe was among seven found incised in the roofing slabs of an ancient Egyptian temple at Kurna, built at Thebes in the 14th century B.C.," Merilyn Simonds Mohr wrote in "The Games Treasury."

"The game boards had obviously been cut into the stones before they were trimmed to form tiles, which leads archaeologists to speculate that they are relics of some game-playing stonemasons who relaxed, perhaps, with a few rounds of Tit-Tat-Toe during lunch."

Games are simply part of who we are as humans. We use them to educate and entertain. They sharpen the mind, channel our competitive natures and spark conversation.

"Games are an essential aspect of social activity, comparable in some ways to the performing arts," David Parlett wrote in "The Oxford History of Board Games." "All but the rarest of primitive communities have games."

Children in early Polk County no doubt had an odd assortment of games they enjoyed at gatherings or during their brief periods of free time. "Gator" (similar to today's "Marco Polo"), "Bull in the Pen" (which resembled dodge ball) and "Drop the Handkerchief" (a variation of "Duck Duck Goose" still played at historical reenactments) were among the games pioneer family member Ray Albrittton recalled in the June 1994 issue of the Polk County Historical Quarterly.

"Play was only permitted in the daytime when chores were finished," Albritton wrote. "When night fell the children had to be indoors. Night air was believed to be poisonous and playing outside after dark would result in fever."

Not all games were child's play. Polk's pioneers would have been familiar with many of the centuries-old games we know today, including chess, checkers, backgammon, cribbage and a variety of card and dice games. Some of these games have existed for centuries, and they were seen as an agreeable way for adults to spend a sociable hour or two.

"The playing of formal games - as opposed to 'just playing' - has throughout history been essentially adult activity," Parlett wrote. "Children have hither played with toys, not games. The development of board games and card games for children is historically recent."

It's difficult to catalog precisely which games early Polk Countians played - it's not a subject that garners much attention from historians except in the most negative connotations.

"Christmas week Bartow's Courier-Informant had condemned the 'card games, dice games, phony race track transactions, and even outright pocket-picking (that) have been too much in evidence,'" Canter Brown Jr. wrote in "In the Midst of All That Makes Life Worth Living."

Nonetheless, it's easy to imagine that games were as important to their social life and culture as they are to ours.

[ Cinnamon Bair can be reached at cinbair@hotmail.com. ]

Last modified: December 16. 2007 8:44AM