7 Games People Played in Colonial America

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Colonial days were rough. If you wanted food, you had to slaughter it or spend a year coaxing it out of the dirt. You could die from an infected hangnail. Not to mention King George was all up in your business. Booze, as we’ve mentioned, was a favorite way to ease the stress of being a Revolutionary. But fun came in non-liquid varieties, too. Many of the better colonial games are explained in the book Colonial Games, Pastimes and Diversions, for the Genteel and Commoner. (Which one are you?)

Below we have a variety of popular colonial amusements, some good and some just god-awful. Regardless, if you broke out any of them at your Fourth of July bash, we’d consider yours a Flossy bash, indeed.

You Should Probably Play These Games At Your Flossy Fourth Party

1. Question and Answer

The amount of fun to be had in “Question and Answer” only depends on how smart (or, let's face it, dirty) you and your friends are. It involves writing oblique questions and all-purpose answers on separate cards, and passing them out randomly. You can make them as silly, dark, or esoteric as your company desires.

Questions like, “Would you kiss anyone who asked you?” “How often do you lie to your spouse?” “Have you ever punched a cow?” are ultimately paired with answers like, “Ask your mother.” “When I’m frustrated by my zipper.” “It’s too erotic to do every day.” Pretty much whatever order you put those in, it’ll be fun.

2. Ring Taw

We all had marbles, but not many of us knew what we were supposed to do with them. I mostly used mine as a sort of primal scream therapy for my father, when he had some emotions linked to “stepping on marbles” that he had to work through. But marbles, as indicated in countless Norman Rockwell paintings, is an actual game—and it’s really quite fun!

There are many ways to play marbles, but the most popular marble game in Revolutionary days was Ring Taw. It’s kind of like playing pool: You use your big Shooter marble (or Taw) like a cue to knock your friends’ marbles out of a drawn circle of dirt. You get to keep all the ones you knock out, even if it means taking some poor kid’s entire stash.

3. Ninepins

Most cultures bowl in some way, shape or form. You know, some version of throwing a rolly-slidey thing with the intention of knocking down a group of standy things.

In colonial times, folks mostly used the version favorited by the Dutch settlers, called “Ninepins.”  (The mental_floss store carries a great lawn bowling set, perfect for backyards or just impressing your friends with your knowledge of Dutch sporting history.) It was remarkably similar to modern bowling, complete with beer and abuse heaped on competitors that starts out fun and becomes hostile by the end of the night.

You Probably Should NOT Play These Games at Your Flossy Fourth Party

If you’ve read old books, you have some idea of the long attention span of our forefathers, and their willingness to slog through baffling, mind-numbing detail. This sometimes applied to their party games, too. The following games, which are real examples of the amusements of the day, might be better saved for Halloween. Partially because they’re creepy, and partially because the rules are rather mysterious.

4. The Simpleton

To play The Simpleton, all guests form a circle around another player and pretend to engage in different careers (painting walls, writing books, smelting … that which ought be smelt). Then, the player in the center pretends to play a flute, and sings a song about Margaret, who does not love him. And then … well, the original text can explain it better than I can:

“When he ceases to sing, to take up the trade of one of the players, that player must play in his turn on the flute, moving his fingers, as if holding one, but without being obliged to sing; and when the conductor of the game takes up his song again or takes another trade, the player on the flute must quickly return to his: if he mistakes, he gives a forfeit to the master of the game.”

You got all that? Now stop badmouthing television. It may be the only thing keeping you from playing a pretend flute while your in-laws milk an imaginary cow in your living room.

5. King of Morocco

Or perhaps you’d rather trundle your way through the always-popular pastime, King of Morocco? It was one of the games of the era that helped unmarried couples cope with the seething undercurrent of sexual tension that gnawed the seams of civilized society. It involves a man and woman walking solemnly across from opposite corners, holding candles. They meet, and recite the following.

The Gentleman: Have you heard the frightful news?
Lady: Alas!
Gentleman: The King of Morocco is dead.
Lady: Alas! alas!
Gentleman: He is buried.
Lady: Alas! alas! alas!
Gentleman: Alas! alas! alas! and for four times, alas
He has cut his throat with a piece of glass.”

Then "both end their walk with a solemn air, and ... run gayly to their places."

Phew! Let me…let me just catch my breath for a second. That was hot.

Never, EVER Play These Games At Your Flossy Fourth Party…Seriously

Just don’t do it. Channel your rage into something less deadly.

6. Cockfighting

This was big back in the day. With human beings dropping left and right from either sickness or war or … a good stiff breeze, they weren’t about to worry about a couple lentil-brained chickens scratching and pecking each other to death. Nowadays we prefer our senseless bloodshed to result mostly from zombie interference. Let’s keep it that way.

7. Dueling

It’s wrong to say the colonials considered the structured murder of one another over a disagreement a “game.” It was more of a sport. The rules (the ones put forth here are from a code used in 1777) were extremely important, as they elevated the activity, making it civilized instead of barbaric.

In truth, death wasn’t necessarily the goal in dueling—the general idea was that the violence could be stopped after serious blood was drawn, suggesting that it was perfectly acceptable to fire for a foot or drive your sword into a shoulder. However “children’s play,” or firing in the air, was strictly forbidden.

Other Rules:
- The challenged has the right to choose his own weapons, except if the challenger doesn’t know how to use that weapon. The challenger cannot argue with the second choice no matter what.

- “Any insult to a lady under a gentleman’s care or protection to be considered as by one degree greater offence than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regarded accordingly.”

- The challenged chooses the place, the challenger chooses the distance, and the seconds (friends roped into this mess) fix the time and details of the shooting.

There are many, many opportunities during the preparation for a duel that apologies are allowed, even urged. A simple, “All right, dude. I’m sorry. I was just mad she dumped me for you,” could have saved countless lives.  Remember this at your party.

You’ll find much of the stuff you need to accommodate these suggestions for your Flossy Fourth Party at the mental_floss online store!


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June 25, 2013 - 6:00pm
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