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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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Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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David Franzen, Library of Congress
You Can Thank 1950s Suburban Architecture for ‘The Floor Is Lava’
David Franzen, Library of Congress
David Franzen, Library of Congress

No one knows who, exactly, was the first kid to play "The Floor Is Lava," the simple childhood game that has only one rule: You can’t touch the floor. But as Quartz reports, a new paper contends that the game wouldn't have come about if it weren’t for the rise of American suburbs.

Published in the Social Science Research Network, the analysis by Tim Hwang of the MIT Media Laboratory argues that architecture was a vital factor in the spread of the folk game.

In the new suburban housing developments of postwar America, builders began to market the relatively new idea of the family room, an informal room designed for the social needs of the whole family. This room was separate from the formal living room and dining room, both of which were more likely to contain the inhabitants’ good furniture and fancy china. In building plans popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they were also set apart from the kitchen. One 1965 poll found that seven of 10 new houses built that year contained a family room.

And these factors, Hwang argues, are integral to playing The Floor is Lava. Family rooms provide big couches, coffee tables, and other furniture that kids can move around, climb on, and use as props for the game. Bedrooms would be too small, and formal living and dining rooms too full of potentially fragile items that Mom and Dad would be livid to find disturbed. And kitchens were seen as a mother’s domain, meaning that she would likely be there to put a stop to any shenanigans.

"What is unique about the family room space is both the quantity of space and permission that it affords to the play of The Floor is Lava,” Hwang writes.

However, this is just a hypothesis, and no one can really identify who started playing the game first. Kids in urban apartments can also theoretically jump all over their parents’ living room furniture, if allowed. During my childhood, the game typically took place on a playground rather than inside, requiring players to avoid the ground rather than the family room floor. There are games that originated elsewhere in the world that also revolve around avoiding the floor—Hwang notes examples from Kenya and the UK. But given how the spread of suburbs in the U.S. during the postwar period affected home design, it makes sense that a game might arise from the new spaces children lived in. We may never truly know how The Floor Is Lava was invented, but architecture seems like a good clue.

[h/t Quartz]

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