Games can be a fun way to break the ice at parties, but in the tightly corseted Victorian era, they also helped relax strict rules of courtship. Amusements such as Rev. Crawley’s Circle or Change Seats offered a chance to get physically closer to the opposite sex, while games such as Marriage or Marriages and Divorces helped players consider the marital requirements of prospective partners. The stylized pastime of tableau vivant also enabled normally buttoned-up ladies to be artistic in varying states of undress.

While even the era’s most flirtatious games might seem tame today, in a time when touching a lady’s hand might prompt a blush and a reprimand, the intimacy offered by Victorian parlor games must have seemed pretty exciting. 

1. IF YOU LOVE ME DEAREST, SMILE

In an era when women were advised to keep their eyes chastely downcast, almost all parlor games offered a chance for young men and women to stare openly at each other. Take the smile game, sometimes called If You Love Me Dearest, Smile. One of the players was selected to be “it.” That person was then the only one in the game allowed to smile, and their task as “it” was to get everyone else to smile. The last person who didn’t smile was the winner. Not only was this a chance to lock eyes and display a winning smile, but it also provided the opportunity to flirt openly. Now it’s a favorite game for 2-to-4-year-olds, but back then it had an older crowd.

2. BALL OF WOOL

In Ball of Wool, players sat around a table, with some wool rolled up in the form of a light ball and placed in the center. Players tried to blow the ball away from their direction and ideally off the opposite end of the table. The person to the right of where the ball fell was considered the loser. A variation of the game was called Blowing the Feather, in which players had to set a small feather afloat and keep it in the air. If you let it drop, you lost.

Viewers of Big Bang Theory may recall an episode in which Amy suggests playing A Ball of Wool and is met with little enthusiasm. It received a better reception in Victorian times, when players got to stare at puckering lips and perhaps imagine kissing them. 

3. MARRIAGE

In Marriage, every player came up with the name of a famous person—alive or dead or even fictional. Once done, a male player proposed one of the names to a woman in the game. She had to accept or refuse this person as a husband. If she refused, the woman had to say why. Once the woman accepted a husband, she was “married.” The woman to her right then had go through all the potential bridegrooms until she chose one. Once everyone was neatly matched up, the bridegrooms, using their fictional personages, had to explain why they decided to marry. This might seem silly in a modern context, but in Victorian times it allowed for frank co-ed discussion on the qualities preferred in prospective mates.

4. MARRIAGES AND DIVORCES

Marriages and Divorces also worked as a matchmaking tool. In this game, men and women lined up at opposite sides of the room and were partnered with the person across from them. Each person wrote a character sketch, complete with his or her positive qualities and character defects. A player acting as a judge summoned each couple and read the character statements aloud. If the parties liked the person they were matched with, they asked to be married. If not, they asked for a divorce. The judge decided how suitable the partners were, based on their character statements, and if the partners suited each other, they were pronounced married. If they weren’t deemed suitable, they had to pay a forfeit (see below). In a later component of the game, divorces were considered—if a pair asked for a divorce but the judge deemed them compatible, they had to pay a forfeit

5. IMPROMPTU ROMANCE

The creative storytelling in Impromptu Romance could reveal much about a player's desires. In this game, the first player started a story in which there was almost always some romance. That player also created various characters that were part of the story and assigned their names to the other players. When the first player named any of these characters in the process of telling their story, the player assigned to that character had to then continue the story, and keep going until they named another player. Their turn might have lasted minutes or indefinitely, depending on the scope of the player’s imagination.

6. TABLEAU VIVANT

Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd by Joshua Reynolds via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Translated from the French, tableau vivant literally means living pictures. This popular Victorian pastime involved staging live reenactments of works of art such as sculpture, paintings, or even cartoons. The pastime became popular after 1831 when British actress Ada Adams Barrymore performed a reenactment of the painting The Soldier’s Widow at a New York City theater.

Although subsequently performed in a variety of social settings, tableau vivant became a fixture of certain high society parlors. Professional seamstresses as well as set builders were sometimes employed to create realistic tableaux. But this form of entertainment also had its critics, primarily because some of the paintings and sculptures that were brought to life involved décolletage or partial nudity. For example, in Edith Wharton’s 1905 book The House of Mirth heroine Lily Bart poses before an 18th century Joshua Reynolds painting. The painting shows the subject in a clinging, revealing ivory dress. Lily Bart’s reenactment of the painting, standing before the original, showed more of her skin than a Victorian lady might normally reveal in public. While some at the party were shocked by her state of undress, the character Lawrence Selden was mesmerized by her beauty.

7. REVEREND CRAWLEY’S GAME

This was the Victorian equivalent of Twister. In Reverend Crawley’s Game, about eight to 10 players stood in a circle. Players had to hold hands, but not with the person next to them. And they could not give the same person both hands. As a result everyone got very tangled up, and the idea was to untangle the knot without letting go of anyone’s hands. Much twisting and contorting was required, which involved plenty of physical contact. 

8. SARDINES 

Sardines was a game much like Hide and Seek, but with one difference. Like Hide and Seek, one player hid and the rest tried to find him or her. But in Sardines, when the other players found the person hiding, they had to squeeze into the same hiding place, cozily cohabiting like sardines in a tin. The last player to find the hiding space became the person hiding in the next round.

9. CHANGE SEATS

Change Seats is a Victorian variation on musical chairs, but with a love component. Everyone but one player takes a seat, and the standing person asked someone in the circle, “Do you love your neighbor?” If that person said no, the people in the chairs on either side had to switch seats quickly. If they weren’t fast enough, the person left without a seat at the beginning could grab one of their seats. If they said yes, they had to say, “I love my neighbor except …” for people of a certain description. For example, that might be, “I love my neighbor except for everyone who is blond, wearing red, or wearing glasses.” Everyone fitting that description had to quickly change seats. The game offered multiple opportunities to land in someone’s lap or to make a person blush by asking if they loved their neighbor. Perhaps they did. 

BONUS: FORFEITS

Many Victorian games involved forfeits, a kind of penalty in which you had to do what the winner asked. These often varied by gender.

For example, a man might be asked to kiss every woman in the room while wearing a blindfold. He might have to face the wall while a woman made one of three signs behind his back (either a kiss, a pinch, or a box in the ear), and then choose the first, second, or third option without seeing which they were—he would then get what he chose. Another task might involve kissing a woman through the back of her chair.

A woman might have to choose a partner for a quadrille but then have to perform that dance blindfolded. If the game was played at Christmas, she might have to spell a word in the center of the room, then quickly get back to her seat before a man caught her under the mistletoe.

There was also a “rabbit kiss” forfeit. In this penalty, a man and woman had to nibble on a piece of cotton until a kiss ensued. Or a woman might have to kiss the man she loves best without revealing who it was. And the only surefire way to do that, without revealing his identity, was to kiss every man.

Funny as they may seem, for some Victorians these were more than games—and sometimes, they could lead to a proposal.

All images from iStock unless otherwise noted.