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7 Old-Fashioned, Brutal Games For Boys

Recess and playtime these days is tame compared to what kids got up to over a century ago. You can bet that boys playing these brutish games—which came from the pages of Games and Sports for Young Boys (1859) and Thomas Sheppard Meek's Young People's Library of Entertainment and Amusement (1903)—probably suffered skinned knees and worse. You won't want to try any of these at home.

1. JINGLING

The first key element in this game was a pen—either one made with twine and stakes or the kind used for livestock. The second was The Jingler. This boy with a bell tied around his neck would have his hands bound behind him, and his object was to avoid capture by other, blindfolded boys careening around the pen. A clever and nimble Jingler could manipulate and mislead the other boys into smashing into each other and the pen walls (or trip wires, if they went the DIY pen route) and might even incite a brawl between two boys who each mistakenly thought they had caught the Jingler. The winner is the boy who takes the Jingler down. (There's no tag here—one boy literally takes the other down.) The Jingler himself wins if he eludes his blind hunters for the requisite amount of time.

2. SLING THE MONKEY

Billed by Meek as one of several "healthful outdoor games to develop the body," Sling the Monkey involved turning a boy into a human piñata—albeit one that could hit back. The boy was tied to a sturdy tree branch with a rope around his waist, his feet just touching the ground. Once he was in place, his friends, armed with knotted handkerchiefs, would begin “basting” (joyously beating) the Sling Monkey. "With players who don't mind a little buffeting this game becomes exceeding lively," Meek wrote. "[A]n active monkey is very difficult to approach with safety and, of course, gives much more life to the game." If the Sling Monkey, who was also armed with a knotted cloth, managed to smack any one of them in return, he was let down from the tree. With the motivating sting of his wounded flesh and pride, he would then galvanize the tiny mob to return to beating the child who had taken his place.

3. AERIAL ARCHERY

Kids who played this game first had to obtain, or make, a bow and arrow or crossbow. (This wasn't difficult: Nearly all books written on children’s crafts before 1950 gave detailed instructions on how to make homemade projectile weapons.) Next, the kids erected a 90-foot-tall pole crossed with Christmas-tree style beams at the very top. Into these beams were “deftly stuck” feathers. The goal was to knock the feathers off by standing under them and shooting arrows at them—not a simple task. The arrows, according to Meek, should not "[terminate] in a point in the ordinary manner" but instead "have at the end a piece of horn shaped like a bullet"; he recommended that the person in the position of arrow-gatherer be given “an immense wicker hat” that would protect him from the rain of arrows coming down on his person.

4. THE NEW CUDGEL GAME

According to Meek, this game—which involved boys trying to smash each other in the head—"is causing a great deal of amusement at social gatherings in Europe." Here's how it worked: Two boys were blindfolded and "in the right hand of each [was] placed a stout roll of paper in the form of a club or cudgel." Next, they laid on the ground and clasped left hands. One player would call, “Are you there?” When the other answered, “Yes,” the first boy struck out in the direction of the sound with his club, aiming "to hit the spot where, from the sound of the voice, he supposes the other's head to be." But since the one to be clubbed is allowed to move his head, “nine times out of ten” his opponent only succeeded in hitting his shoulders, neck, arms, and chest.

5. DRAWING THE OVEN

In centuries past, to “draw an oven” was to pull its contents out, whether it be bread or pottery. In this game, the bread was very stubborn and fought back. Basically, it was a game of tug-of-war where the rope was not a rope but a series of human boys. A line of boys sat on the ground, each boy clasping his arms around the waist of the boy in front of him. When it was time to play, two other boys grabbed the arms of the first boy and, according to Games and Sport for Young Boys, "[pulled] away vigorously." The boys on the ground, meanwhile, countered by pulling backward on the front boy’s waist.

Once the front boy was disengaged from his line, the two yankers proceeded to the next little loaf "and so continuing 'drawing the oven' until they have drawn all the players from the ground." There aren't really winners and losers in this game; apparently it was enough fun to keep pulling boys like so much taffy until enough bruises were distributed.

6. JUMP LITTLE NAG TAIL

This game was composed to two evenly matched teams of either six or eight players. The team that lost the toss lined up, with the first boy facing a wall with his hands on it; each of his teammates then bent and rested his head on the rump in front of him, clinging to what the 1859 text described as the previous boy’s “skirts.” "When thus arranged," the text noted, "they are called 'nags.'"

Once the nags were in place, the teams began a harsh version of the game of leap frog. The best jumper of the opposing team ran at the nags, yelling "Warning!" and leaping as far as possible on the back of a boy—hopefully, the one closets to the boy with this hands on the wall. His whole team followed until they were all astride the backs of the nags.

The goal was to break the boy under you, fairly literally: If any boy could keep from crumpling under the weight of the jumper sitting on him for the time it took to chant, “Jump little nag tail one two three” three times followed by “Off off off!” the nag team lost and had to start again. If the jumpers fell off, however, or if there were not enough nag backs for them to sit on, then they became the nags.

7. BASTE THE BEAR

The cruel practice of bear baiting got a strange twist in this game, which replaced the bear with a child. According to Games and Sport for Young Boys, "[The bear] kneels on the ground in a circle ... Each Bear may select his own master, whose office it is to hold him by a rope, and use his utmost efforts to touch one of the other players, as they try to thrash the Bear." Instead of unleashing dogs on the “bear,” he is simply beaten with knotted handkerchiefs that are twisted "very tightly." The Master must tag one of the bear beaters without letting go of the Bear’s rope or stepping out of the circle. If he succeeds, the tagged boy becomes the bear, and the young men continue their healthy outlet for pent up frustration.

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Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
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History
10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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holidays
23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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