Museum showcases board game exhibit

Posted: Thursday, June 06, 2002

NEW YORK -- It turns out the classic American board game Monopoly was not the first to have ''greed is good'' as its basic objective.

In 1883, Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall St. Game promised it would make players feel like ''speculators, bankers and brokers'' and featured cartoons of railroad barons Jay Gould and William Henry Vanderbilt.

One of only a few remaining examples of Bulls and Bears to survive today is on display at The New-York Historical Society in ''The Games We Played,'' an exhibit that examines how games entertained and influenced Americans from the Civil War through the early years of the 20th century.

Many of the games are also beautiful works of art, with bold designs and bright colors, featuring fanciful characters or outrageous cartoons, often based on nursery rhymes, fairy tales or stories plucked from the headlines.

The 150 games featured in ''The Games We Played'' span 1843 to 1920 and are culled from more than 550 donated two years ago to the museum by author and artist Ellen Liman. She and her late husband Arthur Liman -- the U.S. Senate's chief Iran-Contra counsel in 1987 -- started collecting the games in 1980 when she picked one up for $6 at a yard sale. The heyday of the American board game industry was the 1880s and 1890s, according to Margie Hofer, associate curator of decorative arts at the historical society.

As the United States grew in commercial power and shifted from predominantly rural to urban living after the Civil War, American families had more leisure time and more money to spend on recreation. At the same time, advancements were made in chromolithography, a color printing technique that allowed board games to be produced on a large scale cheaply, easily and beautifully.

Few of the games on display are terribly complex or innovative. Most rely on a player's luck in spinning an arrow, tossing dice or hooking a game piece.

Instead, the games are interesting for what they tell about the United States.

In the Mansion of Happiness game from 1864, winning is based on the Puritan view that success is achieved through Christian deeds and goodness. Players advance by landing on spaces denoting virtues like piety and humility, and move backward when landing on spaces like cruelty and ingratitude.

By the 1880s, many games had a rags-to-riches theme. In Game of the District Messenger Boy, players are rewarded for landing on spots with attributes like accuracy and neatness and deducted for loitering.

''I think the games really reflect the nation,'' Hofer said. ''Even though most of the games were produced in New York City -- it was the center of the board game industry -- there is just a lot of reflection of the nation's values and aspirations.''

The games also reflect the nation's dark side. One section of the exhibit is devoted to games that were acceptable by some when they first came out but are now offensive and racist, like Jim Crow Ten Pins, from about 1900, in which players knock down smiling minstrel figures, and The Game of Watermelon Patch (1896), featuring stereotypes of blacks stealing and eating melons.

Other sections focus on games that dealt with travel, sports, war and mysticism.

The Game of Playing Department Store (1898), shows what a novel concept it was for Americans to do all their shopping under one roof.

Round the World With Nellie Bly (1890), illustrates the Victorian era's fascination with travel and exploration, while Rival Policeman (1896) uses as its base the real-life story of a time when New York City had two competing police departments.

''The Games We Played'' is on exhibit at The New-York Historical Society through Jan. 3, 2003. Plans are in the works to take it to at least four other museums across the country, Hofer said.


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