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Parlour Games

Parlour games were a common way of passing an evening with friends and relatives. They might be mentally stimulating, physically assertive or even somewhat messy (like snapdragon or bullet pudding!) The Austen family is known to have enjoyed many types of mental games, which required memorization, or rhymes on the fly.

Book such as Winter evening pastimes; or, The merry-maker’s companion, by Rachel Revel (1825) offered stimulating and sometimes even daring diversions from the staid entertainments of reading, writing, music and card playing,  featured at the Netherfield Park house party.

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An engraving by Bosio, attributed to Le Bon Genre, 1816

This illustration would seem to depict “The Bridge of Sighs” or possibly “The Beast of Burden”, as described in Winter evening pastimes; or, The merry-maker’s companion. Continue reading Parlour Games

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Spillikins

Jane Austen was a very hands-on aunt, with numerous games and activities in her repertoire. Her nieces and nephews recall with fondness the many games, from paper ships to Battledore and Shuttlecock, that she would play with them by the hour. One activity, Spillikins, was remembered with fondness, by Jane, herself:

“Our little visitor has just left us, & left us highly pleased with her;-she is a nice, natural, openhearted, affectionate girl, with all the ready civility which one sees in the best Children of the present day; -so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment & shame.-Half her time here was spent at Spillikins; which I consider as a very valuable part of our Household furniture, & as not the least important Benefaction- from the family of Knight to that of Austen.”
Jane Austen to Cassandra
February 8, 1807

In her letter, Jane Austen refers to her personal set as “a very valuable part of our household furniture.” The “Austen Spillikins”, along with other artifacts of Jane’s daily life can be found on display at the museum in Lyme. Ivory fish, like those Lydia gambles with in Pride and Prejudice, and letter blocks, similar to those used in Emma can also be found in the display. It is clear the Austens were serious about their fun and games.

Jane Austen's Spillikins can be seen in the upper right hand corner.
Jane Austen’s Spillikins can be seen in the upper right hand corner. Photo by Jane Odiwe of the  Jane Austen Sequels Blog.

So just what was this engrossing game? Spillikins is played the same way that early versions of Jack Straw and the American “pick up sticks” are. The difference comes withe the playing pieces. Jack Straws were originally played with uniform pieces of straw (though now  wooden or plastic farming tools are generally used.) Pick up sticks are made of wood or plastic, of uniform length, sometimes with knobs on the ends. Spillikins, were crafted from wood or ivory and could be blunted or rounded depending on the set.

When playing with sticks of uniform size and shape, like those that belonged to Austen, the rules are, as follows: Continue reading Spillikins

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Lawn Bowls

Bowls or lawn bowls is a sport in which the objective is to roll biased balls so that they stop close to a smaller ball called a “jack” or “kitty”.

The game has been traced certainly to the 13th century. A manuscript of that period in the royal library, Windsor (No. 20, E iv.), contains a drawing representing two players aiming at a small cone instead of an earthenware ball or jack. The world’s oldest surviving bowling green is the Southampton Old Bowling Green, which was first used in 1299

The game eventually came under the ban of king and parliament, both fearing it might jeopardize the practice of archery, then so important in battle. Statutes forbidding it and other sports were enacted in the reigns of Edward III, Richard II and other monarchs. Even when, on the invention of gunpowder and firearms, the bow had fallen into disuse as a weapon of war, the prohibition was continued. The discredit attaching to bowling alleys, first established in London in 1455, probably encouraged subsequent repressive legislation, for many of the alleys were connected with taverns frequented by the dissolute and gamesters. The word “bowls” occurs for the first time in the statute of 1511 in which Henry VIII confirmed previous enactments against unlawful games. By a further act of 1541—which was not repealed until 1845—artificers, labourers, apprentices, servants and the like were forbidden to play bowls at any time except Christmas, and then only in their master’s house and presence. It was further enjoined that any one playing bowls outside his own garden or orchard was liable to a penalty of 6s. 8d., while those possessed of lands of the yearly value of £100 might obtain licences to play on their own private greens. Continue reading Lawn Bowls

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Battledore and Shuttlecock

Battledore and shuttlecock or jeu de volant is an early game similar to that of modern badminton.

This game is played by two people, with small rackets, called battledores, made of parchment or rows of gut stretched across wooden frames, and shuttlecocks, made of a base of some light material, like cork, with trimmed feathers fixed round the top.

Georgian girl with Battledore and Shuttlecock by  Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779)
Georgian girl with Battledore and Shuttlecock by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779)

The object of the players is to bat the shuttlecock from one to the other as many times as possible without allowing it to fall to the ground.

From Mrs. Hurst Dancing, by Diana Sperling
From Mrs. Hurst Dancing, by Diana Sperling

Jane Austen, herself, played the game with her nephews. In 1808, she wrote to Cassandra

Yesterday was a very quiet day with us; my noisiest efforts were writing to Frank, and playing at battledore and shuttlecock with William; he and I have practised together two mornings, and improve a little; we have frequently kept it up three times, and once or twice six.

Games with a shuttlecock are believed to have originated in ancient Greece about 2,000 years ago. From there they spread via the Indo-Greek kingdoms to India and then further east to China and Siam. Continue reading Battledore and Shuttlecock

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Bilbocatch: Old Fashioned Ball and Cup Fun

We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed; and we mean to avail ourselves of our kind papa’s consideration, by not returning to Winchester till quite the evening of Wednesday.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
October 29, 1809

This Bilbocatch, which belonged to Jane Austen, is on display at Chawton Cottage.
This Bilbocatch, which belonged to Jane Austen, is on display at Chawton Cottage.

Jane Austen loved spending time with her many nieces and nephews. At the time this letter was written, two of Edward’s sons were staying with her in Southampton after the death of their mother. Riddles, paper ships and cards are easy enough to decipher, but what was the “Bilbocatch” game that Jane Austen referred to?

Bilbocatch, from "The Girl's Own Book" by Lydia Marie Child (1838)
Bilbocatch, from “The Girl’s Own Book” by Lydia Marie Child (1838)

Commonly known as Cup-And-Ball, Bilbocatch refers to “a traditional childs toy. It is a wooden cup with a handle, and a small ball attached to the cup by a string. It is popular in Spanish-speaking countries, where it is called “boliche”. The name varies across many countries — in El Salvador and Guatemala it is called “capirucho”; in Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico it is called “balero”; in Spain it is “boliche”; in Brazil it is called “bilboquê”; in Chile it is “emboque”; in Colombia it is called “coca” or “ticayo”; and in Venezuela the game is called “perinola”.A variant game, Kendama, known in England as Ring and Pin, is very popular in Japan.
Continue reading Bilbocatch: Old Fashioned Ball and Cup Fun

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The Game of Graces

When I had reached my eighteenth Year, I was recalled by my Parents to my paternal roof in Wales. Our mansion was situated in one of the most romantic parts of the Vale of Uske. Tho’ my Charms are now considerably softened and somewhat impaired by the Misfortunes I have undergone, I was once beautiful. But lovely as I was, the Graces of my Person were the least of my Perfections. Of every accomplishment accustomary to my sex, I was Mistress. When in the Convent, my progress had always exceeded my instructions, my Acquirements had been wonderfull for my age, and I had shortly surpassed my Masters.
Love and Freindship
Jane Austen

The Game of Graces was a popular activity for young girls during the early 1800s. The game was invented in France during the first quarter of the 19th century and called there le jeu des Graces. The Game of Graces was considered a proper game benefiting young ladies and, supposedly, tailored to make them more graceful. Graces was hardly ever played by boys, and never played by two boys at the same time, either two girls, or a boy and a girl.

In 1838, Lydia Marie Child (American abolitionist, women’s rights activist and author of such works as Hobomok and A Boy’s Thanksgiving, which begins, “Over the River and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go…”) published The Girl’s Own Book, a volume full of entertainments for girls of all ages.  In it, she describes the game of Graces, thus:

This is a new game, common in Germany, but introduced to this country from France. It derives its name from the graceful attitudes which it occasions. Two sticks are held in the hands, across each other, like open scissors: the object is to throw and catch a small hoop upon these sticks. The hoop to be bound with silk, or ribbon, according to fancy.

The game is played by two persons. The sticks are held straight, about four inches apart, when trying to catch the hoop; and when the hoop is thrown, they are crossed like a pair of scissors. In this country it is called The Graces or The Flying Circle.
Continue reading The Game of Graces

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Instructions for Commerce

Catherine was disturbed and out of spirits; but Isabella seemed to find a pool of commerce, in the fate of which she shared, by private partnership with Morland, a very good equivalent for the quiet and country air of an inn at Clifton.   Northanger Abbey How to Play Commerce Card parties were a common way to while away an evening. Whether as a small group in a private home, or as an alternative to dancing at an assembly or ball, they were an acceptable pastime for anyone in any staion. For more information on card parties, visit The Georgian Index. Deck: 52 card deck with Aces high Players: 3 to 12 Object: To finish with the best hand Highest: 3 of a kind, called a Tricon  Next: 3 Cards of a suit and sequence  Last: The greatest pip-value of 2 or 3 cards of the same suit, counting Acesa s 11, Court Cards as 10 and others at numerical value. If equal, a 3 card flush beats a 2 card one. If still equal, the tied player nearest in turn after the dealer wins. Preliminaries: Each player contributes to the pot. The dealer deals 3 cards to each player. Play: The player to the left of the dealer bids to buy or trade. To buy, she gives a chip to the dealer for a card from the deck and discards a card which is placed at the bottom of the deck. To trade, she offers to pass a card (more…)
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How win at Speculation

In the evening it was found, according to the predetermination of Mrs Grant and her sister, that after making up the whist-table there would remain sufficient for a round game, and everybody being as perfectly complying and without a choice as on such occasions they always are, speculation was decided on almost as soon as whist; and Lady Bertram soon found herself in the critical situation of being applied to for her own choice between the games, and being required either to draw a card for whist or not.   Mansfield Park How to Play Speculation Deck: 52 card deck with Aces high Players: 2 to 9 Object: To be the holder of the highest trump at the end of a round. Preliminaries:Each player contributes to the pot. The dealer deals three cards to each player, face down. She turns up the next card in the deck to determine trump. Play: If the trump card is an Ace, the dealer takes the pot. If the trump card is a King, Queen or Jack, the dealer offers it for sale to the highest bidder. Players may check their cards to decide whether they wish to bid. The dealer may choose whether she wishes to accept the bid. If she does, the payment is made and the card passed to the buyer. All cards are now turned face up, and the holder of the highest trump takes the pot. If the faced up trump is a card with a number, the card (more…)