Turn of the century games and toys


by Jennifer Marek

The October 1994 issue of Tales Out of School described the technique of living history, along with programs available in Kansas and sample activities for the classroom. This issue outlines classroom activities that can be used to supplement subject matter and are easily done with little preparation. The first part includes games that were played approximately between the years 1890 and 1920. The second part includes toys common to the same years. Much of the information in this Tales Out Of School comes from Education by Plays and Games by George Ellsworth Johnson, published in 1907.


Come with me, Bird, Beast, or Fish, Spin the Platter, Hull Gull, My Grandmother Doesn't Like T, Winkum, Cupid's Coming

You can introduce your students to this activity by asking such questions as--

What games do you play? What games do you think your grandparents or great-grandparents played when they were children?

Many games that were played between 1890 and 1920 are still being played today. They include tag, hopscotch, leapfrog, baseball, football, jump rope, and London Bridge. Other games would be slightly different or completely unknown. The games described here, like many other games of their time, require only items found at home.

"COME WITH ME"--This game is similar to several games that children play now. To start the game, everyone gets in a circle. One person will be "it" and will run around the circle. He/she will eventually touch someone on the back and say "Come with me!" They run in opposite directions around the circle. When they meet, they take hold of each others hands, swing once, and race for the vacant place. Whoever arrives there first remains in the place while the other continues the game.

"BIRD, BEAST, OR FISH"--This game requires a knotted handkerchief, slate, and chalk. Everyone is in a circle and sitting down. One person has the knotted handkerchief and will toss it to someone, saying "Bird!" or "Beast!" or "Fish!" That person has ten seconds to respond by naming a type of bird, beast, or fish--whichever one was said. A name can only be said once and will be written down on the slate. The person with the handkerchief then tosses it to someone else. This game could supplement a science unit dealing with animals, or the categories could be changed to fit other subject areas.

"MY GRANDFATHER'S GENERAL STORE"--Before playing this game you may have to explain the concept of a "general store," a small store that had almost anything in it--everything from food to fabric to tools. It could have been the only store nearly to get supplies. To play the game one person starts by saying "My grandfather owns a general store and in it he has _____." The mentioned item must begin with the letter "a." The next person repeats the phrase and adds something that begins with "b." The game continues through the alphabet until "z" names the entire list.

"SPIN THE PLATTER"--This game uses a tin pie pan. One person stands in the middle of a circle, spins the platter, and calls someone's name. That person must catch the platter before it falls. The catcher will continue the game by spinning the platter and calling another name. If he/she doesn't catch the platter, the platter will be spun again, and someone else's name called.

"HULL GULL"--The players are divided into small, even groups. Each person has 7 dried beans. One person starts the game by placing his hands behind his back and putting any number of beans in his/her right hand. Then he/she turns to the person on the right, puts out his/her right hand, and says "Hull gull, hands full, parcel, how many?" If the guess is correct, the person gets the beans in the right hand. If the guess is wrong, the second person makes up the difference by giving him the number of beans he missed. For example, he would have to give the person two beans if he had guessed three and there had really been five in the right hand. The second person then turns to the person on the right and continues. When time is called, the person who has the most beans wins. More beans may be used. This is an excellent game to practice math skills.

"MY GRANDMOTHER DOESN'T LIKE T"--In this game the first person says to the next, "My grandmother doesn't like t." He asks the first, "What does she like?" The first responds with a type of food or drink. The moderator knows what the Grandmother likes (nothing with the letter "T" in it) and answers yes or no. The players listen to what the words have in common and discover that she does not like any food or drinks with the letter "T" in it. Once they know the secret, they call still play the game by always naming food and drinks without the letter "T" in it. They may also change the letter. This game is a fun way to practice spelling.

"WINKUM"--Arrange four chairs in a square so that each one faces another. Have three girls sitting in three of the four chairs. One boy stands behind each of the chairs. The boy with an empty chair winks at one of the girls, who then attempts to go to the empty chair while the boy behind her tries to prevent her by placing his hands on her shoulders when she starts to move. "Winkum" is a parlor game and provided an excellent opportunity for boys and girls to flirt in an acceptable manner.

"CUPID'S COMING"--The players sit in a circle. One says, "Cupid's coming." The player next to him asks, "How is he coming?" The first replies, "He's _________ing." And so on around the circle each with a verb ending in "ing" such as running, skipping, etc. This game can be used when studying verbs in English. During the game if a player is unable to supply the correct answer, he/she may pay a "forfeit." A "forfeit" can include any type of challenge, such as hopping on one foot or solving a riddle ("Leave with two legs and return with six legs." They return carrying a chair).




Tin can stilts

Spool cannon

Children had plenty of work to do at the turn of the century, but they also found time to play. They played with dolls, paper airplanes, kites, and jump ropes. Unlike today, though, many children made their toys instead of buying them at the store. The toys included in this newsletter are easily made using materials found at home.

PUZZLES--The materials needed for a puzzle could be found in almost any household. To make a puzzle, choose a picture. Lightly glue it to a piece of cardboard. Cut any extra cardboard off. Wait until glue dries and then cut it into puzzle pieces, not too big and not too small.

DOLLS--To make a doll, one only had to search Mother's sewing bag for the needed supplies--scraps of cloth, scissors, and thread or string or yarn. A cloth doll is made from many sizes of scrap cloth. Select a rather large piece of cloth. Cut it into a square and put it wrong side up. Place a small handful of scraps in the center of this piece (shredded plastic bags or throwaway hosiery could be used today). This will be the head when the cloth is brought around the tiny scraps. Tie a piece of thread or yarn around the cloth at the bottom of the head to make the neck. Bring the opposite short sides of the cloth up so they stick straight out to the sides. Cut a slit on each side at the fold, ending just before the neck. Roll up a small piece of cloth and place it under the cloth in the slits. This becomes the arms. Tie a piece of thread under the arms around the cloth. That shows the waist. The rest of the cloth is the skirt. You can tie the wrists with string. The doll may become a boy by cutting the cloth on both layers up the center to the waist. The ankles are then tied with thread.

TIN CAN STILTS--These are made out of tin cans and rope. One end of the can is already cut out. Cut two holes in the closed end of the cans. Tie the ends of the rope together inside the can. Stand on the closed ends of the cans and grasp the loops of rope in your hands. Use both arm and leg muscles to move your feet.

A variation of the tin can stilts requires two quart-sized fruit juice cans and short pieces of string or twine. Two holes are punched in the closed end of each can, as far apart as the width of the walker's foot. The string is drawn through the two holes in the can, and is tied so that it is just long enough for the foot to be slipped in easily.

SPOOL CANNON--A spool cannon uses an empty wooden thread spool, rubber band, two large buttons, and two tacks. The rubber band is attached to the spool at the back of one side by placing one folded end on the spool, placing one button over it, and pushing a tack through the button hole and the rubber band, and into the spool. The same procedure is followed for the other side of the spool, the rubber band being stretched across the near end of the spool. Spool cannons were used when playing toy soldiers. Small sticks were fired at the enemy soldiers by placing the sticks in the spool "barrel" and pulling the rubber band back and letting it go.

Jennifer Marek compiled this information while she was a graduate student in history at Emporia State University.