I Spy: Toys & Games from the 18th to the 20th Centuries

Toys Board (27)cropped darker shadows

Editor’s Note: The toys and games shown in this I Spy photo, which include artifacts recovered by our archaeologists, are now on display in the Visitor Center at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  On your next visit, be sure to see if you can find all the toy and game artifacts on our I Spy list!  In the meantime, read further to learn a bit about how children played in the past and see if you can find the artifacts in the photo listed at the end.

Children in the 1600s and early 1700s were thought of and treated like miniature adults, but in the 1800s, children were regarded as distinct from adults.  They were thought to need a special time to grow and learn and were seen as innocent and unspoiled by the harshness of the adult world.  “Play” was designed to teach boys and girls about specific gender roles they would later adopt in adult society.

Porcelain Doll Parts and Tea Set:

Girls have always been encouraged to play with dolls and tea sets.  The forms and materials have changed over time, but these miniature toys have always been used to introduce little girls to adult tasks and responsibilities. “Baby” dolls (that looked like babies) were not produced until after 1850.

Marbles:

Marbles are the most common toys found in North American historical archaeological sites. 18th century marbles were clay, and could range from gray to brown in color depending on impurities in the clay used. Glass marbles were manufactured, primarily in Germany, beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Dice:

Several different games were played with dice in the 18th century as well as today. Instead of plastic, 18th-century dice were made of bone, ivory, or – like ours pictured here- wood.

Other Games:

The 20th century saw a massive increase in the number of toys produced as costs came down and as children became a focus of marketing campaigns. Board games were, and still are, a large part of the toy world. While “Checkers” has been around since 3000 BC, “Mousetrap” has not, but both are now produced with plastic.

Can you find these artifacts in the photo above?

  • 4 monkeys escaped from a barrel
  • 9 porcelain doll parts
  • 13 marbles- 12 clay and 1 glass
  • An airplane
  • 8 “Hi-Ho Cherry-O” cherries
  • 2 and ½ checkers
  • A broken 3-piece tea set
  • A “Sorry” piece
  • A jeep
  • A broken die made of wood
  • A yellow toy car hood
  • A metal dagger
  • A mouse that is not yet trapped
  • A rider-less motorcycle

*Bonus- A lost monkey arm

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Digging Up a Card Table

Tantalizing evidence of historic furniture use exists within the soils of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and that evidence gives us a more complete view of how the Washington family lived in the 1700s. The hundreds of items archaeologists and students have uncovered represent the remains of furniture broken or embellishments lost. The ruthless outdoor elements leave scant vestiges of furniture’s former glory. Wood disintegrates into soil, so these relics typically include only iron and brass hardware, such as drawer pulls, casters, bolts, keyhole escutcheons, or hinges. Over half of the hardware found consists of brass tacks.  Such brass studs were often used in furniture upholstery, but were also popular for saddles, trunks, even antique wig stands: anytime a leather covering was added to a wooden frame or base.

One particularly interesting brass hinge was unearthed in 2007 and boasts an exciting past. This hinge, part of a folding card table, was a crucial element in the popular Virginia domestic pastime of playing games such as backgammon, chess, and cards. Card tables provided a luxurious accessory for popular social entertaining and were part of a well-appointed home.  Providing guests with such pleasant amusements reflected well upon the Washington family.

card-table-hinge

18th century card table hinge excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Archaeological investigations sponsored by The George Washington Foundation have uncovered evidence that demonstrates that the Washingtons’ mid-1700s home was filled with fashionable accessories to enhance social bonding.  These tools included tea wares, stemmed drinking glasses, glass decanters, fashionable dining utensils, and smoking pipes. The recovery of a card table hinge provides another element of their well-equipped home.

cardtable-hinge-on-table

Gentleman often played card games together, but occasionally women joined the amusement as well (Porter and Porter 1782:466-467). Playing cards allowed ladies and gentlemen a refined form of amusement in a convivial atmosphere, without raising critical eyebrows from discerning social commentators in Virginia.  These games were occasions in which mixed company – men and women – could enjoy companionship and pass the time in a genial way. It was one of the few entertainments in which men and women could directly compete (Sturtz 1996:169-171). Lucy Byrd’s acumen prompted her husband William to cheat on at least one occasion (Sturtz 1996:172-173, 175-176).

Such benign competition also allowed players to showcase their skills. William Byrd II thought that such games provided an effective antidote to “disagreeable” company, as it allowed the time spent with tiresome guests to pass quickly (Sturtz 1996:175). Tea or stronger beverages might lubricate such gatherings, which enhanced social bonds.

hogarths-wanstead-house

Card playing (group at card table in painting’s center) and tea drinking (group at table at painting’s right) provided elegant entertainment as depicted in The Assembly at Wanstead House (1728-31) by William Hogarth. Public domain. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikipedia

If card games included a little wager, they were all the more thrilling.  Self-assured gambling and an indifference to losing money demonstrated a gentleman’s independence from monetary anxiety (Isaac 1974:352; Koda and Bolton 2006:100; Sturtz 1996:166). Such competitive confidence went a long way towards refuting any rumors of financial stress from which a gentleman might be suffering in the community.

In the years leading to the American Revolution, these occasions were increasingly viewed as a source of social disorder (Isaac 1974:358-359), but such amusements remained popular social events in Virginia.

Cards were a popular Virginia pastime and specific furniture such as folding card tables existed as luxurious accessories to support this pasttime (Isaac 1974:352). Hospitality was an important part of these occasions (Isaac 1974:352) and the folding card table made the game and the hospitality possible.  Applying knowledge of the past to particular objects like a card table hinge excavated at Ferry Farm gives us a more complete picture of the lives led by the Washington family here in the 18th century.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

References Cited

Porter, James and William Porter
1782 Letters Addressed to Two Young Married Ladies, on the Most Interesting Subjects. The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature.  British Periodicals.  Printed for J. Dodsley, London.

Goodison, Nicholas
1975 The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Collection of Metal-Work Pattern Books.  Furniture History 11:1-30.

Issac, Rhys
1974  Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765-1775. The William and Mary Quarterly 31(3):345-368.

Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton
2006  Dangerous Liaisons:  Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Fredericksburg’s June Fair

Ask someone to list traditional summertime activities and they will probably mention picnics, family reunions, beach vacations, mountain getaways, and baseball games. Their list is likely to include going to the fair as well.  The fair as a summer pastime is a long tradition and like many American traditions can be traced back to the age of Washington.

In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his wife Mary and their five children, including six-year-old George, to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Coincidentally, in the same year, the colony’s General Assembly authorized two fairs to be held each year in Fredericksburg (pg. 35). This act built on an earlier ordinance passed in 1705 allowing for ‘markets and fairs’ as a necessary and civilizing element of early Virginian society.

Although other cities held fairs, Fredericksburg was one of the few that held a fair in June.  Sometimes called June Fair, it was one of the oldest and largest in the colony.  June Fair and other fairs were “first and foremost a market ‘for the sale and vending of all manner of cattle, victuals, provisions, goods, wares, and merchandizes.’ Prizes, ‘or bounties,’ were sometimes offered for the best stock and poultry” (pg. 18).

Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Covent Garden, ca. 1726, Oil on copper. Pubic domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Although this painting depicts a busy London agricultural market in the early 1700s, a similar hustle and bustle likely filled Fredericksburg during June Fair.  Covent Garden (1726) by Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Oil on copper. Pubic domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Fairs were about more than agriculture, however. The importance of a summer fair was its ability to gather people from all over the surrounding counties to a single central location to conduct business and government and to offer social interactions and entertainments.  In an agricultural colony such as Virginia, homes and plantations were very distant from one another and, for much of the year, people hardly saw anyone besides their immediate neighbors and family members.  Most colonial Virginians traveled no more than fifty miles from home in their lifetimes. This made for an isolated existence focused on the constant attendance of crops. During natural seasonal breaks, however, farmers traveled to a town to sell those crops at the fair.

Fairs were not just for farmers to sell. Court sessions, also known as ‘Public Times’, often coincided with fairs. Soon merchants and entertainers saw opportunity in the large numbers of people gathered together at the fair. Many people got paid or, more likely, an increase in credit and ready money made the fair a natural time to celebrate, entertain, gamble, and socialize.

Among the amusements common to colonial-era fairs,

“contests for prizes . . . in cudgeling, wrestling, manual-exercises, foot-racing, dancing, singing, violin-playing, greased-pig-chasing, etc. Prizes were offered to the most beautiful maid.  In towns large enough to warrant their attention, companies of actors sometimes arranged to give plays during fairs. Such plays, however, were held at the local play-house or theatre, and not on the market-square, where the fair usually took place” (pg. 19).

For example, in 1752, an acting troupe known as “THE Company of COMEDIANS, from the new Theatre at Williamsburg, propose[d] … to proceed to Fredericksburg, to play during the Continuance of June Fair.” The troupe hoped “That all Gentlemen and Ladies, who are Lovers of Theatrical Entertainments, will favour us with their Company.”

Company of Comedians - Va Gazette

Advertisement in The Virginia Gazette announcing the appearance of the Company of Comedians at June Fair in 1752.

The fair brought people together to conduct more than agricultural business.  Indeed, “the fair was also a place where men met to make and pay debts. Land, houses, storehouses, and personal property were offered for sale at fairs — privately and by public auction” (pg. 18).

During June Fair in 1751, 19-year-old George Washington auctioned off two of his lots in Fredericksburg.  His announcement of the sale in The Virginia Gazette offered the lots, “where Mr. Doncastle and Mr. Black lately kept Tavern, next June Fair, to the highest Bidder, for Cash or Bills. Eight Months Credit will be allow’d on giving Security, as usual” and was signed “George Washington.”

Washington Virginia Gazette Ad

Announcement placed in The Virginia Gazette by George Washington announcing his intention to auction off two lots of his land in Fredericksburg at June Fair in 1751.

A decade later at June Fair in 1760, George’s account ledger shows him paying Fielding Lewis £40.  Furthermore, just few days before paying his debt to brother-in-law Fielding, George also bought tickets to a ball and lost money on a horse race, both popular fair activities.

Indeed, “the most popular attractions of the fairs in Virginia and Maryland were the horse-races . . . held at race-tracks near the town. Purses were subscribed, and many gentlemen, who had no interest in the other activities, would attend the races” (pg. 19).

Gambling at the fair, mainly in the form of lotteries, even supported more noble pursuits.  At June Fair in 1769, a lottery was undertaken to raise £450 for building a new church and for purchasing an organ for that church.  The drawing was to take place on “the 7th day of JUNE next (being the first day of the Fredericksburg fair) at the town-house” and was supervised and supported by a host of the town’s luminaries including Charles Dick, Hugh Mercer, Charles Washington (George’s brother), George Weedon, and Fielding Lewis.

June Fair was a community event attended by Virginians from across the colony and brought George Washington back to his boyhood home on more than one occasion.  At the fair, Virginians sold farm goods and land, settled debts and tried court cases, enjoyed a play and gambled on the horses.  June Fair, much like today’s summer pastimes, was a moment in the year to enjoy the summer weather and the company of neighbors, friends, and family before returning to isolated plantations and farms and the unending work of plowing, planting, and harvest.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Video: How to Play Whist

Colonial Americans often played cards for leisure and enjoyment and one of the most popular card games of the period was Whist. In this video we show you how to play this game.

You can read a bit about the history of playing cards themselves here.