In the days before electricity, evenings, particularly winter evenings which kept families indoors with poor lighting, proved challenging for entertainment. Cards were also popular, but often could only accommodate a small group at a time. To include larger groups at once, families turned to parlor games to while away the long evening hours.
Christmastide entertaining provided a perfect opportunity for a hostess and her guests to enjoy these sometimes raucous parlor games. Rachel Revel’s 1825 book, ‘Winter Evening Pastimes or The Merry Maker’s Companion’ offered guidelines for various amusements suitable for genteel company in the drawing room. Many of the games are somewhat familiar, though we often consider them children’s games rather than adult pastimes.
I must admit, after reading these and many others of the games included in this book, I was quite surprised at how close to the line of impropriety many of these games might be. Some games allow for the potential of physical touch that would earn censure in other contexts. Others allowed for the normal, strict social conventions to be bent or even ignored for the sake of the play. It is not difficult to imagine young people conspiring together to make these games work to their advantage in games of flirtation and matchmaking. I wonder how many hearts were won and lost in the mists of these popular pastimes.
Some games were active and benefited from large open spaces.
Buffy with the Stick
This version of Blind-man’s Buff is only fit for very large rooms or outdoor spaces.
The blindfolded player stands with a long wand in his hand. The rest of form a circle about the blindfolded player, join hands, and circle the blindfolded player once while singing.
The blindfolded player then extends the wand, and the person to whom it points must step out of the circle to hold the end in his hand. The player then grunts three times.
If the blindfolded player recognizes the voice and names the party correctly, the party guessed pays a fine, takes the wand, and the blindfold. The game continues.
If Buffy guesses wrong he pays a forfeit, and must continue blinded until he succeeds, or someone volunteers to take his place, in which case he shall pay a fine and then give up the wand to his successor.
A blindfolded player kneels and puts their head in another’s lap. The other players take turns tapping the blindfolded player who must guess who delivered the blow.
Others games opened the possibility for people to say things most shocking. I can easily imagine a group of young ladies or young men conspiring together to cause their friends to say very surprising things in the course of this game.
Players are seated in a circle. The first player asks his right-hand neighbor a question, for example, ” What is the use of a cat?”
The person might answers, ” To kill the rat, that ate the malt, that lay in the house that Jack built,” or some other similar and somewhat ridiculous response. The player who answered then turns to their neighbor and asks their own question, such as ” What is the use of a looking-glass?” to which the answer might be “To reflect our perfect likeness.”
The play continues around the circle with each player recalling the question they have asked and the answer they were given for the question they asked. At the end each player will recite both of these. In this case, they would say “The question asked of me was what is the use of a cat, and the answer is of course to reflect our perfect likeness.” If any player cannot recite their question and answer correctly, they must pay a forfeit.
Other word games offer the opportunity to ask questions of someone of the opposite sex that might not be otherwise asked. Humor might easily have been used as a front for more serious designs.
The players are seated in a circle, with a lady and gentleman alternately. A lady commences the game by asking her right-hand neighbor a question, to which he replies with a single syllable words. Longer words will exact a penalty, one for each additional syllable. He then turns to the next lady with a question to be answered with a single syllable.
The questions may be mundane as in: Pray, Sir, permit me to ask if you love dancing? Or unique as in: Pray, Madam, what wood do you think the best for making thumb-screws? The challenge comes in that neither question NOR answer may be repeated. Any player who repeats a question or answer incurs a forfeit.
Another game, the aviary, provided even greater latitude, allowing the players to confide a secret to another, openly and in public.
The birdman then instructs: Ladies and gentlemen, my aviary is complete, and I will thank you now to inform me to which of these you give the preference, or which are objects of your dislike. The birdman then asks each player three questions: To which of my birds you will give your heart? To which you will confide your secret? From which will you pluck a feather?
The player will answer for example: I give my heart to the goldfinch ; my secret to the parrot; and pluck a feather from the crow. The birdman notes down these answers. Should the player select a bird not on the list, he must pay a forfeit and select another until the answers are complete. Once all the players have responded the birdman reveals the identity of each bird. Then each player kneels to the bird to whom he has given his heart; discloses something in confidence to the bird chosen for the secret; and the person from whom a feather was plucked pays a forfeit.
The party places chairs as far from each other as possible as the room allows, arranging them in a rough circle with one chair less than the number of players.
One player stands in the center. When he calls ‘Move all’, every person must rise and change his seat. Players must scramble for seats and the one left without must pay a forfeit.
Though a forfeit could take many forms, it was often an excuse for a kiss.