31 December 2008

Sports & Entertainment: Colonial Fun and Games

Carol A. Spradling

Force me onto a stair stepper and I'll spill family secrets faster than a mob snitch. I'm void of the endorphin gene and there is no worse punishment for me than exercise. Colonial Americans, on the other hand, considered a foot race highly anticipated entertainment. God love them. Luckily for anyone of the time who shared my genetic defect, walking, horseback riding, carriage and sleigh rides were also appropriate leisure activities. Ah, that's more my speed.

Other activities that drew a crowd were militia musters, court days, and public executions. Talk about being desperate for entertainment. To fill the lulls during these occasions, the townspeople would conduct side entertainment in the way of wrestling contests, horse races, and a rather interesting activity where participants would bludgeon each other with a stout stick. Thank goodness for the war. Apparently the Continental Congress felt it best to reserve energy for a more unified cause.

Away from the war effort, dancing became very popular. A dance master would travel the country, teaching the latest maneuvers. His repertories included minuets, reels, and jigs. However, not everyone preferred such physical amusement.

For the more even-toned, there were card games, board games, and billiards. Women enjoyed these games of skill and chance as well as the men. To encourage the sexes to mingle, and since females were not permitted in taverns, these games were played in private homes. Some card games of the period have evolved into modern games. Whist is commonly known as bridge and if you have ever sat with three other people and held thirty-two cards between you, you have probably played euchre. So did the Colonists.

We have all heard about the evils or cards and dice. My grandmother would not permit a card or dice game of any type into her home, no matter how innocent, because of the immorality associated with it. The Colonists were no different, and with good reason. Many card and dice games attracted unseemly characters and brought ridicule from Colonial society. Polite society did not play hazzard or put, a precursor to poker, this was left to the lower classes. Instead, refined citizens entertained themselves with cribbage, loo, and the royall. I suppose this is better than cockfights, boxing, and knife throws, which most men enjoyed. However, both sexes of all classes enjoyed gambling and drinking.

Printing literature was as time-consuming as every other chore. Broadsheets were a great source for current events, but chapbooks provided stories of shipwrecks, folk heroes, villains, and even boasted lurid plotlines. These cheap books with paper covers were very similar to genres found in local bookstores.

The mentioned activities were ideal for grownups, but children were technologically disadvantaged compared to their modern counterparts. While adults may have been forced to substitute chocolate or coffee for their tea, it brewed on in little girls' imaginations. Pretend tea parties ensured hours of fun along with tops, marbles, dolls, puzzles, balls, and Bilbo catchers.

Remove batteries and solar power from the quotient and we are no different than our ancestors. We tend to work hard and play harder. Only the toys are different.