Playing with History

“Suffragetto,” Sargeant Bros. (1917) (all images courtesy Ballam Collection, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University)

In the 1917 board game “Suffragetto,” two players compete as either police or suffragettes to defend their political bases — the House of Commons or Royal Albert Hall, which suffragettes rented out around 30 times between 1908 and 1913 to rally for women’s votes. The strategy competition is one of nearly 1,500 vintage games recently donated by collector Richard Ballam to the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University.

“Suffragetto,” Sargeant Bros. (1917) (click to enlarge)

“Suffragetto” is among 22 examples from this acquisition highlighted in Playing with History, a display of Victorian and Edwardian board games at Oxford’s Weston Library. Dr. Chris Fletcher, keeper of special collections at the Bodleian Libraries, told Hyperallergic that the game “as far as we know, is the only surviving copy still in existence today.” He adds that it’s “a fascinating game to have in the collection, not just for its rarity, but the questions it poses on who would play it and what it says about British society in 1917.”

Likewise, all the games in Playing with History represent how gaming was used in Britain to interpret political and historic events, such as a 1917 version of Ludo in which four allies of World War I — Britain, Belgium, France, and Russia — race to Berlin while dodging submarines and zeppelin night attacks. There’s also “History of England,” from 1840, which includes round cards decorated with engravings showing the succession of royal leaders, and a glass-top puzzle made during the Second Boer War in 1900, featuring the face of South African Boer leader Paul Kruger. Players have to jostle the case to fit drawn teeth back onto his mouth.

Berlin Ludo (original title unknown) (1917). Similar to Ludo, but four allies (Britain, Belgium, France, and Russia) compete to reach Berlin. (Petrograd was the name for St. Petersburg from 1914 to 1924.) The illustrations on the board represent the perils and weaponry of war.

“History of England” (Kendall, possibly Birmingham, 1840)

“Oom Paul” puzzle (Germany, manufacturer unknown, 1900), glass-top puzzle. The South African Boer leader, Paul Kruger, was known as Uncle Oom Paul. This puzzle was patented in Germany for the British market during the Second Boer War. The aim was simply to get the teeth into the holes in Kruger’s mouth.

“The games in the Richard Ballam collection range from 18th-century examples of jigsaw puzzles, right through to 20th-century games on Star Wars, all of which tell us something about childhood and families, and the way play is used to educate and engage players in the world around them,” Fletcher explained.

The games also reflect printing and mass-produced art trends, such as the 1860 game “Historical Tetotums,” which based on historic rulers and features hand-colored lithographic cards and letterpress accounts of the leaders’ reigns. For the 1857 “The Tar of All Weathers,” a vibrant lithograph of a map of British Colonies trading routes unfolds. More than just diversions, games have long addressed contemporary and historical issues through play.

“Arrang’d in bricks: The Kings & Queens of England with historical references” (British, maker unknown, 1840). The 36 blocks are numbered chronologically, representing British monarchs from William I to Queen Victoria.

“Historical tetotums,” attributed to J.R. Barfoot (1860). In this game, letterpress descriptions of each ruler are separate from the portrait cards. Descriptions show the date of and age at accession, a single epithet relating to character, and one or two events of each reign.

“Russia v. Turkey,” J.A. Reeves (Dartford, Kent, 1853-6), a game inspired by the Crimean War in which players are divided into Russians and Turks and, by spinning a “totum,” advance towards the enemy, aiming to take possession of their fortifications.

“The Game of British Empire or Trading with the Colonies,” Roberts “Glevum” series (1925). In this game, players simulated delivery of cargo from London (cutlery, carpets, ironware, cotton and woolen goods, machinery, salt, earthenware, fancy goods, and jewellery), using trade routes, and the picking up of colonial goods for shipment (copper from Tasmania, pepper from Borneo, honey from Malta, pearls from New Guinea, etc.).

“Krom,” T. J. Edwards (1916). This is a complex strategy game, the aim of which is to capture the opponent’s capital or capture all their fortress pieces.

“The Game of British Empire or Trading with the Colonies,” Roberts “Glevum” series (1925). In this game, players simulated delivery of cargo from London (cutlery, carpets, ironware, cotton and woolen goods, machinery, salt, earthenware, fancy goods, and jewellery), using trade routes, and the picking up of colonial goods for shipment (copper from Tasmania, pepper from Borneo, honey from Malta, pearls from New Guinea, etc.).

“The Tar of All Weathers; or, The British Colonies. A geographical game,” London, E. and M.A. Ogilvy (publishers), Samuel Straker (printer and lithographer). Board signed J.R. Barfoot (1857)

“The Tar of All Weathers; or, The British Colonies. A geographical game,” London, E. and M.A. Ogilvy (publishers), Samuel Straker (printer and lithographer). Board signed J.R. Barfoot (1857)

“British v. Germans, or Defence” (British, manufacturer unknown, 1916), a dice game of naval warfare in the North Sea and the English Channel, with hazards (submarines, mines and fog) marked on the board.

Playing with History continues at Weston Library (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Broad Street, Oxford, England) through March 6.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “Playing at Women’s Liberation, World War I, and Colonialism in Vintage Board Games”

  1. I love the idea of Playing with History, i.e creating a display of Victorian and Edwardian board games. The Bodleian has found a new group of objects that tell a version of history not necessarily found in army records or newspaper articles.

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