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” 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.
“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.
The International Council of Museums will vote on a new definition of museums in September. The proposed change includes language about “social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Critics say the text is too political for most museums to employ.