Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Games for Civil War Soldiers at Christmas!

I have posted a few times in the past few years about my abiding interest in the connection between gamemaker Milton Bradley and the Civil War (see here, here, and here).

It is especially approporiate to talk about him at Christmas. Just as millions of Americans have grown up and played with Milton Bradley games such as BATTLESHIP (1931), CANDYLAND (1949), YAHTZEE (1956), OPERATION (1965), and TWISTER (1966), so too did soldiers and civilians during the Civil War years, and Milton Bradley specifically advertised to them during the holidays. Perhaps the most interesting story is that of the "Game of Life," which was first introduced in the early 1860s, reintroduced in the 1960s, and celebrated its 150th anniversary this year!

Below is the FULL TEXT and endnotes of my article on Milton Bradley and the Civil War that appeared in North & South magazine a couple of years ago. Enjoy!
Milton Bradley’s Board Games and the American Civil War
By James M. Schmidt
North & South Magazine - September 2008

"We are dying with monotony and ennui,” a Union soldier wrote of the timeless enemy of the fighting man: the boredom and inactivity of camp life. During World War I, Salvation Army “sisters” and Red Cross volunteers ministered to the needs of soldiers. Just before World War II, the Army established the “Morale Division” - later named “Special Services” – to meet the challenge. Today, soldiers benefit from a special Army unit called the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Command. During the Civil War, however, the average soldier was left to his own devices to entertain himself during the hours when he wasn’t drilling or on active campaign.(1)

Of the more sordid off-duty entertainment - which included poker or dice games such as “chuck-a-luck” – one soldier wrote home, “If there is any place on God’s fair earth where wickedness ‘stalketh abroad in daylight,’ it is in the army,” Still, others did spend their time more wisely and amused themselves by reading or playing chess or checkers. The source of many of these more “innocent” diversions was the same as it is for millions of American families today: game maker Milton Bradley.(2)

Born in Vienna, Maine, in 1836, Bradley’s family moved often, but finally settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1847. Bradley completed high school in Lowell in 1854, doing especially well in mathematics and drawing. At eighteen, he apprenticed himself to a draftsman and patent agent, and worked until he had saved enough money to attend the Lawrence Scientific School, where he studied engineering. Bradley attended the school for nearly two years before moving to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he secured a position as a draftsman in a local locomotive works. When his employer sold out to a railroad in 1858, Bradley opened his own enterprise as a draftsman and patent agent. His premier client was the Khedive of Egypt, who engaged Bradley to design and supervise the construction of a custom railcar.
In appreciation of Bradley’s hard work, the Khedive presented him with a handsome lithograph of the car. Inspired by the print, Bradley concluded to learn and enter the lithography trade. He spent several weeks learning the craft, bought a press, and started his own business in Springfield. Bradley’s inaugural print was a portrait of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln – then beardless - made after a photograph taken by Samuel Bowles, editor of Bradley’s hometown newspaper, the Springfield Republican. Unfortunately for Bradley, the future president took the advice of eleven-year old Grace Bedell, who wrote Lincoln that he “would look a great deal better” if only he would let his whiskers grow.(3)

Bradley, left with thousands of unsold prints of the now-bearded Lincoln, faced the prospect of having to close his business. To make matters worse, when the war began, Bradley’s printing press operator left to enlist. “When he left, he said he would come back with shoulder straps,” Bradley remembered years later, adding, “and so he did, but minus one arm.” Bradley – inspired by past generations who had taken up arms - even intended to volunteer himself. Captain A. B. Dyer, Superintendent of the Springfield Armory, persuaded the aspiring soldier that his talents would be better used as a draftsman at the armory than as a private in the ranks. Bradley complied, and did late night work at the arsenal as his part to assist in the national crisis.(4)

Meanwhile, at his own firm, Bradley used his idle press to print up copies of a game he invented, which he called “The Checkered Game of Life.” The game proved very popular, and Bradley sold 45,000 copies in the first year alone. Like most board games of the Victorian era, Bradley’s game was designed for both entertainment and education, and emphasized period morals. One newspaper stated that game was “intended to present to the minds of the young the various vices and virtues with which they will come in contact…and illustrate the effects of each, in a manner that will make a lasting impression.” (5)
The game was played on a board having the same number of squares as a checkerboard; the red squares were neutral and the white squares carried references to good (e.g., “truth” and “ambition”) and evil (e.g., “idleness” and “crime”). Players started at “Infancy” with the object of the game being the first player to reach “Happy Old Age” while avoiding “Ruin.” They moved colored wooden counters from one space to another, the number of moves governed by a teetotum, a six-sided top; dice were considered to be wicked and fit only for gamblers. “The principle of chance and science are so intimately united,” the newspaper’s report continued, “that any child who can read can play, and yet it is as capable of furnishing amusement to adults.” (6)

Bradley also sold “Games for Soldiers,” a set of nine “fireside” games that included backgammon, chess, checkers, dominoes, and “The Checkered Game of Life.” The set was billed in holiday wartime advertisements as “just the thing to send to the boys in camp or hospital for a Christmas present.” The games were put up in a small box weighing a few ounces and could be sent by mail, postpaid, to any address for just one dollar.(7)

Other games released during the war by Bradley’s firm – now styled Milton Bradley & Co. - included “Modern Hieroglyphics,” “Patriot Heroes,” and “What is It?” Bradley also sold a plaything called the “Contraband Gymnast,” which he described as the “most amusing toy ever invented.” Not restrained by modern sensibilities, Bradley also billed the toy as the “Comical Darkey.” Nor did he completely set aside making prints; in 1863, Bradley fashioned a handsome tobacco label for C.S. Allen & Co. featuring designs to appeal to patriotic sentiments. The label bore the likeness of two women personifying “Liberty” and Union,” both framed in an ornate oval surmounted by an eagle with a shield. (8)

Just as Bradley had capitalized on Abraham Lincoln’s popularity before the war, he took advantage of postwar patriotism by producing and selling his “Myriopticon.” This toy consisted of a painted scroll - “a Historical Panorama of the Rebellion” – that contained nearly two dozen scenes from the Civil War. The scroll, mounted on two rollers arranged inside a sturdy cardboard box, was turned by a key so that the panorama passed across a proscenium arch cut into the top of the box, which was decorated in red, white, and blue bunting and other patriotic embellishments.

The package included a poster to advertise the performance, admission tickets, and a stirring (and sometimes humorous) text to be read aloud by the child-showman. One satisfied customer wrote the company that his family had elected him “as head of the family to recite the lecture and turn the pictures, which I do every evening.” So popular was his performance that his neighbors would descend on the house for encores. The customer added that his brother “was at the War…and says it is just as your game represents it to be” and hoped that Bradley would sell many more so “as to make it less crowded in our parlor.” (9)
(Readers can enjoy an interactive “Myriopticon exhibit here)

Later in life, Bradley devoted his energies to promoting interest in kindergarten education in America. He retired from Milton Bradley & Co. in 1907, and died in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1911. The company he founded continued to dominate the country’s game market through the twentieth century. In 1959, Milton Bradley executives asked Reuben Klamer, a noted toy and game inventor, to come up with an appropriate game for the company’s centennial. Inspired by a copy of “The Checkered Game of Life” he found in the Milton Bradley archives, Klamer developed “The Game of Life,” which was introduced in 1960. Hasbro, Inc., acquired Milton Bradley & Co. in 1984, but kept the brand as it was beloved by generations, including soldiers and families in the Civil War.


(1) “We are dying…” in McPherson, J. M., For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 31.
(2) “If there is any place…” in Lathrop, D., History of the Fifty-ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteers (Indianapolis: Hall & Hutchinson, 1865), p. 126.

(3) “look a great deal better” in letter, Grace Bedell to Abraham Lincoln, October 18, 1860, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
(4) “When he left he said…” in Milton Bradley: A Successful Man (Springfield, MA: Milton Bradley Co., 1910), p. 12.

(5) Scientific American, September 10, 1864, p. 168.
(6) Ibid; also see U. S. Patent No. 53561, “Social Game.”

(7) Advertisement, Scientific American, December 10, 1864, p. 382.

(8) Advertisement, Scientific American, December 10, 1864, p. 382; “Contraband Gymnast” in advertisement, Scientific American, October 22, 1864, p. 271. Tobacco label in Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

(9) “in the parlor…”; “was the War…”; and “so as to make…” in Shea, J. J., It’s All in the Game (New York: Putnam’s 1960), pp. 81-82.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! Do they make reproductions of the original Life game?

Love your blog!