Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Civil War and the "Game of Life"

As I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, I have finished my manuscript for my forthcoming book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War. Right now, it's in the publisher's hands, and it will be a few more weeks before I have to revisit it.

That "lull" has given me some time to give some attention to some other short writing projects that have been sitting on the back burner. One of those projects is another "Civil War corporate history" article, the latest in a series I've penned for North & South magazine over the past few years. The latest piece is on the role that famed game and toy maker Milton Bradley played in the war.

I finished the article last week and sent it to the editors at N&S...it should appear in print in late 2008 or early 2009, but I'm happy to give some highlights of it here in the blog.

  • Milton Bradley was born in Maine, in 1836. His family settled in Massachusetts, where Bradley completed high school in 1854. At age 18, Bradley apprenticed himself to a draftsman and patent agent, and worked until he had saved enough money to take advanced classes in engineering.
  • Bradley then secured a position as a draftsman in a locomotive works. When his employer sold out in 1858, Bradley opened his own enterprise as a draftsman and patent agent. He became interested in the then-popular process of lithography and decided to enter the trade. He bought a press and started his own business in Springfield.
  • Bradley’s inaugural print was a portrait of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln – then beardless. Unfortunately for Bradley, the future president took the advice of eleven-year old Grace Bedell, who wrote Lincoln that he should let his whiskers grow.
  • Bradley - left with thousands of unsold prints of the now-bearded Lincoln – faced the prospect of having to close his business. Instead, he printed up copies of a game he invented called “The Checkered Game of Life.” The game proved very popular, and Bradley sold 45,000 copies in the first year alone.
  • During the Civil War, 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 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.
  • Bradley 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 was turned by a key so that the panorama passed across an arch cut into the top of the box.
  • Bradley retired in 1907 and died in 1911. The company he founded continued to dominate the country’s game market through the twentieth century.
  • In 1959, Milton Bradley executives asked 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, he 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.

You'll find additional information here:

Milton Bradley Biography (Wikipedia)

Milton Bradley & Co. History (Hasbro website)

Game of Life (Hasbro website)


Anonymous said...

A friend of mine in AGSAS has a recent reprint of The Checkered Game of Life. I think it was reprinted back in the 80s as a nostalgia game.

Don't let the name fool you. It's hard to play and made frustrating by the fact you cannot use dice, you use a little spinner which is off-balance and never lands on the number you need. (Dice were associated with gambling and immorality, and we don't want to pollute our dear children's minds do we?)

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great comment! One of the interesting things I found in my research were some Milton Bradley advertisments from 1861-1865...he really did market to soldiers ("just the thing to send to the boys in Camp or the hospitals").

Best Regards,

Jim Schmidt

MurphyMS said...

Dear Mr. Schmidt,
I am a student at Murphy Middle School and I am doing a history fair project on Milton Bradley. I would like to interview you as part of the project if you have a few minutes.

Jim Schmidt said...

Dear "MurphyMS" - It would be my pleasure to help you with your Milton Bradley project. Please have your teacher and/or your parents e-mail me: jschmidt at lexpharma dot com.

Good luck with your project!

Jim Schmidt