The Craze That Started It All: Dr. Busby

Updated on February 25, 2018
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I hold a Masters in Public History, and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

Anne W. Abbott is quite a hard woman to track down. I first came across mention of her on BoardGameGeek.com, which listed her as the creator of Dr. Busby. Luckily, the Internet didn’t fail us this time: Google Books reveals mention of her in Duane Hamilton Hurd’s History of Essex County, Massachusetts, published in 1888.

Anne was the daughter of Dr. Abiel Abbott of Massachusetts. She was the author of several children’s storybooks, such as Kate and Lizzie (1845) and The Tamed and the Untamed. Yet her most significant contribution was the creation of Dr. Busby in 1843 – a game that is said to have started the country’s game craze.

Anne created the game for her local community in Salem, Massachusetts. By 1843, she had managed to get the game commercially published by W. & S. B. Ives of Salem. Her original game consisted of four suits (mortar & pestle, pan of milk, eye, and spade). Each of these suits represented the Busby family, the Doll family, the Ninny-Come-Twitch family, and the Spade family.

According to an eBay listing that claimed to be the original 1843 game, the rules were:

“The players should sit round a table. The cards must be well shuffled and distributed equally. Any one of the players may begin the game by calling upon his right-hand neighbor for any card which he has not in his own hand. If his neighbor has the card he calls for, he must give it up to him. He may then call for another and go on till he calls for one which his neighbor has not in his hand. Then the next takes his turn calling first for those cards which have been called for and obtained by the first. The players must be attentive, and remember to call for every card which has been called and obtained before, if possible, as the game is made longer and more complicated by every failure of memory. When a player has called every card from the hand of his right-hand neighbor, thus putting him out of the game, he may continue to call from the next on the right hand. At the close of the game, the victor will have all the four families united in his hand.”

These rules were verified from the 1905 Milton Bradley Co. version, as seen in the image below:

Anne’s game was very successful, reportedly selling 15,000 copies in just the first year and a half it was on the market. Numerous editions were published, as other game manufacturers acquired the copyright and printed copies into the 20th century.

Notably the rights were acquired by Milton-Bradley, who published their own version in the early 20th century. A copy of their version is currently held by the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York (one of my favorite fun museums).

One edition available from Boston Rare Maps claims to be the original Improved and Illustrated Game of Dr. Busby from 1843, seen in the image below:

Interesting fact: it’s on sale for $2,900 – which is way more than its original price of 50 cents!
Interesting fact: it’s on sale for $2,900 – which is way more than its original price of 50 cents!

Anne would go on to author other games, as well. In 1844, she began selling her second game, The Racers, through J. P. Jewett as well as a third game, Master Rodbury, with W & S. B. Ives. Also in 1844, she published a children’s book as a companion to her original board game, entitled Doctor Busby and His Neighbors: A Story. (You can find it at a library near you using WorldCat.) She also went on to serve as editor of The Child’s Friend, a literary journal for children with profits benefitting indigent and neglected children. She published Autumn Leaves: Original Pieces of Prose and Verse in 1853.

Not much else is documented about Anne’s life. There’s no mention of her family or other professions she may have engaged in. Like many women of her time, Anne’s voice is lost to us – and we’ll likely never know how this incredible woman invented the first game that really swept the nation.

But her game lives on.

I’ll leave you with a variety of pictures from editions of Dr. Busby…

Version published by J. H. Singer, N.Y.

1897 Version:

Cards from the 1905 version:

Cover for the 1936 Milton-Bradley edition:

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    © 2018 Tiffany R Isselhardt

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