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Games Played by Children in the Early American Colonial Era

Charlie is a freelance writer with 20 years of writing experience. He also has an interest in collecting vintage toys.

An old combined Nine Men's Morris and chess table.

An old combined Nine Men's Morris and chess table.

What Did Colonial Children Play With?

Although we live in the age of consoles, virtual reality, and other modern gaming conveniences, games have been a staple of the American experience almost from the country's inception. Of course, daily life in the beginning of our country's history required considerably more manual labor for the average man, woman, and child than today. But leisure time did exist—and games were used to fill that time.

Back then, games of make-believe, role-playing, or even physically active games like hide-and-seek were a common affair, just as they are today. Children played checkers, chess, and even backgammon. Some of the more affluent children had wooden wagons or other wheeled devices to pull each other around in. Below, we'll look at a few of the common toys and games from the time period.

Toys and Games From the Colonial Era

  1. Wooden Games
  2. The New Game of Human Life
  3. Nine Man's Morris
  4. Bat and Trap
  5. Battledore
  6. Easy-to-Make Toys
Ball and Cup

Ball and Cup

1. Wooden Games

Two of the most popular Colonial-era toys were the hoop and stick and the bilbo catcher.

Hoop and Stick

With the hoop and stick, children ran alongside a large circular wooden hoop and attempted to keep it moving by hitting the hoop with their stick. It was a game that burnt off a lot of energy and kept them outside.

Bilbo Catcher (Ball and Cup)

The bilbo catcher could also entertain kids for hours, but it could be played indoors. The toy consisted of a wooden ball attached by a string to a wooden cup. Children would attempt to catch the ball inside the hollowed-out cup by tossing the ball up and positioning the cup underneath the ball as it fell.

2. The New Game of Human Life

Released in 1790, The New Game of Human Life feels somewhat like its more-modern cousin, the Game of Life. It's also feels a bit like a board game version of Pilgrim’s Progress. In the New Game of Human Life, players attempt to advance through the seven stages of life, beginning with infancy and ending in dotage.

It was the one of the first instances where manufacturers targeted the children’s market, so the game included a warning to parents. The warning suggested using a spinner instead of dice as the method of advancing players around the board because dice were closely associated with vice and gambling. In some colonies, dice games were forbidden.

You can view an image of The Game of Human Life on the Cornell website. One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the images used on the board. The drawings were of the various 'types' of humans—from Patriots to Gluttons.

According to the Colonial Williamsburg website, another popular board game from the era was The Royall and Most Pleasant Game of the Goose. In the game, players used dice to direct their moves through the various hazards along their journey around the circular track.

3. Nine Man’s Morris

This was a math-based strategy game, and it can still be found online in its electronic version. The game is believed to have originated in 1400 B.C. The strategy is simple, but executing winning moves is challenging.

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There are 18 spaces on the board. Pieces can be moved in a vertical or horizontal motion, and once a player has three pieces in a row (vertical or horizontal), they can remove one of their opponent’s playing pieces. The last player standing wins.

For detailed instructions and a template of the board, download this pdf.

4. Bat and Trap

This game is like taking batting practice in baseball, except there are eight fielders and the hitter is attempting to send the ball past two posts. It is now considered a predecessor to baseball; although for years the official story of baseball said Abner Doubleday was the creator, it turns out that story was built on some very flimsy evidence.

Variations of baseball go back almost to the first colonists when they played rounders, cricket, and bat and trap. Bat and trap, which enjoyed a resurgence in the 1950s, combines batting practice with bowling—admittedly a very odd pairing.

How to Play

The embedded video offers a good look at how the game works.

  • Batting: To play, a batter stood beside a wooden contraption that held a walnut-sized ball. Using a bat that more closely resembled an oversized ping-pong paddle, the hitter would strike a lever on the device, popping the ball into the air. The batter would strike the ball straight ahead to awaiting fielders.
  • Fielding: The fielder, who usually caught the ball after it bounced once or twice, would then roll the ball in bowler fashion and attempt to knock over the awaiting pin in front of the batter. If the pin fell, the batter was out. If not, they scored a run and continued to bat.

You can find a more detailed look at the rules of the game online.


5. Battledore

This game is the ancestor of badminton. Children would use rackets called battledores (usually constructed from wood) and hit a shuttlecock, which was often a piece of cork with feathers attached. They would attempt to keep the cork from hitting the ground. The game was very popular in Great Britain and was introduced to the colonies early on.

6. Easy-to-Make Toys

Lots of the toys created in the era were relatively simple to make. Here are instructions for two of the easier hands-on games.

  • Whirligig: Although it was popular in the British colonies, it is uncertain when or where this toy originated, since it was invented independently across several continents and cultures.
  • Quoits: This was basically a ring toss game.
New EnglandVirginiaPennsylvaniaBackcountry

Sports included ball games that were the forerunners to baseball and football.

They preferred blood sports like gander pulling, hunting or horse riding activities.

The Quakers were pragmatic and often used their leisure time to read or garden.

Two of the major contrinutions to sports were wrestling and modern-day field and track events.

They avoided games associated with gambling like shuffleboard, cards or dice games.

They saw absolutely no value in ball games.

They disliked ball games or games associated with gambling.

They did not like games that used a ball.

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about the various social customs of the four major British Colonies in North America, read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hacket Fischer. The book examines everything from building practices and sexual mores to games that adults and children played. It also takes a look at how children were treated and raised in the four British American colonies.

© 2016 Charlie Claywell

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