Past Times and Play

published january 17, 2024 | Written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Photo of the Past Times and Play exhibition room, featuring whiten linen childrens' clothes, a lilac child's dress, and a baby carriage.

In honor of our exhibition room “Past Times and Play” departing as we usher in a new exhibit for the 2024 season, we figured: what better way to send it off, than to highlight it for this week’s Way Back Wednesday?

Dolls, board games, trinkets, and baubles have captured the hearts of children all over the world throughout our history. It isn’t just to curtail boredom; playtime is crucial to child development, as it “allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength” (Ginsburg et al. 2007).

Board games, in particular, have been a source of entertainment and social interaction for over a millennia, transcending cultural boundaries and evolving with the passage of time.

The origins of board games can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where people created simple games using stones, sticks, and other natural materials. The oldest known board game, Senet, predates any other known organized board game; archaeological evidence suggests that the “earliest representation of senet in Egypt comes from the 3rd Dynasty tomb of Hesire at Saqqar” (Sebbane 2017).

In ancient Mesopotamia, the Royal Game of Ur was a highly popular two-player board game, dating back to around 2600 BCE. Discovered in the royal tombs of Ur, the game showcases the everlasting appeal of strategic gameplay (check out this amazing board from The British Museum!

And as years progressed, so did the production of board games.

The 19th century in particular brought about significant changes in society and technology, influencing the design and production of board games. With the advent of printing technology, mass production became feasible, and in conjunction with better modes of transportation for shipping goods, enabled the widespread distribution of games. Monopoly, for example, which was created in the early 20th century, epitomizes this era and to this day remains one of the best-selling board games of all time.

The mid-20th century witnessed a surge in creativity and innovation within the game industry. Classic games such as Scrabble, Risk, and Clue captivated audiences worldwide as they hit the shelves. These games became more than just fun pastimes; they fostered critical thinking, strategic planning, as well as language and vocabulary development, making bonding time with others unintentionally educational.

One game in particular stands as a fascinating relic from the past—and we have it here at the Historical Society!

Photo of the mid-century "Cities: A Card Game." The box is open to show the rule booklet and a stack of city cards.

The Game of Cities, a game produced by E. E. Fairchild, was a unique card game that offered players a chance to explore seventeen U.S. cities, each represented by sets of three cards. With the addition of a fictitious city named Taboo, the game contained a total of 54 cards, all adorned with captivating images and accompanied by concise histories of each city.

The time of release for Game of Cities was interesting. Produced in 1932, it placed itself at the intersection of key historical events and entertainment (“Game of Cities — the World of Playing Cards,” n.d.). In the midst of economic challenges during the Great Depression, the game provided an engaging escape into the urban landscapes of our major cities. 

Games like Game of Cities, Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble and Clue became more than ways to pass the time; they were social connectors and intellectual stimulators. The blend of strategy and chance in these classics mirrored the complexities of the eras, offering players not just an escape but a reflection of the world unfolding around them.

As we bid adieu to “Past Times and Play”, let us carry forward the spirit of joy and discovery encapsulated in these games, recognizing that our journey through the history of board games is not just a stroll down memory lane but a celebration of the enduring human spirit that finds solace, joy, and connection through the simple act of play.

If you’ve enjoyed our latest Way Back Wednesday and learning about the fascinating history of Bar Harbor, we extend a warm invitation to become a member of the Bar Harbor Historical Society! To become a member, simply head to our home page and click “Join” or “Donate.” See you next week!

Reference List

“Game of Cities — the World of Playing Cards.” n.d. The World of Playing Cards.

Ginsburg, Kenneth R., Donald L. Shifrin, Daniel D. Broughton, Benard P. Dreyer, Regina M. Milteer, Deborah Ann Mulligan, Kathleen G. Nelson, et al. 2007. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” Pediatrics 119 (1): 182–91.

Sebbane, Michael. 2017. “Sebbane M. 2001.Board Games from Canaan in the Early and Intermediate Bronze Ages and the Origin of the Egyptian Senet Game. Tel Aviv 28: 213-230.” Antiquities, January.