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In the Classroom > Unit Overview > Lesson 13

Lesson Thirteen
Children's Amusements in the Early Nineteenth Century

by Lynne Manring

Unlike today, when most children's toys come from stores and provide immediate gratification, toys from the early nineteenth century were usually homemade by the child or someone they knew, and some required skill to accomplish. Learning to play the girls' game of "Graces" in an elegant manner took practice. In this game, each girl used a pair of wooden rods to toss a beribboned hoop to her partner. Getting the ball to land in the cup of the "bilboquet" toy took skill and was good practice for eye-hand coordination, as did scoring at "Ninepins", a game similar to bowling.

When children were able to gather in groups, games requiring athletic skill were popular for all young children and older boys, but not for older girls. These games might include tag, races, badminton, or a game related to baseball called "rounders" or "town ball". In fact, that was the only organized sport played in the early 19th C. in predominantly English communities. Boys might swim but girls did not because there were no bathing suits.

Another group of games required concentration and/or no laughing or smiling. Those who missed a cue or broke into a smile would pay a "forfeit" to the game leader at the end of the game. The forfeit might be a cuff to the ear or require that the player give the leader a few pennies. The leader might also make up something embarrassing for the forfeiter to do such as yawn until someone else yawns or recite a silly tongue twister perfectly.

Some games reflected social expectations, especially those requiring certain behavior. Graces was such a game, where girls were encouraged to move as gracefully as possible while playing. Overall, older girls were expected to take part only in "lady-like" activities.

Card playing was frowned upon by the more religious, as was the reading of novels. A number of board games were popular, including checkers, known as "draughts" (and pronounced "drafts"), chess, Nine Man's Morris (a game like Tic Tac Toe), and Fox and Geese. Other common toys and games are listed below:

Jackstraws (known as Pickup Sticks today)
Stilts Buzz saws (button spinners)
Jacob's ladders
Hunt the Slipper or Ring
Ice skating
Tic Tac Toe

Those with extra money might purchase some toys such as lead soldiers, marbles, metal jacks or dolls with porcelain heads and hands.

Other group activities included singing, attending singing schools which were held in school houses after hours and were attended by all ages, and attending spelling schools, which were set up in the same manner as singing schools.

Dancing was popular among many but not all. The more religious disapproved of it, as they feared it led to greater sins. For those who did approve of dancing, there were informal and impromptu dances at special gatherings such as barn raisings and other work bees, July 4th, or Thanksgiving. These dances usually took the form of lines of women facing lines of men, with partners facing each other. Couples danced through a series of figures, which gradually moved them up or down a set of dancers so that each couple had a chance to dance with the others in a set. Many of these dances were simple enough so that a couple joining in at the bottom of the set would know the dance by the time they arrived at the top. There were no dance callers and musicians were men. Popular instruments at the time were fiddles, wooden flutes, and small pianos known as "pianofortes". Touching during dances was kept to a minimum; holding hands or linking elbows was acceptable, but "hugging" was not. Although couple dances such as waltzes were new to the dance scene, they were considered scandalous to most because they involved too much physical contact. Dancing schools were taught by men and were usually held in ballrooms of taverns. Dancing scholars had to pay a fee to attend. Girls might attend classes first and boys would have later classes. At the end of a series of classes girls and boys would dance together to show off what they had learned to their families. A public dance would often follow.

In dancing schools students learned more complicated dances and dance steps and were made to work on posture and stance as well. Emphasis was placed on keeping backs straight, chins and chests up, and legs turned out (rotated out from the hip). It was not fashionable to display any sharp angles such as an arm held akimbo. They also were made to follow strict rules of etiquette. Because so much emphasis was placed upon behavior and etiquette in dancing schools, attendance was seen as promoting refinement and good breeding as well as physical exercise. Dances were not only a means of important social interaction but were also a way to show one's status and wealth and sometimes served as a means for finding a suitable mate.


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