Colonial Games & Toys

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about Colonial American toys and games. We will identify several popular games and toys from this era, and explore the ways children spent their free time in Colonial America.

Kids Today vs. Kids Then

Many psychologists and social commentators have expressed concern that children today are over-stimulated, especially in regard to electronic devices such as tablets and smart phones. Some have expressed dismay that children prefer to sit inside and play video games rather than ride their bikes or play hide-and-seek outside. This is a legitimate concern. For some children, technology hinders their ability to use their imagination and find creative play activities.

If you had been a child in Colonial America, your options for play would have been limited. Children spent a lot of time working, and opportunities for leisure were sometimes few and far between. However, when there was time, outdoor activities were commonplace and children had no choice but to use their imaginations to find ways to entertain themselves. There were no iPhones! Games and toys during this time were mainly homemade. Kid carved small boats out wood and floated them down streams, or stuffed straw inside cloth to make a doll. Toys were typically made from readily available materials, such as wood, bone, metal, or clay. Let's learn more about games and toys during this time.

Colonial America 101

First of all, let's define what period of time we are referring to. Colonial America refers to the period of time when the United States was a colony of Great Britain. We could say this period lasted between 1607-1776 because it was in 1607 that Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English colony in North America was founded. And of course, it was in 1776 that the American Colonies declared independence from Great Britain. Remember, at this time, the 13 American Colonies were located along the East Coast. What is now the central U.S. was land belonging to France, and what is now the American Southwest belonged to Spain.

Colonial Games

Now that we have some context, let's get to the fun stuff! We'll look at games first. Marble games were among the most common. Typically marbles were made of stone or clay because glass marbles were more expensive. Children often made their own marbles by rolling up small balls of clay and baking them over the fire (or 'firing' them).

Some of you may have played the game Jacks before. The game is believed to date back to ancient times, but it was common in Colonial America as well. To play Jacks, a ball is bounced and the player tries to pick up as many ''jacks,'' as possible while the ball is in the air.

A girl is depicted in this painting playing a form of Jacks.

Dice and card games were also popular. Dice were often made by hammering a musket ball into a square, although sometimes they were also carved from wood. Hazard, popular colonial dice game, is similar to the the modern-day game of Craps. Dice games were sometimes met with disapproval in certain communities because they were associated with gambling. However, dice were common throughout Colonial America, and views on them varied from place to place.

Peg games consisted of a wooden board with holes where small pegs could be inserted. Peg games could be played individually, or in groups. In some variations, one peg ''jumped'' over the others, causing them to be removed from the board. Fox and Geese and Nine Men's Morris were among the most popular variations. Solitaire was another popular peg game, and is still played today. The object of the game is to ''jump'' over all the pegs in just the right sequence so that only one peg left on the board at the end.

Colonial Toys

As you can imagine, Colonial toys were primitive by today's standards. Many toys were designed to be played alone. And like Colonial games, toys were usually homemade and inexpensive. Cup and ball was a common toy consisting of a cup-like cylinder at the top of a wooden handle. A small ball was attached with a string. The object was to swing the ball in the air and catch it inside the cup. The sizes of the cup and ball varied, but the closer the cup and ball were in size, the more challenging the game became.

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