Wednesday, 4 November 2015

It's all fun and games

Many assume that the Victorian attitude to play was it was only done by children; and children were to be seen and not heard; and that was only among the rich, while children in the working classes were lumped into strenuous workhouse jobs. While this is wholly true, the activities made to accommodate children were seen to take a big growth during this period, each of which had fascinating effects on Victorian life. By the end of your reading, I think you'll have a sense of the Victorians being more fun than the dusty stereotype would allow.

Stories of the time clearly emphasise how peripheral children could be. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights shows young Cathy and Heathcliff being “permitted to play,” only on Sunday evenings “if [they] did not make much noise”. Much of the rest of the novel, they're seen to play out on the moors, a detail I won't touch on, since you're reading a blog on Victorian life, and are unlikely to go on a dangerous Gothic moor anyway.

While this isn't a fair or nice way to see the children in the Victorian era (fictitious or no), it was the opinion held by some. The Victorian era's industrial revolution saw the advent of factory built things on an enlarged scale. Now was the first time that toys were mass produced and distributed across the country. Common toys at this time were model trains commonly made from wood with fixed metal axles, painted in bold colours. I believe toys like this were aimed at inspiring the younger generation to invest in new technology. Other common boys toys were figurines of soldiers in recognisable uniforms, such as the Queen's Guard, or soldiers in the colonies. The popular image of the tin soldier came from since many of these soldier toys were made with tin or other metals; the image of them being often incomplete due to the factories not having enough metal to craft them with was also common – though I'd hope an imaginative boy would pretend that a soldier with a missing arm or leg was just a war casualty. While the trains encouraged boys to tinker, these soldiers could lead boys to help backing the shining British Empire.

As for girl's toys, the Victorian era saw the first lavish doll's houses being made. Upper class girls often had their own homes remade as the doll's house, to recreate their own daily lives, with intricate details like matching carpets in certain rooms, and like for like pieces in the tiny china cabinets. Adding to the common but (lack of a better word) weird detail about Victorian girl's toys was the detail in their dolls. They'd commonly have clothes stitched out of the same patterned fabric or even cut down alterations of their old clothes. The details of girls dolls gets more bizarre when the doll makers would add the girl's own hair to the dolls, for authenticity. To me, I think this had two functions for girls: this odd realism in their dolls would aid them in being mothers later on in life, and to instil in them a sense of vanity; if they could preen a tiny copy of themselves, they'd be all the more willing to keep themselves equally presentable in the future, with the intention of courting a husband.

As nice the image could be of the little ones on the floor of their bedroom on a Sunday morning; a boy marching his tin soldier army up to his sister's elaborate doll's house, there was a great and unforeseen danger. The vibrant colours of boys trains and details in a girl's doll's house often meant the children would be at risk from lead poisoning. Manufacturers of toys would use lead paint on wooden toys during this time for vibrant colours to make such toys appealing. While they did know the risks of lead ingestion, they also assumed that the poison would be no problem unless it was consumed. Many young children suffered from this lead paint as they only got the effects when the toys were licked. This certainly contributed to the rampant infant mortality rates across the country, despite the obviously contrasting intention.

While the children enjoy the toys in their bedroom, as quiet as possible to mirror young Cathy and Heathcliff, one has to wonder what the parents are doing. The Victorian parlour game has been a stable part of Victorian culture and the associated games have been boring us for Christmases ever since. Such games as Charades were commonly played as well as many other games I can't quite claim I've heard of. What follows are some of my top picks and how to play them.

The Messenger sounds very fun; to me, it sounds like a difficult version of Simon Says. One person comes in and gives the room an action to do, and one by one everyone does it. That messenger leaves and comes back, giving everyone a new action which they must do on top of what they're already doing. It builds until people can't do it anymore and are eliminated. It's been said that the game “will not fail to produce shouts of laughter” (Jackson, 127). I'm now endeavouring to try and make my own friends play it.

Blind Man's Buff was common, and a favourite of Tennyson. It involved a blindfolded person trying to catch one of the other players and guess who it is, to pass the blindfold onto them. It was best played when the blindfolded one was spun a little, and they all called out to confuse them. While it sounds fun, it could also lead to a disconcerted feeling and potentially broken furniture from multiple stumbles.

Shadows or Shadow Buff was a simple and fun game, played by many people who had the benefits of strong gas or electric lighting. The players would have a “white tablecloth or... sheet... suspended on one side” (Jackson, 127) while one person guesses who's casting their shadow from behind the sheet and if they guess rightly, that person tries to guess the next shadow. I imagine that when people didn't play this game in this way, they would perform shadow puppets for the children when they're finished with their incomplete soldiers and eerie, human hair dolls.

Another interesting game played in the parlour after tea was something called Pass the Slipper. Most of the time it was played with a slipper, but any small object works. One person stands in the middle, eyes closed, while the rest encircle them, passing the slipper around behind their backs. The middle person opens their eyes and guesses who's got the slipper. They swap places if they're right and the new middle person has to guess again.

It seems that a lot of Victorian games involved people standing around each other, singling out one person to do something; a classic way to arrange a game, I believe. If anyone around a drawing room table were feeling particularly lazy, they'd play one of the multiple common card games.
While games like Poker and Blackjack were first recorded in 1829 and 1570 respectively, it took a considerable time before they became as commonly played as they are today. Other games would have been played with the traditional deck of French-suited cards.

Whist was a particularly common game and “ acknowledged to be by far the best” (Jackson, 261), and went on to become Bridge in today's serious card playing circles. It's played by four people where everyone lays down a card at random, whoever plays the highest wins the “trick” based on whatever the trump card is; they then take the cards. The rules are very unclear and I don't entirely understand it.

Many think of the Victorian people to be dusty and set in the ways of formality and decorum, 
distancing themselves from their children. To me, the Victorians knew how to enjoy themselves, giving well made (though odd and potentially deadly) toys to their children, while the grown-ups played strange but fun sounding games in the next room. The Age of Enlightenment sounded very fun to me.

Jackson, Lee. Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. London: Yale University Press 2014. Print.


  1. Hi Adam, this is very interesting, I particularly like the facts about lead poising. I was wondering when doing your research wether you found any toys or games that lower class children would have played?

    1. Those dolls are definitely weird. Almost as bad as these two walking around London