It is an ironclad rule with no exceptions: We all believe our own childhood was a lot more fun than that endured by kids these days. Whether that old dictum is valid or not, its corollary is most certainly true: Kids back then sure had some bizarre ideas for what constituted fun.
An anonymous writer for the Cincinnati Post [29 May 1906] bemoaned the quality of contemporary childhood fun, compared to the jolly exuberance of his day:
“’They don’t play the old games!’ You cannot avoid the sad comment, you Grown-Up Boy, if you watch a group of city children trying to imagine they are young. That’s the way you feel about it; at least, that the children are only imagining their youth. They don’t seem young with the youth we possessed in our small town.”
His biggest complaint? Kids in 1906 didn’t play the good old games like, for instance, shinny. A sort of street hockey, shinny involved groups of boys armed with curved sticks, swatting either a wooden block or a tin can toward a goal down the block. It was as dangerous and destructive as it sounds. Broken windows abounded and injuries could be fatal or maiming. Here’s the Cincinnati Daily Press [5 February 1862] on a shinny casualty:
“A few days since a student . . . had his eye knocked out while playing the game. The eye was completely knocked from the socket, and hung down on the check of the sufferer. It was replaced, but had to be finally taken out entirely.”
Our Post correspondent knew all about the mayhem inextricably tied to a good round of shinny:
“How long would it take a riot call to reach Headquarters if a real, live game of shinny got under way somewhere downtown?”
Another forgotten game was “Duck On Davy,” also known as “Boulder On A Nag,” in which a boulder, pillar, stairway landing or such was chosen as the “Davy” and a selection of stones constituted the “Ducks.” One player, chosen as the guard, sets his duck on the Davy. The other players, positioned 25 or 30 feet away, attempt to knock it off. If they miss, they must try to retrieve their duck before the guard can tag them. If they knock off the guard’s duck, the guard can’t tag them until he retrieves his own duck. Surely nothing could go awry with a gang of boys hurling rocks!
Games with potentially lethal projectiles have always been popular with boys. One such is the innocently named “Hat Ball.” In this game, each boy lays his hat on the ground along a line. The boys take turns tossing a ball into the prostrate hats. If the tosser misses, the ball is tossed back but, if the ball lands in a hat, all the boys scatter except for the owner of the hat with the ball. He tries to hit any of the other running boys by throwing the ball at him. If he misses, the players return to their places and a lump of coal is dropped in the hat where the ball landed. If he hits a player, that player has to hit one of the other scattering players.
As if flying projectiles wasn’t dangerous enough, popular boys’ games included sharp blades. One of these games was “Mumblety-Peg.” Do parents still buy pocket knives for their children (usually boys) as soon as they turn six or seven? Basic Mumblety-Peg was essentially a game of nerves as two players stood an arm’s length apart and took turns throwing a pocket knife into the ground as near to their opponent’s feet as they could. If a player’s knife didn’t stick, he lost that round. Expert players agreed to increasingly more difficult trick tosses, among them tossing the knife while it was balanced on an open palm, or flipping the knife as it was held between two fingers, or somersaulted off a fingertip. The “peg” in Mumblety-Peg was the loser’s penalty—a peg or matchstick pounded into the ground that the loser had to pull out with his teeth.
Among the variations of Hide And Seek, the most popular—among both boys and girls—in the bygone days was called “Go, Sheepy, Go!” The game was popular despite, or perhaps because of, its complexity. A group of children divided into teams and mapped out the boundaries of their territory, usually three or four city blocks. One team, the Sheep, were sent to various hiding places chosen by their captain, who also assigned coded signals to be used by that team. For example, “apples” might mean “stay where you are” and “raindrops” might mean “go around the trees to your right.” The codes were necessary because, after hiding all of her sheep, the captain returned to the other team and accompanied them as they tried to locate and capture the sheep. Using her codes, the captain directed her sheep away from the pursuers and toward home base. When it looked as if all or most of her sheep had a good shot at reaching home base, the captain yelled, “Go, Sheepy, Go!”
A similar, long-lost hide-and-seek game was “Chalk The Rabbit.” This was another team game, in which one team, armed with pieces of chalk, got a head start of five minutes or so, and then the other team followed, trying to determine, based on clues chalked along their route, where the first team had hidden. The final chalked clue—usually a circle with four arrows—signaled that the first team was all in nearby hiding places. “Chalk The Rabbit” games could extend over miles of city streets.
Lest it be claimed that only boys’ games were chaotic, disruptive or dangerous, we must relate the sad tale of six-year-old Ada Seltzer as reported in the Cincinnati Daily Star [23 June 1877]. Young Ada was an endurance champ with the jumping rope, which in those days was often a length of wild grape vine. According to the Star, she:
“ . . . fell down exhausted day before yesterday, after ‘scoring’ five hundred and fifty continuous jumps over a rope, which she swung over her head, the blood gushing from her ears, nose and mouth. Everything possible was done to restore her, but today she is in her grave—a victim of too much exercise.”
Some of the games mentioned by the Post in 1906 were so rare, or so regional, that it is difficult today to find a description of the rules by which they were played. For example, who knows how to play “Break for the Window Light” or “One Foot Off and You Haft t’ Go?” or “Devil In The Hole” or “Finger In The Ice Box.” I confess that I am uncertain whether I want to know.