American board games published between 1843 and 1935 were principally of two distinct thematic types: didactic games based on Christian morality which prevailed in the middle years of the nineteenth century, and games based on materialism and capitalism which were published in abundance in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth.
In seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial America, the agrarian life of the country left little time for game playing though draughts (checkers), bowling, and card games were not unknown. The Pilgrims and Puritans of New England frowned on game playing and viewed dice as instruments of the devil. When the Governor William Bradford discovered a group of non-Puritans playing stool-ball, pitching the bar, and pursuing other sports in the streets on Christmas Day, 1622, he confiscated their implements, reprimanded them, and told them their devotion for the day should be confined to their homes.
Early United StatesEdit
In Thoughts on Lotteries (1826) Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Almost all these pursuits of chance [i.e., of human industry] produce something useful to society. But there are some which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them or of others depending on them. Such are games with cards, dice, billiards, etc. And although the pursuit of them is a matter of natural right, yet society, perceiving the irresistible bent of some of its members to pursue them, and the ruin produced by them to the families depending on these individuals, consider it as a case of insanity, quoad hoc, step in to protect the family and the party himself, as in other cases of insanity, infancy, imbecility, etc., and suppress the pursuit altogether, and the natural right of following it. There are some other games of chance, useful on certain occasions, and injurious only when carried beyond their useful bounds. Such are insurances, lotteries, raffles, etc. These they do not suppress, but take their regulation under their own discretion."
The board game, Traveller's Tour Through the United States was published by New York City bookseller F. Lockwood in 1822 and today claims the distinction of being the first board game published in the United States.
As the United States shifted from agrarian to urban living in the nineteenth century, greater leisure time and a rise in income became available to the middles class. The American home, once the center of economic production, became the locus of entertainment, enlightenment, and education under the supervision of mothers. Children were encouraged to play board games that developed literacy skills and provided moral instruction.
The earliest board games published in the United States were based upon Christian morality. The Mansion of Happiness (1843), for example, sent players along a path of virtues and vices that led to the Mansion of Happiness (Heaven). The Game of Pope or Pagan, or The Siege of the Stronghold of Satan by the Christian Army (1844) pitted an image on its board of a Hindu woman committing suttee against missionaries landing on a foreign shore. The missionaries are cast in white as "the symbol of innocence, temperance, and hope" while the pope and pagan are cast in black, the color of "gloom of error, and...grief at the daily loss of empire".
Commercially-produced board games in the middle nineteenth century were monochrome prints laboriously hand-colored by teams of low paid young factory women. Advances in paper making and printmaking during the period enabled the commercial production of relatively inexpensive board games. The most significant advance was the development of chromolithography, a technological achievement that made bold, richly colored images available at affordable prices. Games cost as little as US$.25 for a small boxed card game to $3.00 for more elaborate games.
American Protestants believed a virtuous life led to success, but the belief was challenged mid-century when Americans embraced materialism and capitalism. The accumulation of material goods was viewed as a divine blessing. In 1860, The Checkered Game of Life rewarded players for mundane activities such as attending college, marrying, and getting rich. Daily life rather than eternal life became the focus of board games.The game was the first to focus on secular virtues rather than religious virtues, and sold 40,000 copies its first year.
Game of the District Messenger Boy, or Merit Rewarded is a board game published in 1886 by the New York City firm of McLoughlin Brothers. The game is a typical roll-and-move track board game. Players move their tokens along the track at the spin of the arrow toward the goal at track's end. Some spaces on the track will advance the player while others will send him back.
In the affluent 1880s, Americans witnessed the publication of Algeresque rags to riches games that permitted players to emulate the capitalist heroes of the age. One of the first such games, The Game of the District Messenger Boy, encouraged the idea that the lowliest messenger boy could ascend the corporate ladder to its topmost rung. Such games insinuated that the accumulation of wealth brought increased social status. Competitive capitalistic games culminated in 1935 with Monopoly, the most commercially successful board game in United States history.
McLoughlin Brothers published similar games based on the telegraph boy theme including Game of the Telegraph Boy, or Merit Rewarded (1888). Greg Downey notes in his essay, "Information Networks and Urban Spaces: The Case of the Telegraph Messenger Boy" that families who could afford the deluxe version of the game in its chromolithographed, wood-sided box would not "have sent their sons out for such a rough apprenticeship in the working world."