Salem holds almost as prominent a place in the history of board games as it does in the origins of American maritime commerce and Federal architecture, due in overwhelming part to Monopoly, but before the Parker Brothers there were the Ives Brothers, the true pioneers of card-and board-game production. The publishing firm of W. and S.B. Ives was founded in 1823 by William and Stephen Ives, and operated through the mid-1850s, producing the Mansion of Happiness, generally acknowledged as the first American board game, as well as the widely-popular Improved and Illustrated Game of Dr. Busby. The success of the Ives Brothers, (or really William Ives as Stephen seems to have left the partnership relatively early) in effect created an industry by sparking imitation and competition from their fellow Massachusetts manufacturer, Milton Bradley, the McLoughlin Brothers in New York, and ultimately Parker Brothers. The American Antiquarian Society has a large collection of nineteenth-century board games, including many produced by the Ives firm, and while I was browsing around its digital collections the other day (looking for something altogether different) I encountered a rather provocative Ives board game called The Game of Pope and Pagan, or Siege of the stronghold of Satan, by the Christian army which was published in 1844. It’s a simple game, a variant of the perennial Fox and Geese, in which players constituting the “Christian” army lay siege to the “stronghold of Satan” which is occupied by the Pope and pagans: in the words of the game, “this simple amusement exhibits a band of devoted missionaries, attacking the strong-hold of Satan, defended by papal and pagan Antichrist”. I spend a lot of time in seventeenth-century England (I’m assuming the game’s title is derived from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) so I’m pretty familiar with strident anti-Catholicism but the more “modern” American offshoot in the nineteenth century shocks me every time I encounter it: what a cauldron Salem must have been at this time with its heady mixture of abolitionists and nativists (with a dash of temperance thrown in)! Apparently there were intersections among these groups but you wouldn’t know it from this game, in which “the white figures represent the missionaries, as white is they symbol of innocence, temperance, and hope…..as heraldic sable denotes grief after a loss, Pope and Pagan are in black, both denote gloom of error, and their grief at the daily loss of empire”.
I was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston with my family yesterday, a precious place that I visit about once a year but to which none of them, oddly, have ever been. Wandering around the eclectic rooms of the first floor, my brother remarked to me: it’s as if all of these paintings were in the Masterpiece game that we played as children. Now he is a well-educated, worldly New Yorker, so this was hardly his first exposure to these genres, but he was right: as soon as he said it I was plunged back into the late 1970s as well. There was something about the placement of these paintings that reminded us of that old art auction board game!
The 1970 Parker Brothers’ Masterpiece Game, Museum of Childhood, Victoria & Albert Museum Collection and for sale here (for a while; I might need to snatch it up).
The game contained 24 art cards which became emblazoned in our minds: I remember when I first saw one of the original paintings in real life it seemed…………BIG. My brother’s memories was jostled by a Degas-like painting by Louis Kornberg titled In the Dressing Room (1920) in the Yellow Room, while the facing Whistleresque Lady in Yellow (1888) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing looked vaguely familiar to me. I was absolutely certain that Carlo Crivelli’s St. George Slaying the Dragon (1470) upstairs in the Raphael room was a game card, as well as Rembrandt’s 1629 Self-Portrait, in the Dutch Room. But when I returned home to look up the game on various vintage board game sites, I quickly realized that our memories were false: all the paintings including in the Masterpiece game are apparently from the National Gallery in London. Mrs. Gardner’s ladies, saint, and Rembrandt were not ourMasterpiece ladies, saint, and Rembrandt, but nevertheless it was good to see them (again).
I have quicksilver materialistic urges: what I want now are Monopoly pieces, or rather artistically-enhanced versions thereof. There is a Salem source of this desire, and it is a timely one: Parker Brothers of Salem acquired one of the key patents they needed to produce their version of Monopoly on this day in 1935, and it was an immediate blockbuster, perhaps (or in spite of) the ongoing Depression. Parker Brothers’ long residency in Salem (1883-1991) is no doubt due in large part to the success of this ultra-American game. It was apparently rushed into production even though Parker Brothers president George Parker had low expectations: a series of boxes from 1935 bear the inscriptions “patent applied for” and “patent pending”. Inside are wooden houses and hotels and the original dark-iron tokens: the iron, racing car, thimble, shoe, top hat and battleship (the Scottie dog and wheelbarrow were added in the early 1950s).
And that’s the other reason why I’m craving Monopoly pieces now: my favorite token was always the iron, and it has recently been cast out of the game, replaced by a cat. I’m a cat lover as well, but the new token just doesn’t have the texture of that old iron: thankfully my Monopoly game is pretty vintage, and thus iron-clad. And when a little tiny metal token just won’t do, several artists have been inspired enough by the game–and its iconic pieces–to create bigger and bolder versions. I want all of these creations by Stuart Whitton, which are hand-drawn on vintage postcards, but I think they’re long gone.
Since I’m particularly fond of the retired iron, I did find a more attainable object: a pewteresque replica: not very subtle, and far less artistic, but BIG. But where to put it? It screams doorstop to me, but when I went in search of a place, I found not one, not two, but THREE old 19th century irons propped up against doors on my third floor. I don’t think I need one more, even if it has an air of Monopoly about it.