Indoor Games

While examples of board games still exist from ancient civilizations such as Egypt or Mesopotamia, indoor games involving manufactured TOYS did not become as common as homemade playthings among children until the nineteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century, changing definitions of childhood, as well as increased industrialization and urbanization, led to the beginnings of the modern toy industry in Europe and the United States, and to the rise of leisure.

However, leisure remained an occupation of the middle and upper classes. Working-class families, especially immigrants, rarely had the time or money to indulge in leisure activities. In addition, working-class children (and women) were a very important part of the industrial labor force until well into the twentieth century, with little time to play. Most evidence of play by working-class children is of outdoor games, or street play. Urban children living in overcrowded tenements had no space to play indoors, resorting instead to the street or the stoop.

By the 1830s, popular perceptions of childhood were completely different from those of the previous century. Children were considered pure and innocent, to be nurtured and protected. By the 1830s, conceptions of motherhood had also shifted. With industrialization, divisions of labor between men and women became more pronounced. According to the middle-class model, men went to work while women stayed home and took care of the children. This model was very different from that of the previous century, when many middle-class families were shopkeepers or artisans, working out of their own homes. In the eighteenth century, the home was still a major center for production, with a domestic economy involving all family members. In the nineteenth century, the domestic economy was transformed into a domestic haven.

Indoor games, within the controlled setting of the home, offered unparalleled opportunities for adults, whether parents, caregivers, or educators, to direct children's play. Historian Jay Mechling has observed that adults began trying to shape PLAY into a constructive form in the nineteenth century, often through toys. The KINDERGARTEN movement, based on a system of early childhood education developed by FRIEDRICH FROEBEL in the 1840s, advocated learning through play, especially in early childhood. However, evidence of spontaneous games, such as playing under the dining room table, singing, or dressing up the family dog, exists in anecdotal form in memoirs and fiction.

Board and Table Games

Early board games were manufactured in England in the late eighteenth century. American firms only began to produce board games around 1840. Prior to producing board games, most of the American manufacturers were already established as publishers of educational materials for children, such as maps or books. One of the first American manufacturers, W. & S. B. Ives of Salem, Massachusetts, published the card game Dr. Busby (or Happy Families) in the 1840s as a sideline for their stationery business. Milton Bradley first introduced the Checkered Game of Life in 1861, a year after starting a lithography business in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bradley went on to become one of the most successful manufacturers of board games in the United States. A proponent of the kindergarten movement, he published books and produced kindergarten "gifts." The gifts consisted of toys specified by Froebel. Other such companies included McLoughlin Brothers, Parker Brothers, and Selchow and Righter.

Many indoor games, including board games or card games, were educational in nature. Nineteenth-century board games, card games, and jigsaw puzzles often depicted contemporary events as well as educational themes. In her 1991 book on games, Caroline Goodfellow, an English toy expert, connected the rise of the middle class with an increased emphasis on educating children about national and international affairs. According to Goodfellow, the nineteenth century was an age of exploration and expansion, requiring more extensive preparation before children were ready to enter the adult world. Games such as the 1845 Game of the District Messenger Boy, manufactured by McLoughlin Brothers, taught children about commerce and trade. Such games also taught children about morality, elevating virtues such as honesty and initiative while showing the consequences of vice–failure and jail. Other games, such as the 1890 Around the World with Nellie Bly, also manufactured by McLoughlin Brothers, took current events and made them into a game.

Other Manufactured Toys

Most existing evidence of indoor play consists of manufactured toys, which became prominent immediately following the American Civil War. Although the toy-making industry in Europe (especially in England and Germany) was already solidly established by at least the eighteenth century, the mass production of toys was certainly a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Historians are divided on whether these toys (mostly cast iron and tin) were actually played with by children or whether they were less popular than handmade playthings or improvised games without toys (e.g., hide-and-seek) during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. What is known, however, is that the toy industry flourished.

TOY TRAINS and firefighting toys were especially popular with boys, beginning with cast iron sets from the 1870s, made by companies including Carpenter, Hubley, Ives, Kenton, and Pratt & Letchworth. As technology changed, so did toys: children played with scaled-down representations of the vehicles then in use.

DOLLS and dollhouses were especially important for girls. Over time, dolls have continued to be the toys most mentioned by girls. Recent scholarship has focused on negative aspects of doll play, most notably in the role of the doll in reinforcing stereotypes of femininity and domesticity. However, the positive aspects should not be understated, with many girls (and boys) playing with dolls in numerous ways– nurturing them, destroying them, and telling stories about them.

Mechanical toys are especially prominent in private and public collections of toys. Notoriously fragile, these toys were almost surely used only indoors. Most mechanical toys before the end of the nineteenth century are either French or German in origin, with the most famous examples produced by Fernand Martin of Paris or E. P. Lehmann of Brandenburg, Germany.

Toy Theaters

Toy theaters consisted of wooden stage sets and figures covered with lithographed images. Businesses producing toy theaters flourished in London, around the Covent Garden area, from the 1830s to the 1840s. Sets and figures were often based on plays then running at Covent Garden. By the 1850s, German manufacturers dominated the market.

In the beginning, toy theaters, like board games, were often produced by small publishers who sold numerous engravings or lithographs of popular plays. Toy theaters were typically middle-class entertainments, to be purchased and played with at home. Never manufactured extensively in the United States, toy theaters were likely to have been luxury imports. Today, the artistry of the printing is much prized by collectors.

Play Manuals

A number of instruction books about play were published for children in the nineteenth century. These books were generally filled with suggestions for both indoor and outdoor play, which consisted of activities and hands-on projects. One example, The Boy's Own Toy-Maker: A Practical Illustrated Guide to the Useful Employment of Leisure Hours, published by E. Landells in 1866, is almost entirely composed of suggestions for indoor amusements, with instructions for making paper and cardboard toys. Other books included chapters for both indoor and outdoor activities, including The Boy's Own Book, by William Clarke, published in 1829 and reprinted 1996. Clarke included numerous chapters on outdoor sports, as well as chapters on indoor activities such as tricks with cards and chemical amusements. Different games and activities are detailed in The Girl's Own Book, published in 1833 and reprinted 1992, by Mrs. L. Maria Child. Mrs. Child's suggestions include less vigorous games, most of which can be played either indoors or outdoors. Instructions for craft projects are for more "ladylike" pursuits, such as pressing flowers or dressing dolls. In the main, such books for children promulgated progressive notions of child rearing, encouraging moderation in all types of play, whether indoors or outdoors. These books mirrored the adult belief that children had to be trained to become model citizens through daily activities and amusements.

Most recreational books encouraged children to make their own toys in order to learn skills and promote creativity. Even today, commercially made playthings are often considered (by adults) to be inferior to the handmade toys of the past, continuing a debate that began as early as the late nineteenth century.

In some cases, there may in fact be a dramatic difference in toys and games from one generation to another. Shifts over time are especially important when studying indoor games, because this category of play has been so affected by the proliferation of manufactured toys, both for urban and rural children. In the 1993 The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Toys and Games, children from northern Georgia interviewed older residents about the past, compiling oral histories about toys and games. Most residents remembered making their own toys, especially dolls, and playing what folklorist Simon Bronner, in an introduction, calls "folk games." Indoor games were primarily for rainy days, when the weather prevented kids from going outdoors.

Games in Memoirs and Fiction

Memoirs of childhood from the nineteenth through the twentieth centuries rarely make direct references to indoor games. Play, while widely acknowledged by historians and sociologists as the primary activity of children, does not always seem to dominate childhood memoirs since they are works composed by adults about the past. The memoirs of urban writers differ radically from those of rural writers, and memoirs of middle-class childhoods are very different from the writings of authors who grew up in tenement buildings.

However, indoor games do appear in works of fiction from the nineteenth century. Particularly interesting is the work of Louisa May Alcott, best known for LITTLE WOMEN, published in 1868. Alcott described spontaneous indoor games in exhaustive detail, especially in her 1871 Little Men and her 1880 Jack and Jill. Like the authors of play manuals, Alcott emphasized the virtues of wholesome activities, such as crafts and cooking, but also mentioned commercially made toys such as dolls, building blocks, and miniature cooking stoves.

Studies of Games

By the end of the nineteenth century, children's play, especially games, were considered to be of such paramount importance to early development and growth that they warranted closer examination. Several major studies of children's play preferences are part of the historical discourse on toys and games. These studies collected data about toys and games in general, not about indoor games in particular.

In the earliest of these surveys, which was published in The Pedagogical Seminary in 1896, social scientist T. R. Croswell sampled about 2,000 children in Worcester, Massachusetts, public schools. This extraordinarily detailed study asked questions differentiating between different types of amusements, which he classified according to their perceived functions. The resulting favorites, for both boys and girls, were predominantly outdoor games, with a few, such as dolls and doll carriages, that could be part of either indoor or outdoor play. In general, girls included more indoor games among their favorites than did boys, for whom physical activities were more important. In a 1991 article, cultural historian Bernard Mergen observed that the play of boys and girls, as evidenced by their choices of toys and games, was much more similar at the end of the twentieth century than in the previous century, and postulated that this change was due to the ubiquity of electronic media.

Indoor Spaces for Children

Nurseries became increasingly common throughout the nineteenth century as the middle class became an established part of the urban landscape. Separate spaces for children were made possible by the construction of larger houses, and by the removal of labor from the home to outside places of business. For upper-class families, entire suites of rooms, often with a bedroom for a live-in nanny, completely separated children from the everyday activities of adults. However, for both middle-and upper-class families, the nursery served the purpose of protecting children from what was considered the corrupt world of adults, as well as preparing them for later entry into the grown-up world.

By the end of the nineteenth century, most nurseries were filled with toys, probably both handmade and manufactured. Unfortunately, very few images exist of playthings within the context of children's rooms. Through the course of the twentieth century, separate rooms for children or spaces allocated for indoor play have become even more common for families from all social classes. However, the availability of space is still an issue for poor and working-class families, especially in cities.

Indoor Games as Family Entertainment

Certain indoor games were popular as amusements for the family as a whole. With the advent of gas lighting (among other factors), evening entertainments became more common. In 1992, Shirley Wajda observed in her essay on the stereoscope that Victorians in particular were dedicated to educational games designed for self-improvement. Parlor toys included magic lanterns (precursor to the modern slide projector) and lantern slides, as well as the stereoscope and stereographs. Board games, card games, and jigsaw puzzles also fall under the heading of family entertainment and had the same goal.

Table games are still primarily educational in focus at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Classic games like Monopoly, invented in 1935 by Charles Darrow, also reflect contemporary values and interests, affording families the opportunity to play together on several levels.

Electronic Games and Indoor Games as Commercial Enterprises

At the start of the twenty-first century, computer and video games are among the most popular pastimes for children and adults. According to most sources, the first computer game (Spacewar!) was invented in 1962 by Steve Russell; the first game played on a television screen was invented in 1967 by Ralph Baer; and the first arcade game (Computer Space) was invented in 1971 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Since the 1970s, electronic games have become increasingly popular. In 2001, the Interactive Digital Software Association reported sales of computer and video games amounting to nearly 6 billion dollars, not including educational software.

Parents and professionals have expressed a number of concerns related to electronic games. The violence depicted in games is a popular subject for research, due partly to several prominent cases linking computer games to crimes committed by children. To date, however, no substantial evidence has been found to support this theory. Another early concern was that the solitary nature of electronic games would somehow impair the development of social skills in children by limiting recreational activities with peers. While computer and video games are, by definition, indoor games, smaller handheld gaming consoles (such as Game Boy) were designed to be taken outside of the home.

While the market for computer games is primarily geared toward older children and adults, other businesses have turned their attentions to activities for smaller children. An interesting contemporary development is the creation of indoor play spaces for children within commercial enterprises. Several American entrepreneurs have created businesses for the indoor entertainment of young people in particular. Gymboree, for example, which also sells children's clothing, was one of the first companies to market music and physical activity classes for small children. Other businesses simply maintain an indoor play space, usually complete with climbing equipment and other recreational devices. Both are in the business of stimulating the child's development, either physically or mentally. Often, play equipment is elaborate enough, and the spaces large enough, that they serve as a simulation of the outdoors.

Collections of Indoor Games

Most major collections of toys are primarily repositories of indoor games. Collections of toys and games can be found at museums and historical societies around the world. Of particular interest in the United States are the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, and the New-York Historical Society in New York City. The New-York Historical Society recently acquired the Arthur and Ellen Liman collection of games, which represents the largest publicly held group of American commercially manufactured board and table games. Other prominent museums include the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood and Pollock's Toy Museum in London, England.

See also: Children's Spaces; Street Games; Theories of Play.


Goodfellow, Caroline. 1991. A Collector's Guide to Games and Puzzles. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books.

Mergen, Bernard. 1991. "Ninety-Five Years of Historical Change in the Game Preferences of American Children." Play and Culture 4: 272–283.

Mergen, Bernard. 1992. "Children's Play in American Autobiographies." In Hard at Play: Leisure in America, 1840–1940, ed. Kathryn Grover. Rochester, NY: Strong Museum.

Page, Linda Garland, and Hilton Smith, eds. 1993. The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Toys and Games. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Tibaldeo, Alessandro Franzini. 1991. Guida ai Musei di Giocattoli d'Europa. Milan: Odos Editions.

Wajda, Shirley. 1992. "A Room with a Viewer: The Parlor Stereo-scope, Comic Stereographs, and the Psychic Role of Play in Victorian America." In Hard at Play: Leisure in America, 1840–1940, ed. Kathryn Grover. Rochester, NY: Strong Museum.

West, Elliott, and Paula Petrik, eds. 1992. Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850–1950. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

White, Colin. 1984. The World of the Nursery. New York: Dutton.