Family Game Night: THEN & NOW

By The Heritage Society

Parker Brothers, Circa 1895.

Family game night has become an enduring part of American life. The shelves at today’s large retail and toy stores hold an amazing variety of board and card games. But how did America’s love affair with the modern board game begin?

As industrialization altered the fabric of American society during the 19th century, more people were able to enjoy a certain amount of leisure time in their daily lives. At the same time, this newly emerging middle-class had more disposable income, which fueled a burgeoning game industry. Companies sprang up to fill this growing demand, producing an array of board games, puzzles, table-top and card games. And much like today, the board games of yesteryear were advertised as a means of bringing the family together.

While some board games, such as chess and checkers, had been around for decades, the board game industry really took off during the 1890s with improvements in printing and paper manufacture. Games that emphasized morality were eventually replaced by games focused on sports, industry and current events.  Mirroring the change in American culture, winners of these new games were no longer the most pious players, but instead were more often the player who had accumulated the most wealth.

By the 1890s, three major competitors dominated the game industry:  McLoughlin Brothers, Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers. In 1860, at the age of 24, Milton Bradley formed the Milton Bradley Company to produce lithographs for local businesses in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bradley’s first game, The Checkered Game of Life, borrowed the format of the familiar checkerboard and incorporated into it a narrative of life as seen through the eyes of the New England Puritan tradition. Squares were labeled with opposing moral positions which led to inevitable consequences up or down the board – bravery upwards to honor, idleness downwards to disgrace. The object of the game was to achieve “Happy Old Age” instead of “Ruin.”

In 1858, John McLoughlin, Jr. formed McLoughlin Brothers, a company that reached its heyday in the 1880s and manufactured games such as The Derby Steeple Chase Game and Game of the District Messenger Boy, until it was bought out by Milton Bradley in 1920.

Perhaps the best known board game of all time, Monopoly, was originally created during the Great Depression by Charles Brace Darrow, who sold the rights to Parker Brothers,  who then went on to make it a money-making sensation and an icon of American popular culture.  So many variations of Monopoly themes have been produced over the years.  Even the city of Houston had a version in the 1970s called Houston Scene with properties such as the Astrodome, Hermann Park and Johnson Space Center.  One of the Chance cards reads, “You Forgot Your Husband’s Birthday – Advance to Sakowitz to Buy Him a Pair of Lucchese Ostrich Skin Cowboy Boots.”