Jack’s Alive to Card Castles: Entertainment in the Victorian Parlour

By Rebecca Bowden, Associate Acquisitions Editor

The upper and middle classes of the Victorian period had more leisure time than their counterparts of previous generations, yet they did not have the electronic devices which sap much of our free time in the twenty-first century – televisions, games consoles , mobile phones… our Victorian ancestors had to create their own fun!

One of the ways in which they went about this was by playing parlour games: group games played indoors, often in the parlour. A lot of these games are still played today: Blind Man’s Bluff, Wink Murder, and ‘Simon Says’ all started out as Victorian parlour games. One of the most well-known is Charades, where one party-goer acts out a book, play or film (the latter was presumably added later), and everybody else has to try and guess what it is. But parlour games could be anything from these minor physical activities, to word play and riddles, to far more elaborate and ludicrous escapades. I decided to hunt through Gale Primary Sources to find some of the most interesting.

The first two references I found were in British Library Newspapers. Parlour games were especially loved around Christmas, and a December issue of Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post describes a game called ‘The Traveller’:

‘The traveller leaves the room and then the company determine the country he is to visit and prepare accordingly. Say he is to guess Germany, you have a student, with a long pipe, a book and spectacle; Turkey, a lady in a turban, reclining on a sofa-cushion; Lapland, a tent with natives sitting round a fire. This may be made with a few chairs turned upside down and a table-cloth thrown over them; natives wrapped in shawls etc. The traveller comes in at a given signal and must guess the country shown, or pay a forfeit.’

“PARLOUR GAMES.” Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 20 Dec. 1882. British Library Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6vsEk4. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.

While the stereotypes and language are certainly outdated, the game itself still holds up. Indeed, the board game Spyfall starts along a very similar premise!

Another option comes from the Dundee Courier, again a December edition. In ‘Card Castles’:

‘the players sit either side of a long table and build a two-tier card castle. This is protected with one hand, while the players aim their remaining cards at their adversaries’ castles. The side who knocks down the other side’s castles first wins the game.’

“Three Parlour Games.” Dundee Courier, 31 Dec. 1901, p. 7. British Library Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6vsFr3. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.

This sounds like a physical precursor for the tower defence games that populate our iPhones.

Parlour games became so popular that entire books were dedicated to them. Home Amusements: A Choice Collection of Riddles, Charades, Rebuses, Conundrums, Parlour Games and Forfeits, by Peter Puzzlewell, is one such that appears in Gale’s Nineteenth Century Collections Online.

Puzzlewell, Peter, et al. Home Amusements: A Choice Collection of Riddles, Charades, Rebuses, Conundrums, Parlour Games, and Forfeits: by Peter Puzzlewell, Esq. Grant and Griffith, [1854?]. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6vsBL8. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.
Mr Puzzlewell suggests ‘The Elements’ to be a good game to occupy one’s evening with a group of likeminded friends:

‘The party sit in a circle; one throws a handkerchief at another and calls out, “Air, earth or water?” and the person whom the handkerchief hits must name a creature native to the element called, before the caller can count to ten. If a wrong one is named, or the person does not speak quickly enough, a forfeit must be paid.’ (p.155)

The book also provides a selection of riddles and conundrums, if the assembled party would prefer to exercise their brains, although now we might term these ‘Dad jokes’… (for answers, see below!)

    1. ‘If Queen Victoria gave Prince Albert a kiss, and he returned it, what public building does it name?’
    2. ‘Why is the letter D like a sailor?’
    3. ‘Why are pens, ink and paper like fixed stars?’
    4. ‘What river is that which runs between two seas?’
    5. ‘When is a gooseberry pudding not a gooseberry pudding?’[1]

    Another example is George Arnold’s The sociable, or, One thousand and one home amusements, originally digitised as part of Sabin Americana.

Arnold, George. The sociable, or, One thousand and one home amusements : containing acting proverbs, dramatic charades, or drawing-room pantomimes, musical burlesques, tableaux vivants, parlor games … Dick & Fitzgerald, [1858]. Sabin Americana, 1500-1926, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6vttF9. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.
Published in New York in 1858, the book suggests that such pursuits were just as popular in the USA as they were in the UK. One particularly odd game is titled ‘Jack’s Alive’:

‘A small piece of stick is lighted at one end and the blaze blown out, leaving sparks. It is then passed from one of the company to the next on his right hand, and so on round the circle, each on saying, as he hands it to his neighbour, Jack’s Alive. The player who holds the stick when the last spark dies must consent to have a delicate moustache painted on his face with the charred end of the stick, which is then relighted and the game goes on… In case the moustache decorations are objected to, a forfeit may be paid instead.’

Mr Arnold even offers us a much older variation of what is still a much-played game today: Kiss, Marry, Avoid (or more brutally: Kiss, Marry, Kill!) He, however, titles it ‘Cupid’s Box’, and highlights that the game is ‘invented to compel forfeits.’ The player who commences –

‘offers a box to his right-hand neighbour, and says, “I sell you my Cupid’s Box, which contains three phrases – To Love, to Kiss and to Dismiss.” The neighbour answers “Whom do you love? Whom do you kiss? Whom do you dismiss?” At each of these questions, which are put separately, the person who has given the box names some individual present whom he Loves, Kisses or Dismisses. The person whom he kisses must in reality kiss him, and the one that he dismissed pays a forfeit.” (p.220)

You will note that a common occurrence in most of these games is the accumulation of forfeits; indeed, many of them exist entirely for that purpose. Both Mr Puzzlewell and My Arnold’s books also provide suggestions for such forfeits, which include:

  • Hobson’s Choice, in which one end of a cork is blackened, you are blindfolded, and must choose either the right or left side of the cork. Whichever you choose is then rubbed across your face.
  • The Pilgrim: a gentleman conducts a lady around the circle, requesting ‘a kiss for my sister and a morsel of bread for me’ when encountering gentlemen, and ‘a morsel of bread for my sister and a kiss for me,’ from the ladies.
  • Kiss someone through the tongs.’
  • Dance a hornpipe.’
  • Ariadne’s Leopard: ‘The penitent, on his hands and knees is obliged to carry round the room a lady who is seated on his back, and whom all the gentlemen (himself excepted) are privileged to kiss in turns.’
  • The Knight of Rueful Countenance: the player must carry a lighted candle and select another player as his squire. The squire leads the knight around all the ladies in the company and kisses the hand of each, wiping the knight’s mouth with a handkerchief after each. The knight must look suitably grave throughout.

Although a number not listed here do require the penitent to perform an intellectual feat, a significant number are focused around ridiculing the accused or are contrived to allow as much kissing as possible. A far cry from the repressed image of Victorian England that one so often imagines! In this way, Gale Primary Sources has been an excellent tool for probing the depths of social history, of discovering different sides to the past, and of understanding the roots of the things we still do today. And if your next party is looking a little dull, well, these delightful past-times in Gale Primary Sources have you covered!

Riddle Answers

  1. The Royal Exchange
  2. It follows the C
  3. They are stationary
  4. The Thames (Battersea and Chelsea)
  5. When it’s a little tart.

Blog post cover image citation: Puzzlewell, Peter, et al. Home Amusements: A Choice Collection of Riddles, Charades, Rebuses, Conundrums, Parlour Games, and Forfeits: by Peter Puzzlewell, Esq. Grant and Griffith, [1854?]. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6vsBL8. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.

[1] Ibid.

About the Author

Having joined Gale in December 2017 with a background in business to business publishing, I am enjoying learning more about the world of digital archives. I love the diversity of Gale’s archives, and discovering the unique stories hidden within them. In my spare time I like doing a variety of unusual sports, a lot of baking, and curling up with a good book.