Helpful Tips for Playing Games in a Corset: A Trip Through the Deep-Rooted Anxiety of Playtime | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian
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Helpful Tips for Playing Games in a Corset: A Trip Through the Deep-Rooted Anxiety of Playtime

As this gaming literature from the 19th century shows, games were nothing to play around with

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The magazine every kid awaited eagerly, Bradley’s Game and Toy Catalogue. 1889-1900.

Are video games making us violent? Is all that screen time playing Angry Birds bad for us? Are we becoming lazy and inferior beings? Concerns about how we spend our leisure time are so 21st century, but an 1889 catalogue of Milton Bradley’s finest toys and games reveals the anxiety is rooted in history. Playing games has had a bum rap for generations and game makers had to fight “a deep-rooted prejudice against all such pastimes.”

Great minds like Thomas Jefferson worried about the harmful effects of such activities. The third president once mused:“Almost all these pursuits of chance 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.”

Gateway temptations have long been plentiful.

From the Smithsonian Libraries, a recently digitized collection of catalog materials (which also include medical journals waxing poetic on the location of the human soul), we present an amusing sampling:

Cited as “a pioneer among the moral and instructive amusements which have been welcomed into our homes,” the Checkered Game of Life rewarded honesty and industry but punished gambling.

 

A cheaper option for home entertainment, carpet bowls prepared children for the “‘survival of the fittest’ in the sports of childhood, just as in any other relations of life.”

But enough with children’s games, how is a lady to entertain? A further search in the collections reveals helpful game playing tips from the Chicago Corset Company, which in 1887 offered women a how-to for throwing the liveliest, most rocking affair of parlor and lawn games, wearing, of course, the company’s latest hot-seller the, “Health Preserving Corset.”

In its Handbook of Games and Pastimes, women were admonished for wearing the competitor’s corset. By doing so, “she is preparing herself to be a dumpy woman.” The new corset with elastic material promises to maintain “the dainty waist of the poets” without contributing to the “perishing of the muscles that support the frame.”  Unlike men, who simply suffer from slovenly stooping, the text tells us, women lose height “by actual collapse.” Yikes!

Better materials made this corset an improvement and the Chicago Corset Company wanted to make sure society women knew all about it before they went off to play any lawn or parlor games.

Once instructed on the virtues of new corset models, the properly swaddled lady of leisure is free to play lawn tennis, learn to read palms and stage elaborate themed productions, such as: two young lovers trying to become intimate while a sleeping old woman waits nearby; Pocahontas and John Smith courting each other; or a soldier preparing for war. The guide offers step-by-step instructions for each role-playing game and, as a thoughtful reminder, the company advertises its Misses’ Corsets, to help “train your daughters to a healthy and symmetrical body.”

A game and corset for every age!

For the younger set, H.P. Misses’ Corset.

 

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About Leah Binkovitz
Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

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