What America’s First Board Game Tells Us About the Aspirations of a Young Nation

Released in 1822, the Travelers’ Tour Through the United States took players on a cross-country adventure

Map from the Travelers’ Tour Through the United States
The Travelers’ Tour Through the United States featured a map of the then-24 states. Library of Congress

Board games are booming: In 2023 alone, the industry topped $16.8 billion globally, and by 2032, it’s projected to reach $40.1 billion.

Classics like Scrabble are being refreshed and transformed, while newer inventions such as Pandemic and Wingspan have garnered millions of devotees.

This growing cardboard empire was on my mind when I visited the American Antiquarian Society in August 2023 to research its collection of early games.

As I sat in that archive, which houses such treasures as the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in British America, I beheld another first in American printing: a board game called the Travelers’ Tour Through the United States.

This forgotten game, printed in 1822, the year after Missouri became a state, has a lot to say about America’s nascent board game industry, as well as how the young country saw itself.

Descriptions of American towns and cities
The game featured brief descriptions of 139 American towns and cities. Library of Congress

An archival find

Produced by the New York cartography firm of F. & R. Lockwood, the Travelers’ Tour was an imitation of earlier European geography games, a genre of educational game. These activities generally used a map for a board, and the rules involved players reciting geographic facts as they raced toward the finish.

The Travelers’ Tour first appeared in 1822, making it the earliest known board game printed in the U.S.

But for almost a century, another game was thought to hold that honor.

In 1894, the game manufacturer Parker Brothers acquired the rights to the Mansion of Happiness, an English game first produced in the U.S. in 1843. In its promotional materials, the company declared it “the first board game ever published in America.”

That distinction ended in 1991, when a game collector found the copy of the Travelers’ Tour in the archives of the American Antiquarian Society.

The cover of a later edition of the Mansion of Happiness
The cover of a later edition of the Mansion of Happiness Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A new game for the new year

By 1822, the American market for board games was already becoming established, and middle- and upper-class parents would buy games for their families to enjoy around the parlor table.

At that time, New Year’s—not Christmas—was the holiday for gift-giving. Many booksellers, who earned money from the sale of books, playing cards and other paper goods throughout the year, sold special wares to give as presents.

These items included holiday-themed books, puzzles (then called “dissected maps”) and paper dolls, as well as games imported from England, such as the New Game of Human Life and the Royal and Entertaining Game of the Goose.

A copy of the Game of the Goose
A copy of the Game of the Goose Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since the Travelers’ Tour was the first board game to employ a map of the U.S., it might have been an especially interesting gift for American consumers.

It’s difficult, however, to gauge just how popular the Travelers’ Tour was in its time. No sales records are known to exist, and since so few copies remain, it likely wasn’t a big seller.

A global database of library holdings shows only a few copies of the Travelers’ Tour in institutions around the U.S. And while a handful of additional copies are housed in museums and private archives, the game is certainly a rarity.

Teetotums and travelers

Announcing itself as a “pleasing and instructive pastime,” the Travelers’ Tour consists of a hand-colored map of the then-24 states and a numbered list of 139 towns and cities, ranging from New York City to New Madrid, Missouri. Beside each number is the name and description of the corresponding town.

Using a variant spelling for the device, the instructions stipulate that the game should be “performed with a Tetotum.” Small top-like devices with numbers around their sides, teetotums functioned as alternatives to dice, which were associated with immoral games of chance.

Once spun, the teetotum landed with a random side up, revealing a number. The player looked ahead that number of spaces on the map. If they could recite from memory the name of the town or city, they moved their token, or traveler, to that space. Whoever got to New Orleans first won.

Teetotums were used in an era when dice were associated with vice. Museum Rotterdam via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

An idealized portrait of a young country

Though not necessary to play the Travelers’ Tour, the descriptions provided for each location tell historians a lot about America’s national aspirations.

These accounts coalesce into a flattering portrait of the nation’s agricultural, commercial, historical and cultural character.

Promoting the value of education, the game highlights institutions of learning. For example, Philadelphia’s “literary and benevolent institutions are numerous and respectable.” Providence boasts “Brown University, a respectable literary institution.” And Boston’s “citizens … are enterprising and liberal in the support of religious and literary institutions.”

As the game pieces meander toward New Orleans, players learn about Richmond’s “fertile backcountry” and the “polished manners and unaffected hospitality” of the citizens of Charleston. Savannah “contains many splendid edifices” and Columbia’s “South Carolina College … bids fair to be a valuable institution.”

A 1792 engraving of a building at Brown University
A 1792 engraving of a building at Brown University Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Absent from any corresponding descriptions, however, is any mention of what politician John C. Calhoun called America’s “peculiar institution” of slavery and its role in the fabric of the nation.

And while four entries briefly reference Native Americans, no mention is made of the ongoing dispossession and genocide of millions of Indigenous people.

Though it promotes an American identity based on a sanitized version of the nation’s economic might and intellectual rigor, the Travelers’ Tour nonetheless represents an important step toward what has become a burgeoning American board game industry.

Two centuries later, board game culture has matured to the point that new titles such as Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Votes for Women push the genre to new heights, using the joy of play to teach the history of the era that spawned America’s first board game.

This article is republished from the Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Matthew Wynn Sivils is the director of Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities.

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