The Games that Children Played
By Mel Robertson not LONG AGO an old friend
showed me an invitation to a birthday party that had taken place over 70 years ago. It was hand-written on a piece of good stationery and contained not only the invitation but also hand-drawn pictures of puppy dogs and teddy bears. It announced that "little" Jim was having a party on ... from 4 to 6 and that he would like to have "little" Billy attend it.
The invitation was not a printed one on which time and date could be entered but was entirely hand-produced by someone's mother, aunt or "hired girl". Since at least a dozen would have had to be prepared one could visualize the amount of work involved in preparing them. Then there was the added work of preparing the envelopes and hand delivering them to the invitees. Sending by post was ever done even though postal rates were low. Apparently sending by post was considered to take away the personal touch that was felt to be so important in the pre-electronic 1920s.
On the date concerned the children would arrive in their best clothes accompanied by their mother, an "aunt" or the "hired girl". At the house they would be taken over by the "Birthday" boy's or girl's mother, made to feel "at home" and thrust gently into the party group.
In my attempt, over the years, to describe the life of a 1920s Burford child I seem to have missed the very important role party games played in the lives of those far-off children. Thus I will recall a few of these games - some indoor and some outside.
Let us begin with the outdoor games that children expected at all parties and into which they entered without prodding and with great enthusiasm. The most basic of outdoor games was "Tag" in its several forms. This consisted of an "It" child chasing everyone until they could touch or "tag" someone. The "tagged" person then became the chaser. There was only one rule in "Tag" and that was the "I touched you last" rule which meant that a person who was "tagged" could not escape by "Tagging" the person who had just "tagged" them. (Sounds complicated, eh?) There were other versions of tag such as "squat tag" in which a person could avoid being "tagged" by squatting down. There was also "Cross Tag" in which you couldn't be "tagged" after you had run between two other players.
When children had become exhausted with "tag" more sedentary games were played. One of these was 'Pick the old Black Crow". This was not intended to sound like a racist game for every child was familiar with crows, knew that they were black and that they would pick up just about anything. I don't know where this game got its name but it was a common game in the 1920s and I won't enter into any "multicultural" arguments as to why children should have been discouraged from playing it. In this game the "It" person leaned against a tree or a post. All the other children gathered behind and one poked the "It" person in the back. That child then turned and tried to identify the "picker". This created great hilarity and provided a cooling-off game as no running was involved.
After the children had cooled off, some singing games would be tried. There were a number of these which involved singing and a certain amount of exertion. One such game was "Pom Pom Pull Away" or "Nuts in May". In this two teams were formed. Facing each other they would advance, singing "Here we come gathering Nuts in May." The other team would sing "Who will you have for Nuts in May?" Two children would be chosen and they would join hands and try to pull one or the other over a line between the two teams. This was done until one side had pulled all the other side "away". This game is a very ancient one and the name varies from "Nuts in May" to "Nuts and May". In the latter version the word "May" means hawthorne blossoms. Both interpretations of the word makes a ridiculous comparison.
Another less strenuous game was known as "Red Light" for reasons I cannot recall. In this all the children lined up along a line. The "It" person stood to one side and counted aloud to 10. While the count was going on the children ran toward another goal line but when the "It" person yelled "Red Light" they had to stop. If caught moving the "It" person would penalize them so many steps back. The winner was the child who got to the other goal line first without penalties. A favourite place for this game was the lawn in front of what is now
the township office but which in the 1920s was the Royal Bank. The two goal lines were the side of Aaron Rutherford's furniture store (now the Burford Flower Shoppe) and the sidewalk going into the bank.
Another two-goal game was called "Colours". In this two teams were formed. One stood on the startinggoal line while the other stood halfway between the lines. The idea was for one team to get to the other goal line while the team in the centre tried to stop them.
A colour was chosen as the starting signal and various colours were yelled out by the team in the middle. Since they did not know what color had been chosen as the starting colour they yelled all sorts of colours. When they gave the right colour the attacking team would assail the defending team with all its might and would try to break through to the opposite goal. Any attackers who were captured in the process became members of the defending team until all of the attackers had been captured. This could be a rather rough game.
Of a more peaceful nature was "Follow Mother to Market". In this the "It" person acted as a mother going to market. All the rest acted as a line of kids following her. They followed her singing "Follow Mother to Market" and would shout, "What will you buy?" Mother would answer "Butter" and the kids would yell "Rotten Butter". This went on until the "What will you buy" question was answered by Mother with the word "Switches". The kids would then yell "Rotten Switches" and Mother would turn and pursue them. Whoever she caught became Mother.
The only running game that needed any equipment was "Auntie-I-Over" (whatever that means). For this game a ball and a garage or wood shed was needed. Two teams were involved - one on each side of the shed. The ball was thrown over the shed with the words "Auntie-I-Over". If the team on the other side caught the ball they ran around and tried to capture the throwing team. This could be a very rough and
"Hide and Seek" was both an outdoor and an indoor game. Several rules were involved. First it was decided how many counts the "It" person would make before he or she began to hunt. This could be "To ten by ones" or "To a hundred by tens". The number chosen depended on the size of the place where children could find hiding places. When this was decided the "It" person folded his or her arms against a tree or post and counted aloud. Here the "No Peeking" rule was applied which meant that the "It" person could not see where the others were hiding. After the count was complete the "It" person would yell, "Ready or not, you must be caught. Hiding around the goal (always pronounced gool), you're It". This rule was invoked so that no one could hide right beside the goal and achieve an easy "Home Free". The "It" person would then begin to look for the hiders. If found they would race home. If they beat the "It" person to the "Home" post they yelled "Home Free". If they didn't they were "It". A team game of "Hide and Seek" was called "Lie Low". In this a team captain hid his, or her, team and then drew a diagram in the dirt to tell the searching team where to find the hiding place. To confuse the searchers the hiding captain would call out colours which would mean certain things. For example, if the word "green" was called it meant that the hidden team should move to the right or left or do something.
"Hide and Seek" could be played indoors depending on the size of the house in which the party was held.
Several other games could also be played either indoors or out. One was "Drop the Handkerchief. In this the children sat in a circle while the "It" person ran around behind their backs and dropped a Handkerchief Behind One Of The Circle. That person then got up and, by running in the opposite direction, tried to beat the "It" person to the place they had vacated.
A similar game was "Button Button". In . this the children stood in a circle while an ' adult walked around saying "Hold Fast All
I Give You". As she said this she would touch each child's folded hands. At last she would slide the button into someone's hands and yell "Button Button Who has the Button". Then everyone would try to guess who it was and the correct guesser received a piece of fudge.
Another good indoor game was "Hide the Thimble". In this the children were put in one room while an adult hid a thimble in the other. When she had done so she would yell "Hot Beans Come To Supper" and the kids would come in and try to find the thimble. As they searched the adult would call out "Hot", "Cold" or "Medium" depending on how close they were to the hiding place.
In houses with double parlours "Nuts in May" and similar games could be played with the arch between the rooms acting as the dividing line.
There was also a singing and kissing game called "Go in and out the window". In this the kids stood in a circle while a boy and a girl walked separately, weaving in and out of the circle. At some point as the kids sang "Go in and out the window as you have done before" they stopped and kissed. As I was very shy as a kid I never entered this game so I don't know how it ended.
Another more sophisticated parlour game was "Charades" in which two teams were chosen and took turns trying to act out a word.
In this the curtains between the two parlours were used as stage curtains with half the kids sitting on dining room chairs pretending they were in a theatre. For this game enterprising hostesses would bring old clothes, swords, etc. from the attic to make the play-acting more interesting.
Two popular musical games were "London Bridge" and "Mulberry Bush". In "London Bridge" two adults would join hands and form an arch under which children walked singing "London Bridge is Falling Down ... My Fair Lady." During this the adults would drop their hands and capture one hilarity as to who would be caught. "Mulberry Bush" was played by a circle of children walking around and singing "Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush... My Fair Lady". At some point the song included the words "All fall down" and everyone fell down. The last to do so was eliminated from the game.
The words accompanying these games are meaningless but it is interesting to note that the words "My Fair Lady" appear in both games. This leads one to speculate that the games are very ancient and were originally played by adults.
Of similar questionable origin was the game "Ring Around a Rosie, a Pocket Full of Posey". What was the original meaning of the word "Posey" and who was "Rosie"?
One childhood game that confuses me is one we called "Cheese It". I don't remember how it was played but what did the word "Cheese" have to do with it? The only clue I can gather is that the dictionary describes the word "Cheese" not only as a food but also as an imperative meaning to "Stop" or "Give over". Did the expression "Cheese it" refer to something kids did in the 1920s? If any of my older reader knows the answer I would like to hear it.
And so "little" Jim laughed and played the familiar games at "little" Billy's party and went home with some homemade fudge in a homemade basket. The party with its simple repetitious games may seem to have been dull to the electronically-intelligent children of the 1990s. However, in talking to several of my older readers, I have to wonder if 70 years from now 1990s children will remember Nintendo, computers and floppy discs with as much pleasure as people who were children in the 1920s remember being "It" at "Little" Billy's party. I will not hazard a guess, but I know one thing: 1920s children did not become bored if the electricity or batteries went dead, and they could count to ten without electronic assistance.