Pitching Pennies: Master Michel Angelo’s Juvenile Sports and Pastimes

Children pitching pennies against a wall in the school yard.

If you enjoyed “Cure for the Summer Time Blues” and “Stitching a Soviet Monkey,”  here is a third post featuring a children’s book with instructions for making things to play with.   Master Michel Angelo’s  Juvenile Sports and Pastimes (London: T. Carnan, 1776) describes an eighteenth-century variation of pitching pennies, called “pitch in the hole” or “dumps.”   Like so many pastimes of this period, it involved gambling and part of its appeal was providing a way of  vying for the other players’ pocket money.

The game did not have to be played with loose change–dumps could be substituted for small coins.  So what exactly is a dump?   Merriam-Webster has only definitions for “dump” as a verb; for its meanings as a noun, other sources have to be checked.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a dump is “a roughly-cast leaden counter, used by boys in some games.”   A  little more detail is provided by Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): “Dumps are also small pieces of lead, cast by schoolboys in the shape of money.”

Chapter V of Juvenile Sports and Pastimes explains how to make these playing pieces needed for a rousing game of pitch in the hole.  First, the mold must be made.  Master Michel Angelo was very particular about the material: he prefered for a nice piece of limestone chalk, which was not as soft as clay or as hard as freestone.  For the inside of the mold, take a piece of chalk about the size of a penny, saw it in half the long way, and  polish the two sides.  The outside mold required a second piece of chalk three to four inches long.   The sides had to be smoothed with a stone moistened with water, then set aside to dry for two days.  When the mold pieces were dry, the dies for the dumps could be drawn the size of a farthing or half penny with a compass circles, and then the circles hollowed out with a flat-pointed knife.  The last step of making the mold was to cut the channels for the molten lead to pass through the dies.    The insider of the mold was supposed to look like this, with A being the opening into the chamber and B, C, and E being the dumps.

Master Michel Angelo encourages his readers to decorate the dyes with designs more ambitious than roughly drawn crosses.   He illustrates two of his own making, which featured portraits of his parents.  A dump this detailed may take a day to carve, but he assured his readers, the workmanship will be so admired, that people will be willing to pay as much as a basket of fruit or several books for a single one.  He boasted of having sold many.

Now to cast the dumps.  While the pewter is melting over a fire, place the two molds together and wrap them tightly with a wet cloth (the wet cloth was to minimize burns from handling the hold mold).  Grasp the molds in the left hand, hold them at an angle some distance from your body, and pour the molten lead into the mold with a ladle.  It looks to me as if Master Michel Angelo is not following his own instructions to the letter…

When the molds have cooled down, carefully remove the dumps with  the fingers, taking care not to scorch them.  Trim away any loose bits and smooth the edges with a file.  Te The boy in the illustration below from  Richard Johnson’s The Misfortunes of Tommy Careless, or the Misfortunes of a Week (London: E. Newbery, 1793) seems to be mass producing dumps on the kitchen table.

To conclude the chapter, Master Michel Angelo described the lottery, a new game of dumps he invented which is suitable for playing in wet weather when boys are more or less confined to quarters.  Unlike pitch in the hole, it is not supposed to be played for money.   He recommended playing it on a paved surface, which made it easier to draw the following diagram of the game board.

A knife is inserted in a crevice between one of the stones.  Each player has one turn to toss his dumps at the knife.  As the rules are complicated, I  will let Master Michel Angelo explain them in his own words: “If it happens to fall in any of the outer squares, the master returns him his own dump, and gives him another besides; it if settles in any of the next smaller squares, he then receives two; and if in the third smaller class of squares, he then receives three, exclusive of that which he chucked: but in either of these cases, if his dump touches any part of the lines which divide one square from another, he forfeits his dump; and if it touches the black square which surrounded the center square, he forfeits two others.  If he is so fortunate as to lodge his dump in the center square, he then receives his own and six others; but if his dump happens ever so little to touch the black square, while the greater half o his dump remain in the center, he not only loses his own, but forfeits six others.”

Ready? Steady, go!

The History of Birthday Cake Decoration

Mrs. Quimby brings in the piece de resistance, ablaze with candles and festooned with swags and rosettes of frosting.

The perfect birthday cake in children’s books may appear in the last chapter of Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona (1955).  Beezus, who has just turned ten, is sitting in the living room reading one of her presents, breathing in the vanilla scent of birthday cake in the oven.  The moment could not possibly last with Ramona underfoot.  That afternoon the four-year-old menace succeeds in sabotaging not one, but two birthday cakes.  The day is saved when Aunt Bee picks up a fancy decorated cake from the best bakery in town to replace the eggy homemade yellow layer cake.

Whether or not we consider ourselves foodies, we are a lot more sophisticated about foodways than Beezus was in the 1950s.  She probably took it for granted that birthdays had always been celebrated at a family party with a fancy cake for dessert.  But the traditions surrounding birthdays are not all that well documented.  When Ramin Ganeshram’s controversial picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington was recalled in January 2016, I made a beeline for the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets to read up on the aubjuect of festive cakes.   I came away with the impression that the there is still a great deal to be learned about them, especially the birthday cake.  On a hunch that children’s books will be a valuable source of information on the history of birthday cakes, I’ve begun saving in a folder descriptions, stories, and illustrations of cakes and celebrations, a few of which I’ll highlight here..

Here’s a picture of a mid-nineteenth-century celebration of a young girl’s birthday.  Mamma in her spotless apron is about to set the cake down on the table, loaded with glasses, carafes of wine, and other delicacies.   The large, well-lit, elaborately furnished room is large enough for allow the guests to converse among themselves or to dance to the music provided by a obliging friend at the piano.

From The House that Jack Built: Amusement for Children at Home. London: J. Fairburn, ca. 1850 (Cotsen 46778).

Modern birthday parties put different pressures on mothers.  They may turn one book for planning the entertainments and to a manual for creating unforgettable cakes for the birthday boy or girl. The goal is an edible sculpture that should elicit “OOOOOs” and “AAAAAHHHHs” at its unveiling, not barely audible groans of “delicious” at the first forkful.  These elaborate cakes take so much effort to make that it would be criminal to carve them up into slices and plate. These are objects to admire, not gobble up, because they are expressions of  unconditional mother love and frustrated artistic urges.  Child psychologists are probably already arguing against making little people go these places on their birthdays. Perhaps in addition to the highly gendered confection a second, less fancy cake that no one needs feel guilty consuming is provided.

A galleon cake with inedible sails made of chocolate buttercream frosting over chocolate ice cream manned by pirates too respectable to sail with Long John Silver or Johnny Depp. From Sue Aldridge’s Children’s Party Cakes. London: New Holland, 1998 (Cotsen unprocessed).

A so-called enchanted forest cake summons up the fairy tale woods of Grimm. Many other cakes of this type are riffs on children’s classics or popular culture. From Debbie Brown, Enchanted Cakes for Children. London: Merehurst, 2001 (Cotsen unprocessed).

There are picture books about birthdays by women authors that send up this female urge to decorate stupendous cakes.  In Rosemary Wells’ Bunny Cakes, Ruby tries to make her little brother Max help her make their grandmother a birthday cake with raspberry fluff frosting bedizened with candles, silver stars, sugar hearts, and buttercream roses.  Max is not exactly cooperative, having a brilliant idea of his own, which is, of course, a gross parody of Ruby’s.   Being a good sport, Grandmother appreciates both mightily.  Following Max’s cake, is this similar, but much more artistic birthday cake of worms and fruit made by a boy hedgehog.

From Rosemary Wells, Bunny Cakes. New York: Scholastic, 1998, c.1997 (Cotsen unprocessed).

From Ana Walther, Borstel als Detektiv. Illustrated by Gerhard Rappus. Berlin: Verlage Junge Welt, 1990 (Cotsen 96609).

Is this all modern decadence?    Not likely. The elaborate modern birthday cake may be the descendant of the great plumb cakes (i.e. fruitcakes) prepared for Twelfth-Night parties.  Here is a late eighteenth-century engraving of a splendid one illustrating the title page of a collection of songs to be sung at holiday festivities.  The top of the cake is decorated with figures of all the characters listed on the title page and the sides are covered with ribbon swags, sprigs of leaves and other things which I guess are made of spun sugar.   Notice that the cake is so large it has to be placed on a small table with finger holes in the legs so it is  easy to transport from the kitchen to the drawing room.

Engraved title for the score of Reginald Spofforth’s The Twelfth Cake. London: Longman & Broderip, ca. 1793 (Cotsen 154502).

What curious minds want to know is, when in the nineteenth century did the light layer cake supplant the heavy, rich, fruitcake covered with royal icing?  A question for intense research!

Our donor Mr. Cotsen celebrated a birthday last weekend, so this post is dedicated to him…  Happy birthday, Mr. C.!