Curator’s Choice: Playing Old Maid with Hunca Munca and her Friends

When I was little, playing Old Maid with a specially designed set of cards beat a standard deck hands down.   The peculiar characters (caricatures, really) were much more satisfying than the bland flat faces of the kings, queens and jacks in the old Bicycle deck, with the cupids peddling for dear life on the red or blue backs…

It never occurred to me when my daughter was little to make her a unique deck of Old Maid cards, maybe because cards were not all that high on the list of fun things to do until Five Crowns came along.  Designing the twenty-odd pairs of characters would have a bit more than I was up to because repeated requests to draw the beautiful Chicken of the Sea mermaid strained by my artistic abilities were strained to the breaking point!

However, some children are lucky enough to know adults who draw well enough to craft toys and games for them.  Sometimes lucky curators are offered rare specimens that survived against the odds.  This little set of Schwarzer Peter cards is just one such find.  “Schwarzer Peter”—that is, “Black Peter”–is the name that Old Maid goes by in German, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, and Finnish.  The card with Black Peter is the hot potato that all the players try to get rid of as quickly as possible so it won’t be in their hand at the end of the game.  In this particular set, the Black Peter is depicted offensively as a black rag doll instead of the more usual chimney sweep.

inprocess item 6541473

inprocess item 6541473

The set has twenty-seven, not fifty-two cards, and seems to be complete because it fits perfectly in the blue box with the illustrated title label that reads in translation: “This game of Black Peter was painted for her dear friends Ernst and Anneliese Grossenbacher in St. Gall.”  It is signed Gertrud Lendorff, who just might be the Swiss art historian from Basel (1900-1981). The title label depicts a black baby doll and Lendorff’s model might have been a Heubach bisque character doll.  She redrew the same doll on the card with the caption “Der Schwarze Peterli! Nicht der Schwarze Peter!” [The little Black Peter! Not the Black Peter!].  It is an opprobrious caricature with unnaturally bright red lips.  But unlike some Heubach black baby dolls, it wears what looks like a knitted onesie instead of some spurious form of “native dress.”


The cards cannot be earlier than the 1930s: the pair with the Union Jack in the upper left hand corners consist of Pamela and “Margaret Rose aus England.”  Margaret Rose is a little girl in a blue coat and hat with a green scarf, who must be the late Princess Margaret (1930-2002), Queen Elizabeth II’s sister.


For the most part, the cards depict all kinds of toys made of porcelain, clay, celluloid, and wood, such as Hansli and the matryoshka doll Tatyiana and her five daughters shown below.


A famous character from children’s books also makes an appearance here: Beatrix Potter’s Hunca Munca from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, identified only as “nach einem Englischen Kinderbuch,” that is, “from an English children’s book.”  It’s amusing that the illustrations of Hunca Munca Lendorff redrew are the ones where this bad little mouse was behaving well relatively well.

Were the little Grossenbachers for whom Lendorff made the cards reading The Tale of Two Bad Mice in German translation?  Or was Lendorff introducing them to a childhood favorite of hers? The cards don’t provide any clues about the circumstances in which they were made or how they were received, but they are testimony to Potter’s appeal outside her homeland.

swiss cards_cover





It’s the first of April! Time to wash the lions again…

In the 1680s antiquarian John Aubrey was the first Englishman to mention the observance of April Fool’s Day.  He stated that it was celebrated all over Germany, but folklorists assume that the holiday was imported from France, where seems to have been well-established by the 1650s.  They also speculate that this mock-holiday arose to fill the gap as the tradition of sanctioning all kinds of misrule during the Christmas holiday season waned (think the cruel jokes perpetrated on Shakespeare’s Malvolio during Twelfth Night).   In comparison, April Fool’s was a more civilized occasion for mischief-making, being confined to one day and the only kind of horseplay authorized was to trick others into making public spectacles of themselves.

In the eighteenth-century England, perpetrating hoaxes upon the unwary was ubiquitous on April 1, if we can believe contemporary writers.   Age and class came into play because children were allowed to try and deceive adults and members of a higher class could impose on someone of a lower class. Making an April fool of someone was not below the likes of Jonathan Swift, who in 1713 sat up late with some friends cooking up a prank. Convincing someone to go on a wild goose chase (or sleeveless errand as it is also called) for things that didn’t exist, like pigeon’s milk or the biography of Eve’s mother, was a favorite ploy.

The first description of an April Fool’s sleeveless errand was described in a notice in the April 2nd 1698 issue of Dawk’s News-Letter: “Several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch [i.e. the Tower of London’s moat] to see the Lions washed.”   One of the city’s great tourist destinations, visitors since the reign of Elizabeth I went the royal menagerie to gawk  at caged lions, tigers, bears, elephants, etc.  The lions were kept in the barbican called the Bulwark, which was renamed the Lion Tower.  The fast-talking trickster would convince his gullible victim that every year on April 1 the lions were taken down to the moat for a bath.  All one had to do to enjoy the spectacle was enter by the White Gate.  Of course, there was no such gate or any wet lions…  In the nineteenth century, the merry sometimes distributed fake tickets of admission.

In honor of the day, here are two accounts of washing the lions from two eighteenth century children’s books, which may be unknown in the literature on the holiday (they are reproduced from the British Library copies on Eighteenth-Century Collections On-Line).  The first comes from the last chapter of Travels of Tom Thumb Over England and Wales (1746), where the intrepid little narrator confesses to being taken in by the story of the lions’ public grooming (he also mentions that the most common visitors to the Tower lions are pregnant women, who want to know the sex of their babies!) .

tom thumb tp tom thumb's travels text_Page_1 tom thumb's travels text_Page_2

The second, more substantial description of washing the lions comes from chapter 8 of Richard Johnson’s The Picture Exhibition (1783).  Here the narrator is a school boy, telling about the picture he drew of an April Fool’s prank in progress.  He clearly disapproves of the scene he records and there is something distasteful about the watermen’s gratuitous cruelty towards the poor fellow from the country.  While the tone of the narrator’s lecture about appropriate behaviour is too prosy for modern tastes, it should be said in his defense that he was expressing quite enlightened views at a time when blood sports were tolerated and jokes based on highly offensive gender and class stereotypes could be told without embarassment.

picture exhibition tp picture exhibition text_Page_1 picture exhibition text_Page_2 picture exhibition text_Page_3 picture exhibition text_Page_4

 P.S.  Princeton has a plethora of lions to wash, if anyone on campus wants to revive the tradition…                                                                                     lion2lion1