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 playthings.   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 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 suitable for playing in wet weather when 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!

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