“Of Toys I Scribble:” Christopher Comical’s Lecture upon Games and Toys


Books on children’s games published before 1800 anywhere in Europe tend to survive in remarkably low numbers and the 1789 Lecture upon Games and Toys in two parts is no exception.  There is one copy of the first part at the University of Pittsburgh and one copy of the second in Cotsen.   Even Peter and Iona Opie, the great collectors and scholars of children’s lore, language, amusements, toys, and books, did not have either part, so when Iona needed the illustration of boys playing trap ball for Children’s Games with Things (1997), she had Cotsen’s copy photographed (we were honored to have a picture in the last volume of the Opie trilogy on children’s games!).

From Iona Opie’s standpoint as a folklorist, Christopher Comical (whoever he may have been) was a disappointment because his text for the illustrations didn’t explain how the games were played.   Comical, as poet laureate to the Lilliputians, was a moralist who teased out the parallels between ephemeral pastimes, proverbs, and the serious business of life, a little like Jakob Cats, the famous Dutch writer of emblems for children.

But Iona certainly would have appreciated what the illustrations reveal about who played what, where, and why.   Aerobic exercise is for boys, as are team sports.  

Activities that increase physical dexterity can be for both boys and girls, although it looks as if girls have to practice their skills indoors decorously seated on a chair.The only game in the book that shows boys and girls playing together is battledore, which here is an indoor play, perhaps out of deference to the young lady’s modesty.  Even so, it is hard to believe that the players never got worked up and had fun smashing the battledore into the walls, the furniture, or face of the opponent.

The toys included in the book reveal the most about expectations for boys versus girls.  Activities with no purpose except to make noise are just for  boys.   Girls, however, appear delighted with a “useful” toy like a miniature spinning wheel that  encourages them to embrace the hard work of housewifely responsibilities.

Boys, on the other hand, can indulge in something like doll play with toy horses, which surely whetted the anticipation of owning horses for riding or driving fast.

There is something dispiriting  about a mirror being classified as a toy for girls.  The implication is that a girl, being naturally vain of her looks, will gaze at her reflection in the mirror for long spells, which makes it a kind of pastime that ought not to be countenanced.  There is no parallel object for boys…

I was amazed to discover that this two-volume “lecture”  on games and toys may have been inspired by an act in London around the time of its publication.   A Mr. Cresswick, a would-be actor and teacher of elocution, was giving public readings which concluded with “a series of moral and entertaining observations about a cabinet of toys.”  Could the frontispiece have been drawn from an actual performance?  The children are seated on benches or standing close to a man holding forth, with a whirligig in his hand, and several other toys strewn on the table in front of him.


The Children’s Books Anna Green Winslow Read in Boston 1771-3

Probably the most famous child diarist in colonial America, Anna Green Winslow wrote journal letters regularly to her parents in between 1771 and 1773 when she was living with her paternal aunt Mrs. Deming in Boston.   Her loyalist father, the commissary to the British regiments in Cumberland, Canada, sent his only daughter away from home to be “finished”–that is, to improve her penmanship at Samuel Holbrook’s writing school and to attend a sewing school to become more adept at plain and fancy work.  Luckily, twelve-year-old Anna liked her pen and her needle equally well and won praise for her pretty writing, her knitted lace, and her spinning.  Calling herself a “whimsical girl,” she recorded jokes that made her laugh.  But she also listened attentively to  sermons Sundays in the Old South Church congregation and could summarize the minister’s argument clearly and accurately. Of course, she liked clothes and “tasty headdresses.”  Early in her stay, she begged her mother to let her “look like other people,” that is, follow Boston fashions.

Anna was a avid reader as well, attending to her Bible, the newspapers, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  Alice Earle Morse, who edited Anna’s diary in the 1890s, recognized the titles of several Newbery children’s books imported from London.  Anna didn’t say much about their contents, so illustrating them with pages from the copies in Cotsen brings her reading experiences to life.

For New Year’s in 1772, she notes that she received a copy of the “History of Joseph Andrews abbreviated,” that is, the abridgment of Henry Fielding’s famous novel published by Francis Newbery.  “In nice Guilt and flowers covers” she says approvingly.  Here is the title page and the binding in Dutch gilt papers (it is actually the binding on the Gulliver below, which is much nicer than the one on the Fielding handsome)  If you look in the gutter, you’ll see evidence of oversewing to repair a well-read copy.

It was a very cold, snowy day on March 9th, 1772 and Anna applied herself to mending two pairs of gloves and a handkerchief and then finishing half a border for a new lawn apron for her aunt.  She also read “part of the xxist chapter of Exodous [sic] & a story in the Mother’s gift.”  The Mother’s Gift is not one of the better known Newberys and it’s impossible to tell which edition she had without any titles of the stories she read (it came in a two- and a three-part version).   It does include one about a girl who thought too much about her clothes and maybe Anna recognized herself in that character.

On April 16th, she dined at Aunt Storer’s, where her cousin Charles loaned her “Gulliver’s Travels abbreviated,” another Newbery abridgment of a work originally written for adults.   Anna reports that her aunt gave her permission to read it “for the same of perfecting myself in reading a variety of composures [probably compositions].  She sais farther that the piece was desin’d as a burlesque upon the times in which it was wrote.”  Anna’s spelling mistakes have been retained, by the way.

She went to “drink tea” at Aunt Storer’s on April 24th.  Her aunt loaned her three more of her cousin’s books, which is a bit droll, as cousin Charles was barely a year old.  This is what he had in his infant library: The Puzzling Cap, a riddle book; The Little Female Orators, an anthology of short fiction, and “Gaffer Two-Shoes” which almost certainly The History of Goody Two-Shoes.   Anna might have liked solving the riddles about the  writing slate and stays, even though the only underwear she mentions in the diary are her shifts.

In The Little Female Orators, she might have nodded approvingly at the two ladies warming themselves in front of a nice fire, especially because winter that year was especially bitter.  Sometimes the snow was so deep that Anna had to be carried home from writing or sewing school.

Being mighty proud of her shoes, whether decorated with pom-poms or marcasite buckles, Anna must have rejoiced with little Margery Meanwell when she received a new pair of shoes, which meant she no longer had to go barefoot.Surely this illustrated survey of the books Anna dipped into dispels the hoary myth that Puritan children were deprived of all entertaining reading!