Heads, Bodies, Legs: A Handmade Version of the Game from the early 1800s

From the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Heads, Bodies, Legs is a chain game for three, popular with children and adults (especially artists) that requires pencil and paper.   The group is supposed to produce a drawing together without any player seeing what the others have created. The first player takes a sheet of paper and draws a head and neck as detailed or simple as desired.  Player 1 folds down the paper so only a little of the drawing’s bottom can be seen.  Player 2 draws a body from the waist up consulting only his or her imagination, then folds the paper to cover his work.  The legs will be drawn by the last player.  Once the drawing is completed, the three players unfold the sheet to see what the figure looks like—the sillier or stranger, the better. The drawing on the left was made by artists James Guthrie, Edward Arthur Walton, and Joseph Crawhall, who frequently played the game the summer of 1879.

Also known as Picture Consequences, Heads, Bodies, Legs is played at children’s birthday celebrations or family parties.  This familiar game, which has no winners or losers, has been repackaged as a type of moveable book sometimes called a horizontal flap transformation.   The illustrator designs a series of figures to be printed on pages of cardboard, which are divided horizontally into three sections—the head on the upper third, the body on the middle, the legs on the lower.  The reader/player can make new figures by recombining any three sections into a different one.  The pages are frequently comb-bound to facilitate the process of mismatching the heads, bodies, and legs into peculiar people with unlikely physiques and gender-bending clothes, as in this double-page spread from Walter Trier’s 8192 Crazy People in One Book (London: Atrium, {ca. 1949] Cotsen 1605).  Mixing in characters famous in popular culture, caricatures, national, and racial stereotypes is also common. 

Text can added to the sections, as Helen Oxenbury did in 729 Puzzle People  (London: Methuen/Walker Books, c. 1980, Cotsen 26110), which provides a nonsensical scenario for every figure in the same spirit as Exquisite Corpse, a game the Surrealists found delectable.  This one on the left reads “All dressed up I waddle to build up my body.”

Before the twentieth century, what appear to be variant versions of Heads, Bodies, Legs turn up on the antiquarian market. Cotsen acquired a set ca. 1810  of 1 hat, 14 heads, 18 torsos, and 22 limbs drawn on heavy paper with watercolor washes, apparently drawn by one person.  It may have been made to be played as a parlor game, similar to one of a supplement to an old Boy’s Own Paper around 1880. “Some Social Transformations” has nine figures on the sheet, each to be cut in thirds and the resulting strips mounted on card.  All the strips were to be shuffled, then dealt to the group.  Player one lays down a pair of legs, then player two a body, and player three the head.

The figures that can be created  from this early nineteenth century set’s selections of heads, bodies, and legs are not anywhere as wacky as the modern ones because both sexes were required to cover the legs most of the time!  The gentleman in the black breeches with red slashings is wearing Elizabethan fancy dress, but his companion’s clothing is a mystery to me. Below them is a figure assembled from man wearing in the turban, a torso of another declaiming from a book, and the skirt of a pigeon-toed girl. The same thing holds for Metamorphosesn fuer Kinder= Metamorphoses pour les enfans=Child’s metamorphosis=Metamorfosi per fanciullia, a set manufactured in Germany for distribution across Western Europe between 1815 and 1825 (Cotsen in process).  although we have to concede the possibility that it could have been as titillating even shocking–for people then to see girls in trousers or boys in dresses as it is for us to see a chinless man in a frilly fairy’s tutu and saggy black tights with holes.

Pooping, Mewling and Puking: Iona Opie’s Babies: An Unsentimental Anthology (1990)

 “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

Carl Sandburg, Remembrance Rock (1948), chapter 2.

At first the infant, Mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms.”

Shakespeare, As You Like It, (1599),  II. vii.

One of the above didn’t make the  cut in Iona Opie’s anthology of poems, songs, quotable quotes, and anecdotes about the less admissible feelings babies inspire in new parents, siblings, the childless, and anyone who wonders momentarily if it wasn’t all a huge mistake.

It may come as a surprise to those who revere the monumental works of scholarship on the oral culture and lore of childhood Iona Opie co-authored with her husband Peter, that she did not labor under the illusion that normal boys and girls trailed clouds of glory as a matter of course. Much closer to the mark is this wonderfully succinct characterization of young human beings in the  Lore and Language of Children (1959) as “the greatest of savage tribes.”   This volume was not intended for seekers of sticky-sweet, inspirational sayings for baby shower invitations or birth announcements: it is for someone walking the floor with a colicky infant or anyone who has changed one too many diapers in one morning—the people on the front line of childcare day in and day out those first five exhausting years. And, I suppose, those who survived the experience, still love their children, and can laugh about it.

Cotsen recently acquired sixty-eight of the pen-and-ink and wash drawings by Australian illustrator Bob Graham, recipient of the 2000 Smarties and 2002 Kate Greenaway awards and a 2012 nominee for Hans Christian Andersen Award, executed with glee for Iona’s least-known and funniest work about childhood, which is a particular favorite of mine,   An added bonus is a three-ring binder containing Iona’s typescript of an interim version of the manuscript.

Here are some of Graham’s droll drawings and the selections (or excerpts) they accompany.

Paternal disillusionment

Needles and pin, needles, and pins,/ When a man marries his trouble begins;/ Blankets and sheets, blankets and sheets,/ When a man marries he’s bothered wi’ geits [children]


Paternal schizophrenia

Thou enviable being!/ No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky forseeing,/ Play on, play on,/ My elfin John!/ Toss the light ball—bestride the stick–/ (I knew so many cakes would make him sick!) With fancies buoyant as the thistledown,/ Promptin the face grotesque, and antic brisk/ With many a lamblike frisk–/ (He’s got the scisssors, snipping at your gown!)/  Thou pretty opening rose!/ (Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)/ Balmy, and breathing music like the South,’ (He really brings my heart into my mouth!)/ Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star–/ (I wish that window had an iron bar!)/ Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove–/ (I tell you what, my love,/ I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!)

Thomas Hood, “Parental Ode to my Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months,” Blackwood’s Magazine, Feb. 1837.

An Old Bachelor’s Meditation

What a lot of nasty little ugly babies in the streets,/ Being wheeled about in those confounded little chairs one meets!/ I mean those Perambulators, pushed by stupid, careless, blind,/ Lazy dawdling, idle, addle-headed servant girls behind./ Litte screaming chits of creatures, little wryfaced roaring brats,/ With their little absurd bows and feathers in their silly hats,/ Foolish little coats and jackets, flimsy little fancy frocks:/ Chubby faces, turned-up noses, and preposterous curly locks! 

“Perambulators and Pedestrians or, Mr. Crosswig’s Annoyance”

Toilet-training: The victim’s view

Who took me from my nice warm cot,/ And sat me on the cold cold pot/ Whether I wanted to or not?/  My Mother.

A parody of the classic19th-century poem on female self-sacrifice by Ann Taylor, “My Mother.”

Learning from mistakes

Once the pixies stole a baby,/ But it’s only fair to say/ That they very soon returned it,/ And on the very self-same day: /Who blames ‘em? 

Anon. Recitations, ed. B. Heitland, 1919.

At least they are adorable some of the time…