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.

A French Boy Illustrates his Arithmetic Work Book (1833)

A splendid cahier d’arithmetic made for a pupil by his teacher recently on the market.

Workbooks of arithmetical problems sound like the least likely of any elementary educational work to use illustrations as relief from the columns of figures.  That is a perfectly reasonable assumption if you learned basic arithmetical operations from the average twentieth-century textbook, which need not  appeal to the eye or imagination (there are exceptions, of course)..  While this may be true of printed workbooks, it is not really true in the case of the modern print genre of playful, colorful counting books or manuscript workbooks made before 1850. These manuscripts are frequently highly visual, decorated in a wide variety of styles, and their design and illustration offer intriguing evidence about how children acquired basic numeracy 1660-1850, that also raise questions with no easy answers.

Cotsen has added another example of a manuscript arithmetic workbook to its collection.  Le petit livret d’arithmetique was made by Jacques Gounon, a student  of M. Michel Francois “instruteur elementaire” in Moussac, a commune near Uzès in the department of Gard in southern France. The title page is dated 1833, but it is unclear if the year indicates the date of the beginning or the completion  (sometimes the student recorded the dates exercises were completed, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule).  Jacques used a very black ink that showed through the pages, making some of them appear to be covered with patches of scribbles that are more or less indecipherable.  The exercises on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division look as if they embody the traditional rule-driven arithmetic pedagogy dating back to the eighteenth century, but a historian of numeracy might able to identify the printed source Jacques’ teacher assigned or detect changes in the pedagogy after studying the manuscript.

Jacques, who seems to have had some artistic talent, drew headpieces throughout his workbook, none of them with any connection to the lessons below. His subjects are ones which would interest a boy—harlequins, horses, and soldiers.

The choice of some subjects, such as headpieces of the rooster perched on a trumpet, the dragon clutching a man in its claws, and the camel and reindeer bearing  flags, are opaque without some explanation.  My preliminary research indicates that Jacques’ illustrations and decorations had contemporary political overtones.

The two quadrupeds are expressing their solidarity with the current regime by flying the tricolore, whose use had been suspended at the beginning of the Bourbon Restoration in 1815 and recently restored after the July Revolution of 1830.  The rooster has long been an emblem of the French nation based on the play on words between gallus, a cockerel, and gallus, a resident of Gaul.  Somewhat eclipsed by Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic’s chief values of liberté, égalité et fraternité, it may have been a token of Jacques’ loyalty to Louis Philippe, Duke of Chartres, who ascended the throne after his cousin Charles IX was forced to abdicate by the July Revolutionaries.

The meaning and source of the dragon is somewhat mysterious.  Perhaps the beast  was inspired by cheap French popular print, like this block on the cover of a Valentine and Orson chapbook.  Its victim is wearing a hat.  Might it be a clumsy rendering of the Phrygian bonnet or liberty cap worn by French revolutionaries?

Was he directed by his teacher to illustrate some of the arithmetic assignments? If it were mandatory, was it a way of practicing other skills the teacher wanted him to learn? Or was the option of decorating  the workbook been offered as an inducement to plough through the material?  Was he free to chose the subjects without approval?  To answer these questions, we would have to know more about the school’s master and the curriculum he taught.  Was M. Michel Francois a writing master?   Was he trained by a professional calligrapher, who would have been more likely to have his pupils lay out the pages elegantly with embellishments?  Or was he a master who advertised his ability to teach his pupils the essential skills of writing and ciphering that would serve them well in trade and commerce?

Manuscript arithmetic workbooks are not just attractive because of their illustrations, but because they also present complicated puzzles for historians of education to crack.