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.

Here’s a Ball for Baby

Cleaning house during the Firestone Renovation led to the discovery of treasures like this one.   To be truthful, Ian and I didn’t know what it was.  But it couldn’t be described more fully until we figured it out, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by internet searching to follow leads and make connections.

Cotsen 31857

Cotsen 31857

I’ve been working on processing collections material that needs to be moved out of a space that will be demolished during the renovation. Much of this material is unprocessed, otherwise under-described, or not accessioned. It’s been tedious work, but I’ve managed to blow the dust off some great items and uncover some diamonds in the rough.

One such surprisingly delightful item has been Baby’s Ball (pictured above), which I came across the other day. It’s a stuffed textile ball which includes a nursery rhyme accompanying 6 lithographed illustrations. The initial record for the item didn’t have much information. But after some careful sleuthing, Andrea and I were able to discover a lot about this Victorian baby toy.

Each illustration is accompanied by 2 descriptive lines of verse, one above and one below the image. We started our investigation when Andrea noticed that this nursery rhyme was vaguely familiar:

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“Here’s a ball for baby, nice and soft and round / here’s the baby’s hammer, hear the baby pound / here’s the baby’s soldiers, standing in a row / here’s the baby’s trumpet, hear the baby blow / don’t take the ball away, to make baby cry / here’s the baby’s cradle, to rock baby by”

At first, we found several versions of the rhyme on the web, but no attribution or history. It was most commonly referenced as a finger play, a nursery rhyme or other simple song that one also performs with hand motions. Itsy Bitsy Spider is probably the most familiar example. Frustratingly, though the song appears so well known, we couldn’t locate it in any of our reference books on early nursery rhymes.

But then we finally hit pay dirt! Andrea found that the original version of the nursery rhyme is attributed to Emilie Poulsson in her book, Finger plays for nursery and kindergarten (Boston : Lothrop Publishing Company, c1893) under the title “All For Baby”. This book, it just so happens, is in the Cotsen collection:

finger plays cover

Front cover, 86551

page38

page 38

page39

Page 39

page40

Page 40

Though we were able to learn more about the ball’s verse by locating a related item from Cotsen’s own collection; this didn’t help use discover any information about the toy’s manufacture. That information came from a much less likely source: eBay.

While looking for information on our Baby’s Ball, I stumbled across an auction listing for: Antique Dated 1900 Art Fabric Mills Cloth Rag Doll BABY’S BALL Rare Uncut NR yqz. At first it didn’t look pertinent. But after scrolling down the page I realized that the item for sale was an original uncut cloth pattern sheet for the very same ball now in our collection. From this eBay listing, we were not only able to learn about the manufacturer and dates of the item, but that it was probably stitched together and stuffed at home, after the purchase of the uncut sheet.

Below, I’ve Included 2 pictures from that eBay listing for reference. But you can click on the link above to see the original listing which includes more pictures of the uncut sheet.

Uncut sheet for Baby's Ball

Uncut sheet for Baby’s Ball

Patent and manufacturer

Patent and manufacturer

We started with no information on a cute Victorian cloth ball and a vaguely familiar nursery rhyme. We ended up with a fully described Baby’s Ball (New York : Art Fabric Mills, 1900) which borrows (liberally) from a well-known finger play originally written by Emilie Poulsson in her book Finger plays for nursery and kindergarten, just 7 years before the pattern for the ball was patented. In short, it was a fun day at Cotsen doing research on collections material.

Purely for your edification, I’ve embedded a video performance of the finger play as well:

This video comes from the YouTube channel WCCLS Birth2Six, where a few more finger plays have also been acted out.