• Tim Chambers

The Art Of The Game - A History Of Gameboards



It’s your move! History indicates games have been a part of people’s lives since time began. From the ruling class and idle rich, to the humblest of seamen sailing the ocean blue. Games were a way of passing time. While competing with others brought a sense of accomplishment to the victor! Finely crafted game boards made of exotic and rare materials were often found in castles and mansions around the world. In the earliest of times game playing was mainly left to those of the aristocracy as the working class was far too busy trying to make a living.

As mentioned, games were very popular among those who made sailing their life’s vocation. Sailing from port to port and country to country these men learned a variety of games many of which they shared with family and friends at home. It is likely this is how most games seemingly became popular simultaneously around the world.


By the middle of the 19th century a variety of events started bringing changes to the working class family’s everyday life. Some of these changes left time to spare at the end of the day. With the beginnings of ‘leisure time’ came the interest in popular games many of which were board games. As one can imagine there were very few forms of entertainment within reach of the average family in the middle 19th century.


Enter the home made game board! Very few things are needed to make a game board most of which could be found around the house. A scrap of wood, perhaps a straight edge or compass, and something with which to draw and you were ready to go! Like most things in the 19th century news often traveled by word of mouth. What was popular in one area would know doubt spread to other areas. So it was with popular games of the time such as chess and checkers, backgammon as well as less familiar games such as ‘halma’, ‘the old mill game’, and ‘fox and geese’. Each of these games consisted of a geometric playing field on a flat surface along with tokens of some sort to be used as ‘men’ for playing. Tokens could be anything from buttons to stones or simply slices of corncob. One was only limited by one’s imagination.


Imagination is what brought about what we now often refer to as American painted game boards. These works of art range from those with the simplest of forms made by farmers and tradesmen for their family and friends. They often have simple designs and colors with appeal coming from their bold minimal appearance. Sometimes referred to as ‘country’ game boards, these boards are virtually one of a kind, which also gives them special note in the collector’s eye. At the same time various shops were creating elaborate layouts finely painted by craftsmen. Such game boards were sometimes commissioned as gifts or as presentation pieces. These shops also painted and sold ready made game boards to the public. This category of game boards is often referred to as ‘coach’ painted boards as the craftsmen who painted these pieces also painted coaches and signs among other things.


The ‘golden age’ of American game boards is generally thought to be from the 1830’s to the 1930’s give or take with the vast majority being made from the late 1860’s on. By the early 20th century board games were being manufactured and sold at a reasonable price creating less need for homemade games. These accidental works of art seemed to have faded into oblivion through the mid-century. It wasn’t until a new group of collectors seeking naïve American folk art rediscovered game boards later in the 20th century. Thanks to those with vision we are once again ‘back in the game’! It was a privilege to help my friend, Selby Shaver, assemble a major game board collection several years ago. At the time there was little information on the subject save a single exhibition catalog titled, ‘Gameboards of North America’. Written by friends, Bruce and Doranna Wendel, this colorful catalog caused many of its readers to take note of this wonderful art form. Ultimately this inspired Selby to embark on a book of his own. Again, it was my privilege at Selby’s request to author a new book on the subject. Printed in 2001, ‘The Art of the Game’ became the first book published on the subject of American game boards since the early 1980’s. It is a hard back full color book featuring examples from the iconic to the average. Its purpose from the beginning was to share game boards from the Victorian to the primitive allowing the individual to not only see a variety of game boards, but to encourage them to develop their own personal taste. The book is available from me for $65 including delivery.

Blog author Tim Chambers can be reached by email at moplainfolk@gmail.com

The Art of the Game can be purchased at https://www.missouriplainfolk.com/the-book


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