The Daily Heller: Booty for Neo-Victorian Gamers (Batteries Not Necessary)
It takes a lot of mental muscle, unerring passion and physical space to preserve American ephemeral pop culture. Chief among the experts is Noel Barrett. He is a fixture in the world of antique mass culture and one of the leading toy and game collectors in the nation. “Barrett is an active collector of optical and pre-cinema toys, lithographed paper and comic character toys, as well as salesman samples and advertising icons. He has written numerous articles for various collector publications, particularly Antique Toy World, and currently he serves as president of the Antique Toy Collectors of America,” reads an impressive bio on the website for “Antique Roadshow,” where he is a regular on-air expert.
For the past pandemic months, Barrett has been orchestrating and curating a large auction of superbly preserved vintage—mostly late 19th- early 20th-century—board games and puzzles, slated to be held on April 23 in Downington, PA. The games are part of a larger folk art auction of the Collection of Bud & Judy Newman. (Read more here.)
If American folk is your passion, this will not disappoint. And if the games discussed by Mr. Barrett below put a twinkle in your eye, go straight to page 7 of the auction site (in addition to the online catalog, a hardcopy book will be available) and hang on tight! These are not just games; they are a history of mores, morals, trends and styles. They are rooted in politics, society and all of America's light and dark spots. They are tools for play and indoctrination. They are ephemeral yet have survived over a century. I asked Barrett to speak more about these artifacts, and their monetary and cultural values.
Where did all these vintage games come from? And over how many years have they been collected? Forty-five years ago, Bud and Judy Newman’s game collection, comprised of over 850 classic-era games … it is the largest collection I know of. We sold the second-largest in 1992, the collection of pioneer game collector Herb Siegel. It included over 500 games—a watershed event in game collecting. The Newmans began buying in the late 1970s. We will be selling over 300 of their games in this first sale. The balance will be sold in two auctions in December, one catalogued and the other online only. Among the early English games are “The Noble Game of Elephant and Castle,” hand-colored printed paper on linen, marked on bottom “London, William Darton; 58.Holborn Hill, 1822” and “l’Orient or the Indian Traveler Game,” ca. 1840s, published by David Ogilvy at his repository for national toys and amusements. Both have auction estimates of $800–1,200.
What are the most rare and valuable items in the collection? The three most valuable in the auction were made by McLoughlin Bros., the most prolific 19th- and early 20th-century game manufacturer. “Bulls and Bears” was in [a] Seigel sale in 1992, estimated at $6,000 to $7,000. It hammered down at $32,000. In a 2018 Pook & Pook auction, an equally fine example sold for $17,000. The one coming up in this sale was sold to the Newmans in 2019 for $16,000, both plus a 20% buyer’s premium; it has an auction estimate of $12,000–16,000. Copyrighted in 1883, it has caricatures of [American monopolist moguls] Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Cyrus Field by Frederick Opper, famed political cartoonist of the day and creator of the classic comic character “Happy Hooligan.”
“Yellow Kid Ten Pin” may well outshine “Bulls and Bears” this time; it is only the second-known example in its original box. The “kid” is considered the first American [newspaper] cartoon character, and he was an inspiration for the phrase “yellow journalism.” We sold this one in 2003 to the Newmans for $22,000. We have it estimated in the sale for $12,000–16,000.
Another McLoughlin star is the elusive 1893 “Zimmer’s Own Base Ball Game,” featuring portraits images of 18 early Major League players on the colorful lithographed ball field. It is the highlight of the group of over 30 baseball-inspired games. It is estimated in this sale at $12,000–16,000.
The graphic design of the late 19th- early 20th-century games is stylistically very similar. How was the convention of board games derived? What excites today’s collector is the quality of the graphics and printing, which accounts for the popularity of McLoughlin Bros.—which [was] rightly famed for importing the best-of-the-best German printing presses of the day as well as having a stable of amazingly creative, generally unsung, artists. Two great examples of great graphics and outstanding lithography are the “Punch and Judy Ten Pins” set by McLoughlin, and the “Detective Game” by Bliss—another maker whose games are highly prized. Also impressive is “The United States Game” by Parker Brothers; at 34" long it is one of the largest games from the classic era, what I would call the Golden Age of American Board Games from the late 1870s through the early 1920s. The early English games and some [of the] American mid-19th century were hand-colored and not offered with boxes; [they were] simply folded in paper sleeves. Once high-quality full-color lithography came on the scene, games were on folding board [and] the need for boxes came into play, and creating strong and inviting imagery. The box lids became a major selling point.
There was an element of racism to some of the games—would you agree? A very disturbing aspect of some games in the Golden Age was overt racism aimed primarily at Black Americans. Among examples in the collection is a set of “Jolly Darky Ten Pins” and a “Jolly Darky Target Ball” toss target. Toy manufactures of the day were equal-opportunity racists. The Chinese and Irish were targets of gross caricature in the mechanical toys.
Who were the audiences for the games? Who were they aimed at? Children? Adults? The early 19th-century English games were most certainly aimed at the moneyed classes of the day, but the market widened in the post-Civil War era. The target audience for the games of the last quarter of the century was the fairly well-to-do families that enjoyed the enhanced lifestyle of the rising middle class. Many of the games picture Victorian-period families at play with the games, as well as depicting the middling and upper-class adults and children in leisure-time pursuits.
How do you think the auction will fare? With the exception of some sports- and Christmas-theme examples, the market in Golden Age games has been in a bit of a decline. Often it takes a signature collection, one like Bud and Judy Newman's, to give the market a bit of an uptick, if for no other reason then that there are quite a few games which haven’t been brought to the market for years. There are a goodly number of games bought at the 1992 Siegel sale, some of which are still the only known examples.