Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Whistful Memories: Poetry Playing Cards

Is it possible that popular poetry's most companionable print platform from the modern era is not the book or little magazine but the card—the greeting card (more here), business card (more here and here), postcard, calling card, game card, stereoview card (more here and here), remembrance card, funeral card, cabinet card, arcade card, and advertising trade card (another here), all of which forms regularly featured poems ranging from sappy holiday wishes and elegies to self-promotional verses and, in the case of arcade cards and some business cards, naughty rhymes? Last week, P&PC brought you a set of poetry trading cards from the 1920s, and this week we're happy to present the "Game of Poems," an attractively illustrated deck of 52 playing cards issued by the Fireside Game Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1898.

From 1895 to 1905 or so, the Fireside Game Company (and its successor, the Cincinnati Game Company) issued more than 35 educational card games, most modeled on the game of whist, aimed at students and teachers seeking to mix pedagogy and play. Deck themes ran the gamut, featuring everything from "Wild Animals" to "Strange People" and "Fractions," and including a heavy nationalistic bent in sets like "Our National Life," "The Mayflower," "In the White House," "In Dixie Land," and "Trip Through Our National Parks." The "Game of Poems" is no exception in this latter respect, as players collect tricks based on whether or not they compile, over the course of the game, complete "books" of poets representing America, Ireland, England, and Scotland, each nation being composed of thirteen card-poems featuring verse by four of the "standard poets" of that respective nation plus one "National" card. Class A (America), for example, gets Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant, Eugene Field and Rodman Drake's "The American Flag"; Class B (Ireland) gets Thomas Moore, Thomas Davis, Samuel Lover, Samuel Ferguson, and William Drennan's "Erin"; Class C (England) gets Thomas Hood, Tennyson, Byron, Gray, and James Thompson's "Rule, Britannia"; and Class D (Scotland) gets Burns, Scott, Thomas Campbell, Robert Tannahill, and James Hogg's "Caledonia."

You can play this game just as you would any other trick-collecting game—detailed instructions are included in the leather carrying case—but P&PC likes the Fireside Game Company's suggestions for how to add a "literary feature" or type of "progressive play" to "the evening's enjoyment." Here's what the instructions describe:
Rules for playing in the progressive method can readily be adopted, the addition of a literary feature adding to the evening's enjoyment. A short programme of readings or recitations, made up of selections from the poets, or of gems from current literature, may be arranged, and its rendition expected at the hands of the players winning the least number of points in any particular play.
In other words, the loser's fate is to be subjected to the public recitation of poetry! This isn't a suggestion made once, but again in regard to the "fateful thirteen"—the odd card out, which won't be collected into a set of four and thus "will eventually remain in the hands of the loser." "To add to his misfortune," the instructions explain, the loser "may be required to recite the National Ode of the particular nation he is known to favor the least." Take that, Catherine Robson!

In the growing game industry of the turn of the century, the Fireside Game Company occupied—was perhaps even the leader in—a market niche devoted to what The School Journal called "education by play." Noting in 1902, that "unless innocent and useful pleasures be given children, they may find harmful ones for themselves," for example, The Educator-Journal praised the Fireside Game Company's products:
In recognition of this fact, The Fireside Game Company, several years ago, published a line of beautifully illustrated Educational Home Games. About twenty-five of these, covering various subjects, were issued. They had a wide distribution for home use, and a great many teachers also employed them in their schools. The play rules were generally those of the old game of Authors.
Some of the card sets—like the "Wild Animals" series created by Louis M. Schiel, Principal of the 23rd District School in Cincinnati—were designed by teachers, and Fireside reached out to both teachers and students, pitching its set of "52 beautiful illustrations of the most popular poems" and asking people to write to the company of their game-playing experiences. Fireside sponsored a contest awarding $200 in prizes to the four best essays written by teachers on the subject of education games "as exemplified by the games copyrighted by the Fireside Game Company" and also offered free decks of cards to the first five hundred students who "write us the best reasons for liking their favorite game." That free deck, btw, would have saved a student two bits—the equivalent, accounting for inflation, of six or seven bucks today.

So what do you say to a "Game of Poems" night at the P&PC Office one of these days? The interns have promised to hitch up your horses, fire up the gas lights, have popcorn and whiskey at the ready, and "suitable souvenirs" for all who attend (as recommended by the game's instructions). If you're not frightened off at the prospect of having to recite your least favorite national poem in front of the entire group, then give us a call!