Sunday, February 10, 2013

Fun and Games on Regency evenings

by Maria Grace

These days, most of our evening entertainment centers around electricity: television, video games, internet, even our lighting is almost entirely electric. If the power goes out, we grow agitated, wondering what we are supposed to do to keep ourselves entertained until the power comes back on.

In the days before electricity, evenings, particularly winter evenings which kept families indoors with poor lighting, proved challenging for entertainment. Consequently, young ladies were often accomplished musicians and called upon to entertain their fellows in song. Cards were also popular, but often could only accommodate a small group at a time. To include larger groups at once, house parties turned to parlor games to while away the long evening hours.

Rachel Revel, spinster, published a book in 1825, ‘Winter Evening Pastimes or The Merry Maker’s Companion’ that offers guidelines for various amusements suitable for genteel company in the drawing room.  Many of the games are somewhat familiar, though we often consider them children’s games rather than adult pastimes. Even more interesting is the way that normal, strict social conventions might have been bent or even ignored for the sake of the play.

Some games allowed for the potential of physical touch that would earn censure in other contexts.

Buffy Gruffy is recommended as a fit substitute for Blindman’s buff for those good folks whose nerves could ill support the racket of the legitimate Blind-man's Buff, or were afraid of having their toes trod on, or their furniture bruised and battered.   One player, with a blindfold over the eyes, stands in the middle of the room. The others arrange their chairs in a circle and silently trade places. Someone claps to start the game. The blindfolded person passes around the chairs and stops in front of one. The player may use his knees to determine if someone is sitting in that chair, physical contact generally not permitted in polite social contexts, especially between gentlemen and ladies.
The blindfolded player begins questioning the seated player who answers while disguising their voice as much as possible. Here is an excellent opportunity for an individual to mock someone they do not like all under the guise of polite hilarity. After three answers, the blindfolded player must guess who they have questions. If they are correct, the seated player takes the blindfold and play begins anew.  Else, the blindfolded player moves on to question another.

Others games opened the possibility for people to say things most shocking. I can easily imagine a group of young ladies or young men conspiring together to cause their friends to say very surprising things in the course of this game.

Cross Questions and Crooked Answers: Players are seated in a circle. The starting player asks his  right-hand neighbor a question, as for example, " What is the use of a cat?" The person interrogated might answers, " To kill the rat, that ate the malt, that lay in the house that Jack built,'' or some other similar and somewhat ridiculous response. The player who has answered then turns to their neighbor and asks their own question, perhaps " What is the use of a looking-glass?" to which the answer might be “To reflect our perfect likeness.” 

The play continues around the circle with each player recalling the question they have asked and the answer they have given for at the end each player will recite the question asked of me was_______________ and the answer is of course______________.  In this case, they would say “The question asked of me was what is the use of a cat, and the answer is of course to reflect our perfect likeness.” If any player cannot recite their question and answer correctly, they must pay a forfeit.

Other word games offered the opportunity to ask questions of someone of the opposite sex that might not be otherwise asked.  It is not difficult to imagine humor used as  front for something more serious.

Short Answers: The players are seated in a circle, with a lady and gentleman alternately. A lady commences the game by asking her right-hand neighbor a question, to which he replies with a single syllable words. Longer words will exact a penalty, one for each additional syllable. He then turns to the next lady with a question to be answered with a single syllable. The questions may be mundane as in: Pray, Sir, permit me to ask if you love dancing? Or unique as in: Pray, Madam, what wood do you think the best for making thumb-screws? The challenge comes in that neither question NOR answer may be repeated. Any player who repeats a question or answer incurs a forfeit.

Musical magic provided, with the assistance of one’s friends, the perfect opportunity to flirt openly under the cover of being a good sport. 

Musical Magic: One of the party is made to quit the room until the rest determined what task he will be required to perform. The task can be as simple as snuffing a candle, for a novice player, or as complex as kneeling before another player, removing their ring and placing it on the finger of the other player, for an experienced player. The player is guided in divining his task by the playing of music from soft or loud.  When the player is close to the object or action he must do next, the music becomes louder until it stops when he has gotten it right.  The further away the player the softer the music. If the player in despair, gives up a forfeit must be paid and another player takes his place.

The aviary provides even greater latitude, allowing the players to confide a secret to another, openly and in public.  

The Aviary: The person who leads this game (the birdman) should have a very good memory to avoid blunders or a piece of paper and pencil to keep track of all the birds in the aviary. All of the players select a bird to be in the aviary and whispers their choice to the birdman.  The birdman then instructs: Ladies and gentlemen, my aviary is complete, and I will thank you now to inform me to which of these you give the preference, or which are objects of your dislike. The birdman then asks each player three questions:  To which of my birds you will give your heart? To which you will confide your secret? From which will you pluck a feather? 
The player will answer for example: I give my heart to the goldfinch ; my secret to the parrot; and pluck a feather from the crow. The birdman notes down these answers. Should the player select a bird not on the list, he must pay a forfeit and select another until the answers are complete. 

Once all the players have responded the birdman reveals the identity of each bird.   Then each player kneels to the bird to whom he has given his heart; discloses something in confidence to the bird chosen for the secret; and the person from whom a feather was plucked pays a forfeit.  

I must admit, after reading these, and many others of the games included in this book, I was quite surprised at how close to the line of impropriety many of these games might be. It is not difficult to imagine young people conspiring together to make these games work to their advantage in serious endeavors of flirtation and matchmaking. I wonder how many hearts were won and lost in the mists of these popular winter pastimes.

Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision and The Future Mrs. Darcy. Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook,  follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Interesting post, Maria, some games new to me - will keep them in mind for the next party...

  2. My eldest son read this over my shoulder and say he was taking notes or the next party as well!

    Thanks Margaret!

  3. Wonderful post, Maria. I can see these being used to good effect at a house party.

  4. These sound like fun games today, Maria! I can see some humorous situations from these past-times.

    1. I am certain they did! People haven't really changed at all.

  5. When I was growing up in the 1950's in North Jersey, I lived in an area where there were easily 30 kids in the neighborhood, and we would come up with all kinds of games. Very little was organized. It was wonderful. Thanks, Maria.

    1. I bet you've got some really awesome memories from that time.

  6. I too am old enough to remember playing charades at Christmas and other parties also pass the parcel, or passing a piece of paper on which your wrote the line of a story, folded it down and passed it to the next person who wrote the next line, and so on, or drew a head at the start, folded it over and the next drew a neck, then a chest etc. Simple but fun.

  7. These seem like they would be fun.


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