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Fun is What

We bring you back to Issue 43, where Henry Alford rounds up a few Victorian parlor games and imagines their subsequent playing. It’s the perfect season to mix up some gin slings or some other bon-vivant worthy cocktail and take some passes at these delightfully lurid diversions. 

In days of yore, there was no home video game console called Wii. There was no such thing as Twister or Battleship, or joysticks; and outside of Dickens, Boggle was a verb but rarely a noun. No, back in the day—the Victorian day—people who wanted to play parlor games had to rely on their innate talents. They played games that bore names such as The Leg of Mutton; My Aunt Has Arrived in Paris; The Rat Hunt; The King of Morocco Is Dead; and Up, Jenkins!

It might be delightful to drink several cases of champagne and then play a few rounds of these entertainments of an earlier age, but it might also prove diverting merely to cite their instructions and then imagine what form an evening of such revelries might take—as I have done below, using the instructions for actual games collected in Edna Geister’s The Fun Book and Roy Finamore’s Parlor Games.


1. Hot Cockles.

Instructions: “A player kneeling down before a lady conceals his face in her lap, and places one hand, with the palm uppermost, on his back. The rest of the company advances in turn, each administering a slap to the open hand, the person kneeling meanwhile trying to discover, with face still concealed, who has bestowed the slap.”

John: Margaret, might I deem you lap provider for this round?

Margaret: But of course, dear John.

(John conceals his head in Margaret’s lap. The assembled players take turns slapping John’s hand in the manner of playful otters.)

Margaret: Only, John—do not press your head so! Your shiftings and flinchings approach vulgarity!

John (muffled):  I apologize, Margaret. It is only that the anonymous slappings betimes cause me to flinch.

Margaret:  But think of poor Margaret’s lap. Mother Nature did not intend for this part of the body to be injudiciously jostled. Particularly on the eve of your marriage to Polly.

John: Apologies, dear Margaret. Perhaps we should play a less vivid game, such as The Disappointment.


2. Ha!

Instructions: “First player says ‘Ha!’ to his neighbor, who adds a Ha and says ‘Ha Ha!’ to his neighbor, and so it goes around the circle.”

(The group sits in a circle. On seeing that John has positioned himself next to Margaret, Polly sits bulwark-like between them. John starts the game.)

John: Ha!

Polly (angrily): Ha ha!

Margaret: Ha . . . (She breaks down sobbing.)


3. To Kiss the One You Love Best Without It Being Noticed.

Instructions: “Kissing all the ladies in the company one after another without any distinction.”

(A flurry of kissing in the room, like a swarm of tiny birds tapping their beaks against glass. John gives various women quick pecks, but when he gets to Margaret, he lingers.)

(Margaret’s husband, Preston, punches John in the face.)


4. The Game of Trussed Fowls.

Instructions: “Two boys, having seated themselves on the floor, are trussed by their playmates. Each fowl endeavors, with the aid of his toes, to turn his antagonist over on his back or side.”

(John and Preston are trussed. They fight with intensity, nearly knocking over an ottoman, a lamp, Margaret. At game’s end, Eustacia, the party’s host, declares it necessary to clear the air by playing a particularly transporting game. One guest suggests Insects and Flowers, in which all the male players enact insects while the female players enact flowers, but the suggestion is met with scorn; another guest’s suggestion of A Big Sneeze, in which various members of a group simultaneously say the words “hish,” “hash,” and “hosh” to simulate a large sneeze, meets with tepid interest. Finally, a winning suggestion is made.)


5. Baby Caps.

Instructions: “The host prepares infant headgear for all the guests. If anyone thinks it might detract from the fun of an evening to have all the guests, men and girls alike, cavorting about with dainty white baby caps on their heads—let that ‘anyone’ try it.”

(Using swaths of tissue paper that she ties to people’s heads with ribbon, Eustacia outfits all the guests with baby caps. The look is very Head Injury.)

John: This damnable infant gear starts to cut off one’s circulation!

Polly: Perhaps it will reduce the swelling of your head.

John(Seeing that she is crying): Dear Polly, please forgive my indiscretions. It is only that parlor games, particularly when played in the nervous-making imminence of our nuptials, have a tendency to unbridle.

Polly: Well, bridle up, Comanche.

John: It is done before you can say it.

Polly: Thank you. (He nuzzles her. Her tissue-paper cap crinkles softly, like falling snow.) And, dear John, how am I to keep such roguishness from persisting once we’re wed?

John (thinks for a moment. Then):  Never take me to a party where they’re playing a game called Hot Cockles.


Henry Alford has written for the New York Times and Vanity Fair for over a decade. He has also written for the New Yorker. His last book was How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth), which was named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly. In January, 2012, Twelve Books will publish his book about manners, Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners.

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