Collectors argue that it’s the sheer simplicity of dexterity games and puzzles that helped them survive when other fun games landed in the dustbin of history.
The simple hand-eye challenge of rolling a ball into a hole, or sliding, nudging and tilting a capsule through a maze, has proven to be among the most delightful, maddening and enduring diversions of the modern age.
Bill Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop [https://www.eliwhitney.org] in Hamden, Connecticut, said dexterity games reached their zenith between the 1890s and the 1920s before radio, and eventually television dominated family parlor entertainment.
“At the turn of the century, these dexterity games would help fill the evening hours with fun-filled challenges where eye-hand coordination was essential in successfully playing with these games and puzzles,” Brown said.
Soon after the games became popular with the public beginning in the late 1800s, they were produced in large number in the United States, England, France and Germany. The games could be found in doctors’ offices, train stations, and rainy-day game rooms of seaside resorts – in essence anywhere that required waiting. Some experts even nicknamed them “patience games.”
Susan Hettinger, secretary of the Antique Toy Collectors of America [https://atca-club.org], thinks more of dexterity games as stress busters.
“In the 1944 film noir movie Laura, actor Dana Andrews plays a detective and calms his nerves by playing a hand-held dexterity puzzle of nudging a ball into a series of holes on a baseball diamond,” said Hettinger, the proud owner of 4,000 dexterity games and puzzles.
Hettinger points out that her massive collection is a reflection of history, advertisements, illustrations and graphic design that are rich and revealing about the world.
“There were dexterity games to celebrate the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and there were dexterity games that shadowed presidential politics like the one I have challenging players to nudge Teddy Roosevelt’s teeth into the right place on his face,” Hettinger said.
Major historical events were also fair game for dexterity puzzle creators. Dexterity games were produced to commemorate Admiral Edwin Perry reaching the North Pole in 1909.
Herb Bassett, an avid collector of dexterity toys and puzzles from Vancouver, British Columbia, said dexterity games are all just simple manipulation in your hand like tilting the game back and forth to get the balls in the holes or putting the baby on the potty. Some of his collection includes palm puzzles of Adolf Hitler and his march into France during World War II.
Bassett said dexterity games can range in price from $20 to more than $600, depending on their condition and rarity. And most collectors are proud to share their knowledge about the intricate games.
Barbara Levine’s global collection of dexterity games, for example, was the focus of an exhibition entitled “In the Palm of Your Hand: Dexterity Games 1880-1960,” presented by the San Francisco Main Public Library [https://sfpl.org/].
Nic Ricketts, curator of games at the National Museum of Play at The Strong [https://www.museumofplay.org] in Rochester, New York, said that from a commercial standpoint, the very first dexterity puzzle was “The Pig’s In Clover,” which was first produced in 1889 by Charles Martin Crandall, a famous toy maker and inventor.
“When Pig’s In Clover first went to market there was a frenzy among buyers – a fad which had a renaissance in the 1930s,” Ricketts said. Although susceptible to fads, dexterity puzzles have been pretty much evergreen since their inception.
Dexterity puzzle mazes tend to involve the proper positioning, manipulation and segregation of small balls, avoiding holes and obstacles to an exit from the puzzle or towards the body or pen. Although the balls and other materials have evolved from clay, to lead, steel and even mercury, the technique and style remain consistent.
Veteran game collectors also point out that Crokinole is a sort of flagship for dexterity game lovers. It dates back to Canada in the 1870s. It is a simple “flicking” game in which players go back and forth flicking small pucks into the middle of a circular wooden board in order to get points. There are three “rings” that score more points depending on how close to the middle your puck stops. If your puck lands in the center hole, the gamer is rewarded with bonus points and you remove your puck. What makes the game so interesting is that when you flick your puck from the outer line you must touch one of your opponent’s pucks or your shot does not count. This gives the game a tension and back-and-forth flow.
To keep the evergreen nature of dexterity games, Ricketts said The Strong has digitally recreated some of the more popular hand-held dexterity games. Created in partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Second Avenue Learning, the games represent nearly 150 years of play history.
The initial launch features, among others:
- Pigs In Clover: An 1889 game in which players navigate four balls through a maze.
- Aero Race: Players pilot three jumping beans from one corner of the game to the other as they recreate the competition to fly from New York to Paris.
- Niagara Puzzle: Players must send a stream of balls into the whirlpool at the bottom of the Falls.
Staff from The Strong and faculty and students from RIT spent months researching, playing and photographing the original games in The Strong’s collection to capture this history and the games’ exact mechanics. [Learn more about the digital game app at https://bit.ly/2UTRLLl. The free download is available for Android (Google Play) and Apple (App Store) devices.]
Trevor Wright, a retired history professor from Wheeling, West Virginia, said dexterity games are a part of American culture that live on because of their unique adaptability.
“They are simple and easy to transport, and harken back to a time when families actually took time to be together after a hectic day at work,” said Wright, who collects the dexterity games spawned by 1950 television heroes like Rin Tin Tin, the German Shepard dog that helped soldiers at Fort Apache establish order in the American West.
Wright said that toys and how we interact with them tell us a lot about our history and where the future may lead us.
“I’m always hopeful that kids today will put their cell phones away and jump into some traditional play with games and puzzles that give them a sense of history and their place in it,” Wright quipped.
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