A BRIEF HISTORY OF GAMES AND LEISURE
By Tim Lambert
Egyptian Games and Pastimes
For entertainment the Egyptians loved parties. If a rich person invited you to a feast, singers, musicians, dancers, jugglers, wrestlers and jesters would entertain you. Musicians played wooden flutes, harps, lutes, drums and clappers.
At a rich person's banquet guests were given a cone of perfumed fat to put on their heads. It slowly melted leaving the wearer smelling nice.
Egyptians also loved hunting and fishing. (For the rich hunting was for pleasure. For the poor it was for food). Men caught birds with nets or by throwing curved sticks. Fish were caught with hooks or harpoons.
Men and women went swimming. Men also enjoyed boxing, wrestling and archery. They also played a game which involved standing on a boat and trying to knock the opposing team into the water with a stick.
Egyptians also played a board game called senet. The board was divided into squares with counters. You threw sticks rather than a dice.
Egyptian children played similar games to the ones children play today. They also played with dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, ball, marbles, spinning tops and knuckle bones (which were thrown like dice).
Greek Games and Pastimes
The Olympic Games
Athletic competitions were held during religious festivals in every Greek city. However the Olympic Games began in Olympia in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, the chief god and people came from all over Greece and the Greek colonies to take part in them. Wars stopped to allow everyone to take part.
Athletes competed in boxing, wrestling, running, horse racing, chariot racing and the pentathlon (five athletic events). Winners were not given medals. Instead they were given a crown of leaves.
Women were not allowed to take part in the games. They were not even allowed to watch. (If they were caught watching they were executed by being thrown off a cliff).
The Greeks are famous for drama. Theater probably began with a group of people called a chorus singing and dancing in honor of Dionysus, god of wine. Then about 534 BC a man named Thespis added a single actor to the chorus. A second actor was added then a third. Eventually the three actors stood on a stage while the chorus stood in the foreground and commented on the action.
All actors were male and they wore masks. The audience sat in tiers of seats in a semi-circle. (Our word theater is derived from the Greek word theatron, which means the place where people listen).
The Greeks invented tragedy in which some great person is destroyed not by wickedness but through error. They also wrote comedies. (Our word comedy comes from the Greek word for merrymaking, Komoidia).
Life in Ancient Greece
Roman Games and Pastimes
In the towns another important building was the public baths. In Roman times people went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize. Roman Baths consisted of a frigidarium or cold room, a Tepidarium or warm room and a caldarium or hot room. You usually finished with a dip in a cold pool.
To clean themselves Romans rubbed their skin with oil and scraped it off with a tool called a strigil.
Larger towns also had an amphitheater where 'sports' such as cock fighting were held and sometimes gladiators fought to the death. Some Roman towns also had theaters.
In Rome there was a great amphitheater called the Coliseum. It was built in 80 AD and could hold as many as 55,000 people. A sun shade or velarium could be unfurled over the heads of the spectators.
The people of Rome were also very fond of chariot racing. There were four teams, greens, blues, reds and whites. Their supporters who often gambled on the outcomes of races treated the charioteers as heroes. However being a charioteer was dangerous and often ended in early death.
The Romans gambled with dice. They also played board games. Roman children played games with wooden or clay dolls and hoops. They also played ball games and board games. They also played with toy carts and with animal knuckle bones.
Games and Pastimes in the Middle Ages
Life in Anglo-Saxon times was hard and rough. Games for the poor must have been cheap like wrestling, running races and playing dice.
However life was good for rich Saxons. In the evenings they feasted and drank. During the day the main pastime of the rich was hunting. Rich Saxons kept falcons. In the evenings apart from feasting they enjoyed storytelling, riddles and games like chess. After feasts minstrels entertained the lord and his men by playing the harp and singing.
In the Middle Ages the main pastime of the upper class was still hunting. Lords hunted deer with packs of dogs and killed them with arrows. They also hunted wild boar with spears. Both men and women went hawking. In the evenings they feasted, danced and played board games such as chess and backgammon. In the mid-15th century playing cards arrived in England.
When he was not hunting the noble or night was fighting. Their wives were also kept busy. They had to organize the servants and generally run the household.
Knights also took part in tournaments. These events drew large crowds of spectators. At them knights fought with wooden lances, swords or maces. This was called jousting. There were also tourneys (fights between teams). Tournaments often lasted four days. Two days were for jousting, one was for tourneys and one was for archery competitions.
In the Middle Ages wealthy people also played board games. We are not certain where or when chess was invented. It was probably invented in India in the 6th or 7th century AD or possibly earlier. At any rate by the 10th century it was being played in Europe.
Games similar to draughts were played by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Arabs played a similar game and by the 11th century a form of draughts was being played in Europe.
Golf is believed to be a corruption of a Dutch word 'kolve', which meant club. The Dutch played games with clubs in the Middle Ages but golf developed in Scotland in the 15th century. Meanwhile the first recorded bowling green was laid out in Southampton in the 13th century.
Even for Medieval peasants life was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy days (from which we get our word holiday). During them poor people danced and wrestled. They also played a very rough form of football. The men from 2 villages played on a 'pitch', which might include woods and streams! There were no rules so broken limbs and other injuries were common. Furthermore in the Middle Ages people made skates from cow's shoulder blades and went ice skating.
People also enjoyed cruel 'sports' like cockfighting and bear baiting. (A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it). Gambling was also common.
Life in the Middle Ages
Aztec nobles played a ball game called Tlachtli. It was played with a solid rubber ball. Players were not allowed to use their hands or feet. They could only touch the ball with their hips, knees and elbows. Players tried to knock the ball through a stone hoop. The Aztecs also played a board game called patolli.
16th Century Games and Pastimes
Although the days of armored knights were over the rich still enjoyed tournaments. The contestants dressed in armor and rode horses. They fought with wooden lances and swords.
The rich also enjoyed hunting. They went hunting deer with bows and arrows. After it was killed the deer was eaten. The rich also went hawking and falcons were trained to kill other birds. However in Tudor times rich people did not hunt foxes.
The Tudors also liked wrestling and 'casting the bar', which was like shot-putting but with an iron bar. They also played billiards (but not snooker, which is a 19th century game).
The rich also played board games like chess and backgammon (a backgammon set was found on the wreck of the Mary Rose. It is the same as a modern one). They also tennis with a leather ball stuffed with hair. They also played bowls and skittles. Playing cards were also popular.
All classes gambled. Poor people gambled with dice. They also played games like shuffleboard (shove ha'penny) and nine men's morris. The Tudors also played draughts and fox and geese.
Music and dancing were also very popular. The printing press made books much cheaper so reading was a popular pastime for the wealthy.
Ordinary people played a rough version of football. There were no rules and the 'pitch' was often a large area including woods and even streams! It was a very rough game. Injuries like broken limbs were common. People also played with knuckle bones. In the most common version of this game you balanced knuckle bones on the back of your hand then flipped your hand over and tried to catch them. Furthermore cruel 'sports' like cockfighting and bear baiting were still popular.
Another popular entertainment was watching public executions! Criminals were hanged in public and large crowds turned out to watch.
In Tudor times people learned to swim using bundles of bulrushes as floats.
In the Middle Ages plays were religious. They were based on Bible stories or were meant to teach the people Christian values. In the 16th century theater became separated from religion. Secular plays were written, both comedies and tragedies. However Tudor governments were suspicious of actors. They were regarded as layabouts who did no useful work. From 1572 actors had to hold a licence.
In the early 16th century actors performed in market squares or inn courtyards. However in 1576 a man named James Burbage built the first theater in England. Others followed. Those who could afford the best seats were sheltered from the weather. However the poor customers stood in the open air. They were called groundlings.
There were no female actors in Tudor Times. Boys played women's parts.
Life in the 16th Century
17th Century Games and Sports
In the 17th century traditional pastimes such as cards and bowls continued. So did games like tennis and shuttlecock. People also played board games like chess, draughts, backgammon and fox and geese.
The wealthy also played a game called pale-maille (Pall Mall in London gets its name from an area where the game was played). Furthermore Charles II also made yachting a popular sport.
The theater remained popular in the 17th century. However the Puritans disapproved of the theater and in 1642 they banned it completely. Theater began again in 1660.
In the early 17th century the stage jutted out into the audience. In the late 17th century it took on its modern form. In the early 17th century boys played women's parts. However after 1660 actresses performed.
18th Century Games and Pastimes
Traditional games remained popular in the 18th Century. These included games such as chess, draughts and backgammon. So was tennis and a rough version of football.
Then in 1759 a man named John Jeffries invented an entirely new board game called A Journey Through Europe or The Play of Geography in which players race across a map of Europe.
It is believed that dominoes was invented in China in the Middle Ages. It reached Europe in the 18th century.
Horse racing was carried on for centuries before the 18th century but at this time it became a professional sport. The Jockey Club was formed in 1727. The Derby began in 1780.
For the well off card games and gambling were popular. The theater was also popular in the 18th century. In the early 18th century most towns did not have a purpose built theater and plays were staged in buildings like inns. However in the late 18th century theaters were built in most towns. Assembly rooms were also built in most towns. In them people played cards and attended balls. In London pleasure gardens were created.
Moreover a kind of cricket was played long before the 18th century but at that time it took on its modern form. The first cricket club was formed at Hambledon in Hampshire about 1750.
Also in the 18th century rich people visited spas. They believed that bathing in and/or drinking spa water could cure illness. Towns like Buxton, Bath and Tunbridge prospered. At the end of the 18th century wealthy people began to spend time at the seaside. (Again they believed that bathing in seawater was good for your health). British seaside resorts like Brighton, Bognor, Southport and Blackpool boomed.
Reading was also a popular pastime and the first novels were published at this time. Books were still expensive but in many towns you could pay to join a circulating library. The first daily newspaper in England was printed in 1702. The Times began in 1785.
John Spilsbury made the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767. He intended to teach geography by cutting maps into pieces but soon people began making jigsaws for entertainment.
In the 18th century many people still watched cruel 'sports' like cockfighting and bull baiting. Rich people liked fox hunting.
Public executions were also popular and they drew large crowds. Boxing without gloves was also popular (although some boxers began to wear leather gloves in the 18th century). Puppet shows like Punch and Judy also drew the crowds. Furthermore in the late 18th century the circus became a popular form of entertainment.
Smoking clay pipes was popular in the 18th century. So was taking snuff.
In the 18th century wealthy young men would go on a 'grand tour' of Europe lasting one or two years.
19th Century Games and Pastimes
In 1871 the Bank Holiday Act gave workers a few paid holidays each year. Also in the 1870s some clerks and skilled workers began to have a weeks paid annual holiday. However even at the end of the 19th century most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays.
In the early 19th century everyone had Sunday off. In the 1870s some skilled workers began to have Saturday afternoon off. In the 1890s most workers gained a half day holiday on Saturday and the weekend was born.
By the early 19th century many people disapproved of cruel 'sports' like bull baiting and cock fighting. Bull baiting was banned in 1835. Cock fighting followed soon afterwards.
During the 19th century sports became organised. The first written rules for rugby were drawn up in 1845. The London Football Association devised the rules of football in 1863. The first international match was held between England and Scotland in 1872. Meanwhile Australian rules football was invented in 1858.
In 1867 John Graham Chambers drew up a list of rules for boxing. They were called the Queensberry Rules after the Marquis of Queensberry. The Amateur Athletics Association was founded in 1880.
Darts has been played for centuries but in 1896 Brian Gamlin devised the numbering system on the dart board.
Several new sports and games were invented during the 19th century. Although a form of tennis was played since the Middle Ages lawn tennis was invented in 1873. Snooker was invented in India in 1875. Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith. Volleyball was invented in 1895 by William Morgan. Meanwhile basketball was adapted for women and it evolved into netball.
People have skated on ice for centuries but the first artificial water-based ice rink opened in 1876.
Ludo was originally an Indian game. It came to Britain c. 1880. Snakes and ladders was also an Indian game. It came to Britain in 1892.
Baseball is believed to have evolved from earlier games but it became an organised sport in 1845. The National League was formed in 1876. American football evolved in the late 19th century. The American Professional Football Association was formed in 1920.
Ice hockey became an organised sport in the 1870s. The International Ice Hockey Federation was formed in 1908.
Meanwhile the first recorded game of conkers was on the Isle of Wight in 1848.
At the end of the 19th century bicycling became a popular sport. The safety bicycle went on sale in 1885. Bicycling clubs became common.
Reading was also popular in Victorian Times. In 1841 Edgar Allen Poe published the first detective story The Murders In The Rue Morgue. The first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle. Furthermore many middle class Victorians enjoyed musical evenings when they gathered around a piano and sang.
Middle class people were also very fond of the theater. In the late 19th century there were also music halls where a variety of acts were performed.
In the 19th century going to the seaside was very popular with those who could afford it. The first pleasure pier was built at Brighton in 1823 and soon they appeared at seaside resorts across Britain.
The steam driven printing press was invented in 1814 allowing newspapers to become more common. Stamp duty on newspapers was abolished in 1855, which made them cheaper. However newspapers did not become really common until the end of the 19th century. In 1896 the Daily Mail appeared. It was written in a deliberately sensational style to attract readers with little education.
One new hobby in the 19th century was photography. Henry Fox Talbot took the first photograph in 1835. However photography was more than just a pastime. In 1871 a writer said that one of the great comforts for the working class was having a photo of a family member who was working a long way off. They could be reminded what their loved one looked like.
The first cheap camera was invented in 1888 by George Eastman. Afterwards photography became a popular hobby.
Meanwhile in the late 19th century town councils laid out public parks for recreation. The first children's playground was built in a park in Manchester in 1859.
The first World Weightlifting Championships were held in 1891. Furthermore the Olympic Games were revived in 1896. The first Olympic Winter Sports were held in 1924.
Lastly, for those who like shopping, the first department store opened in London in 1863.
Life in the 19th Century
20th Century Games and Pastimes
During the 20th century people had more and more leisure time. In 1900 the average working week was 54 hours. By the 1980s it was 39 hours. Furthermore in 1900 most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays. In 1939 a new law said that everyone must have one weeks annual paid holiday. By the 1950s two weeks were common and by the 1980s most people had at least 4 weeks annual holiday.
In 1900 Frank Hornby invented a toy called Meccano. In 1907 Robert Baden-Powell formed the boy scouts. In 1910 the girl guides were formed.
The first crossword was devised in 1913 by Arthur Wynne. Monopoly was introduced in 1934. It was followed by Scrabble in 1948 and Cluedo in 1948 and Twister in 1966. Rubik's cube was invented in 1974 but it was launched internationally in 1980. Trivial Pursuit was introduced in 1982 and Pictionary followed in 1985.
Meanwhile the first Grand Prix was held in 1906 and the first Le Mans 24 hour race was held in 1923. The famous basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters was founded in 1927.
The great age of cinema going was the 1930s when most people went at least once and sometimes twice a week. Early films were black and white but in the 1930s the first color films were made. (Although it was decades before all films were made in color).
Radio broadcasting in Britain began in 1922 when the BBC was formed. By 1933 half the households in Britain had a radio.
Regular, definition television began in Britain in 1936 when the BBC began broadcasting. TV was suspended during World War II but it began again in 1946. TV first became common in the 1950s. A lot of people bought a TV set to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II and a survey at the end of the that year showed that about one quarter of households had in Britain had one. By 1959 about two thirds of homes had a TV. By 1964 the figure had reached 90% and TV had become the main form of entertainment - at the expense of cinema, which declined in popularity.
At first there was only one TV channel but between 1955 and 1957 the ITV companies began broadcasting. BBC2 began in 1964 and Channel 4 began in 1982.
In Britain BBC 2 began broadcasting in color in 1967, BBC 1 and ITV followed in 1969. Video recorders became common in the early 1980s. Many video hire shops opened at the that time. At the end of the century videos were replaced by DVDs.
Portable TVs became common in the 1980s and satellite broadcasting began in 1989. Satellite or cable TV became common in the 1990s.
Meanwhile commercial television began in the USA in 1941. TV began in Australia in 1956. It began in New Zealand in 1960.
Personal computers became common in the 1980s. The internet became common in the 1990s and playing games online like scrabble and nine men's morris became popular. Furthermore in the late 20th century gardening became a very popular pastime. So did DIY.
21st Century Games and Pastimes
In the 2000s a number game called sudoku became popular in Britain.
In the early 21st century playing games on the internet became a popular pastime. The number of people with access to the internet exploded and playing games like bingo online became very popular.
A brief history of Holidays
A brief history of Toys
A history of Sport
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Last revised 2014