the origins of which date to Neolithic times, were homemade forms of amusement in the hands of American and Canadian folk artists. Before the advent of the phonograph, radio, or television, people played board games such as checkers (draughts), Parcheesi, or backgammon, as well as more unusual games such as Chinese checkers, Agon, or Mill, to while away the time in social settings. Some gameboards were made for unique games whose rules were probably known only by their anonymous creators. While a few were made of materials such as slate or reverse-painted glass, the majority of game-boards were painted on wood. The varieties of game-boards-ranging from primitive examples made by untrained amateurs to carefully painted boards exhibiting the most sophisticated of graphic designs, usually turned out by carriage or sign painters-are prime examples of folk art and are highly sought after by collectors.
One category of gameboards was designed for use at country fairs or carnivals. Made for games of chance (the wheel of fortune, ring toss, or penny pitch) they are larger and were produced using grain and carriage-painting techniques. Gold leaf and oil-or milk-based paints were used for the design elements, which include American flags and eagles, birds, flowers, hearts, horseshoes, houses, human or animal figures, mermaids, numbers, pinwheels, ships, stars, and the sun or moon. Occasionally, incised or chisel-carved designs, decoupage, wood marquetry, brass inlay, or stenciling was also employed.
Some gameboards were designed to fold into boxes and to store the playing pieces. Unfortunately, most handmade gameboards are usually found without their playing pieces. Two-sided gameboards, with a different game or some other decoration on the reverse side, were often designed. Homemade game tables, inlaid or painted in imitation of the game tables made by professional furniture makers in England, New York, or Philadelphia, are also to be found. Some later gameboards include homemade copies of popular lithographed games, such as Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders. The production of machine-produced games by companies such as Parker Brothers, beginning in the 1880s, sadly curtailed the long tradition of homemade games in North America.
As folk art, gameboards are expressions of individual artistic endeavors, but they also reflect the importance of social interaction, whether a game of checkers at the general store or a game of chance at the county fair. The best examples have become icons of folk art imagery. Displayed on the wall, they often stir irresistible comparisons to modern art, with their patinated, painted surfaces and bold graphic impact.
See also Decoration; Flags; Reverse-Glass Painting; Trade Signs.
BRUCE AND DORANNA WENDEL