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Friday, December 19, 2008

Milton Bradley's Toys and Games

Gearing up for Hanukkah and Christmas, let's have a look at one of New England's foremost makers of toys and games, Milton Bradley.

An earlier version of the following article was originally published in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine. The images belong to the Milton Bradley Company, a Division of Hasbro Corporation.

In the 1860s, an era when what few idle hours there were in the day were left to sleep, self improvement or prayer, Milton Bradley applied the Puritan work ethic to defying the Puritan work ethic, by encouraging the playing of games and having fun. His games were toys not merely for the amusement of children but to entertain the family, yet still tinged with guilt-edged propriety, such as his first game The Checkered Game of Life. With board moves toward “Honor,” “Disgrace,” and “Happy Old Age,” the game was more like a morality play than sidesplitting fun, but it was the shape of things to come.

Milton Bradley was born November 8, 1836 in Maine . When his father’s business failed, the family traveled from town to town and eventually came to Lowell, Massachusetts where his father found work in the mills. Milton graduated from high school in Lowell in 1854, and with his love of drawing, became apprenticed to a draftsman. Two years later, the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and Milton headed up river to Springfield, Massachusetts to find work.

He was 19 years old, and found a job at the Wason Car Works because of his drawing abilities. After that firm failed in 1858, Milton decided to open his own office in mechanical drawing. His biggest success for the Wason Company was to have designed a railroad car for the Pasha of Egypt. Now he applied his drawing to securing patents for his mechanical designs, and in 1860, bought a press for lithography, a new art in the United States.

His largest venture at the time was to publish and sell copies of a portrait of a then beardless Abraham Lincoln, who had recently been nominated for President. Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican and a Lincoln supporter, brought the project to Bradley. Bradley sold thousands of the portraits. Unfortunately for Bradley, Lincoln then decided to grow a beard. The picture was now outdated. Bradley destroyed most of the remaining unsold prints, but the beardless Lincoln photo is now a rare historic piece.

The story goes that his friend George Tapley tried to pull Bradley out of his despondency over the bearded Abe incident with a parlor game. This got Milton Bradley’s creative juices flowing again, and he decided to invent and print his own game, which was The Checkered Game of Life. He took the first of many trips to sell his inventions in New York City.

During the Civil War, Bradley worked at the Springfield Armory as a draftsman to help design the new model Springfield Rifle. The sight of a group of encamped soldiers in Springfield, far from the battlefield and idle in the fall of 1861, gave him the idea to make game kits for the Union Army. When not engaged in battle, most of army life in camp was tedious. Bradley filled the void with a small light kit of games which included chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes, and the good old Checkered Game of Life. A success, the “Games for Soldiers” was ordered by charitable organizations to distribute to the troops.

After the war, leisure time was pursued, and by some people, found. Bradley invented more games like Patriot Heroes and Curious Bible Questions, and a card game that was a forerunner to the latter-day Easy Money called What Is It or How to Make Money.

Bradley also manufactured croquet sets and developed a set of rules which are still used today. One of his most unusual toys was the “Myrioptican,” a series of pictures drawn on a paper roll in a drum device. The drum was turned by a crank and the produced the effect of illuminated scenes before a lamp. This was precursor to the “Zoetrope.” Additional scenes could be purchased for $2.50, and included the animated actions of a woodchopper, a hurdle race, a rope jumper, and a trapeze artist.

Bradley died in 1911, but his company continued to produce games, some of which, like Flight to Paris which fed on the excitement of Charles A. Lindbergh’s 1927 solo Atlantic flight did not stand the test of time. Others, like Yahtzee, are classics. One game died and was reborn. The Civil War era Checkered Game of Life was brought back in 1960 as part of the Milton Bradley Company’s centennial celebration, now called The Game of Life. The object of the 1860 version was to live a clean and moral “life.” In 1960, it was about how to end up at Millionaire Acres and not the Poor House. Priorities change.

Been to "Millionaire Acres"? Let us know.

Sources for this article include:
Springfield Homestead. May 31, 1911.
Charles Mercer, Springfield Sunday Republican. February 21, 1960, p. 2A.
Milton Bradley Company, a Division of Hasbro Corporation.

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