Spring 2012

In the Palm of Your Hand

A brief history of dexterity games

Barbara Levine and Jessica Helfand

Dexterity games—also known as palm puzzles, games of skill, patience games, and hand-held games—have been a source of fascination for adults and children since the nineteenth century. The fundamental hand-eye challenge of rolling a ball into a hole or tilting a capsule through a maze has proved among the most delightful, maddening, and enduring diversions of the modern age, despite (or perhaps because of) its sheer simplicity.

As vehicles for social history, dexterity games provided an entertaining and perpetually changing canvas of popular culture, one that led to the possibility of an unusual kind of sustained play: because they were so portable, players could easily transport themselves into worlds either familiar or imagined—at virtually any time.

All games courtesy Collection of Barbara Levine <projectb.com>.

While the first rolling-ball puzzles were available in England as early as the 1840s, it was Charles M. Crandall’s Pigs in Clover, introduced in 1889, that captured the enthusiasm of the American public. Legislators took the game into the senate chambers during debates, and Benjamin Harrison (US president from 1889 to 1893) is said to have played the game in the White House instead of tending to politics. By 1890, Selchow & Righter, manufacturers of the game, claimed that more than eight thousand orders for Pigs in Clover were arriving each day.

Beginning in 1891, the London-based firm of R. Journet & Company designed more than one hundred innovative glass-top dexterity games. The palm-sized games had wood or metal frames and contained movable objects, including clay or wooden balls, globs of mercury, and capsules loaded with ball-bearings. The first British Industries Fair in 1918 produced orders for large numbers of these “patience games” (especially from the US) and marked the real start of Journet’s puzzle business, which would continue well into the twentieth century. Over the course of these early years, dexterity games gained an international following and were also being produced in significant numbers and with distinctive designs in France, Germany, and Japan.

Dexterity games were immediately popular with people of all ages and backgrounds. In addition to the universal appeal of challenging hand-eye coordination, the games were both practical and entertaining. Over the years, the hand-held games became mirrors of a much wider range of consumer culture. Depicting scenes from important centennial events such as the Chicago World’s Fair and the coronation of England’s King Edward VII, they also reflected such simple diversions as baseball, bingo, and Chinese checkers. There were dexterity games featuring popular figures from Popeye, the Lone Ranger, Mickey Mouse, and Superman to Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, and the Dionne Quintuplets. There were sports themes featuring fishing or golf; train station challenges showing diner menu items at single-digit prices; and, by mid-century, a number of dexterity games celebrating the wonders of interplanetary space exploration, complete with Martians, spaceships, and asteroids.

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