Victorian Jollity | Newberry

Victorian Jollity

Some people divide games into two rough categories: those you play to win and those you play for funsies. The first category covers everything from Monopoly to Red Rover, Red Rover. The second covers things like, say, Mad Libs. I know there are versions of that with scoring systems, but a lot of people jettison that in favor of coming up with wildly weird narrative.

Last week I was dealing with a family game of that nature, called “What D’ye Buy”, or, to give it its full and official name, “The Laughable-Game of What D’Ye Buy by Professor Punch.” It originated with one British inventor and game-maker around 1850, but as it consisted primarily of cards and other printed material, it was pretty easy for other companies to produce their own versions. The one I was handling was published in Philadelphia by Samuel Hart. The classic format of the game box was a wooden case with a sliding wooden lid, featuring a picture of Punch (one half, with Judy, of the classic puppet show.) Mr. Hart seems to have had in mind a more portable format, so his version is in a small wooden box with a leather cover that folds over the top to form the lid. This one had been well-preserved, and the cover was fully intact.

Like Mad-Libs, this was not so much a game to win as a game to giggle over. Each player (2 to 12 were recommended) was given a trade card: a cartoon showing caricatures of a Doctor or a Blacksmith or a Fishmonger or some other merchant. These cards, as far as I can tell, have little or nothing to do with the game, but maybe I’m missing something. Anyway, these cartoons are now one of the main attractions of the game.

Then 72 object cards were likewise dealt out to the players. Each of these cards represented something you might buy from the merchant in question: a soused mackerel from the Fishmonger or a plucked chicken from the Poulterer. MAYBE you each got the items associated with your merchant, but I don’t think so. Part of the appeal of the game is how random this deal of cards is.

The leader of the game then read aloud from the Storybook which came with the game. This told a series of very short, simple stories, with blanks where a significant noun should have been. Coming to this blank, the leader stopped to look at one of the players. (I don’t know which one, whether they went in some sort of order by the trade cards, or what have you.) The player chosen would turn over the first of the object cards in their stack and fill in the blank.

The resulting story might run like this:

“My razors had been taken to chop firewood, so I used (a soused mackerel).

I then washed my face in (a slop pail),

Cleaned my teeth with (a bunch of turnips),

And combed my hair with (an iron coffin).

I now woke my wife and asked what she had nice for breakfast and she said (an emetic).

Then I scolded Sukey, the servant, and called for (a poke bonnet),

But she saucily told me I was no better than (a bunch of carrots).”

The story goes on and on until the house comes down and all are killed in the demolishments. You get the idea: the game is won by everyone as the story gets sillier. The point is that no one knows exactly where their word is going to come in the story, and, as in the more free-form Mad-Libs, there are opportunities for the story to get a bit naughty. I am certain that among our ancestors there were some who took blank cards and filled in even more alarming answers.

The box, as noted, is in nice shape on the copy we have, and there are still fifty of the original seventy-two object cards. But there is only one trade card left (the doctor, a perennial favorite) and one page of the storybook. But, withal, it’s a nice bit of a game for being about 150 years old, and perhaps the missing bits can be downloaded somewhere.

Or you could just buy one of the many Mad-Libs books people give us, and get a similar experience. And if you want to keep score, it’s up to you.