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Game Board Art

Game Board Art – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – October 2001

By Adam Halterman

From trash to treasure, the last hundred years have brought dramatic changes in the antique world’s concept of value. Folk art, once frowned upon by snobbish aesthetes, now dominates the market. This, of course, was not always so, and those early days when the rustic work of unschooled artists first captured the imagination of visionary collectors teach an important lesson about market value and inherent value. When artists Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, pioneering folk art collectors in the 1920s, first began seeking out these curiosities, they were not doing so to make a buck, but because something about the pieces spoke to them. At this same time, poet William Carlos Williams adopted “No ideas but in things” as his credo. While he was thinking in terms of modernist writing, these words have particular resonance in the antiques world. With so much attention paid to price, age and progeny, collectors sometimes lose sight of the thing itself; the very reason they collect in the first place. It is refreshing, from time to time, to step back and, forgetting the market, see things with fresh eyes.

It is this approach to looking at pieces, not in terms of market value and trends, but in terms of their inherent meaning that Missouri antiques dealer Tim Chambers fell into when asked by friend and collector Selby Shaver to put together a book featuring Shaver’s collection of handmade game boards from the late 19th and early 20th century. No stranger to the business end of the antiques world, Chambers found himself unable to shake the sense that Shaver’s collection was larger than all that. “I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the undertaking until I was well into it,” remarks Chambers. “I discovered there is no simple way to define this remarkable collection.”

The self-published book, The Art of the Game, follows none of the conventions collectors expect from antiques books. Organized by color, rather than chronology or type, and presented with a clean, spare design, the book is more a meditation, an object lesson in seeing, than anything else. It begins simply with the thing, pictures of nearly 200 game boards, but its resonance is bottomless.

What makes the game boards in this expansive collection so compelling is their meaning as folk art, graphic design, and cultural history. They hearken back to a time remote enough to pique the imagination, yet similar enough to speak to us today. In order to understand just what these boards have to say, it is important to keep in mind the context from which they came, both in terms of gaming and society at large.

The final quarter of the 19th century, from which the earliest of Shaver’s game boards date, marks a unique time in our history. While mankind has always partaken in social and leisure activities, industrialization effectively separated work, home, labor and leisure in way that everyday people had never known. This revolutionary concept of “free time,” while subtle, was reinforced by a myriad of activities and destinations vying for people’s time. Though games had been manufactured in America for over a hundred years, it is no coincidence that large manufacturers such as McLoughlin Brothers, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th century with unprecedented success.

 The awareness that manufactured games were readily available at this time makes Shaver’s collection all the more intriguing, revealing the fact that the making of these game boards was itself a popular pastime. The book covers the full spectrum, from simple boards made by folks who may not have had enough money for store-bought games, to sophisticated boards made by professional sign painters and the like to showcase their skill.

In a way, the rise of hobby game board making mirrors the rise of recreational quilting in America. Whereas quilting, with its sewing and domesticity, appealed to women of the time, gaming, involving competition and pursuit, was a man’s realm. But they both spring from a common desire to create and are a window into the daily lives and pastimes of yesteryear. Interestingly, quilts and game boards speak a similar visual language. The utilization of color and shape to create a cohesive whole, the way the colors and shapes interact, and the repeated patterns are remarkably similar and betray an eye for graphic design.

Looking through Shaver’s collection, one is struck the quality of the game boards. They were light years beyond what, functionally, they had to be. Through the artistic details and overall balance of the painting shines true dedication and pride. One can imagine the hours these boards spent sitting on parlor tables or on barrels in country stores as game pieces moved leisurely over them.

Shaver was first drawn to these handmade boards some fifteen years ago because of his background. “I grew up on a farm in North Carolina. Entertainment was something you had to come up with yourself,” remembers Shaver. “The first board I ever bought was a simple checker board that reminded me of my childhood.” What makes this collection so special is the range of responses it produces. For Shaver, these boards conjure up very personal memories, for others they may evoke a nostalgic lost era of American history and Culture. Either way, they continue to intrigue and fascinate with their endless colors and hidden histories.

There is simply something about them that refuses to fit into market niches and be treated as merchandise. Perhaps this is because there is something almost haunted about them, as in all things people leave behind. It is the hours put into making and using these games and the secret stories they have to tell which make the collection so arresting and imaginations start to turn.

The Art of the Game: A Collection of Vintage Game Boards
From the collection of Selby Shaver
A book by Tim Chambers

Game boards of the 19th and early 20th centuries could easily be dismissed as naïve attempts to amuse previous generations. Often upon closer examination of pieces from the past we not only gain appreciation for the effort put forth; we recognize the progression from past to present. Perhaps at no other time in history have the graphic arts played a more integral part in every day life as they do today. From a myriad of images used to entice consumers to the nearest computer monitor, the vehicle used is graphic art. An art not lost to those of an earlier time who sought to create diversion with panache.

The Art of the Game provides an eclectic journey through the graphic art of vintage game boards. It is the culmination of one collector’s attraction to the visual diversity captured in these otherwise simpler pastimes. Originally intended to provide entertainment for a select few, they are now presented to the audience they merit. And just as they were intended to provide hours of enjoyment, they continue to beckon those who delight in their appeal.

This 215 page hardback book contains 189 color plates and is complete with a color index. The book is $90 plus shipping and handling. For ordering information, please call author Tim Chambers at 573-471-6949.

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