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MARTHA SEZ: Fun stuff to do a century ago

August 6, 2011
A century ago and more, Keene and Keene Valley — or Keene Center and Keene Flats, as they were then known — bustled with the business of great hotels. Summer people arrived by stage coach with trunks of clothes, prepared to sojourn for a month or a whole summer. Many local people ran the hotels, drove horse-drawn wagons and carriages, provided fruits, vegetables, eggs and meat from their farms, and generally made their living by keeping the summer people happy. I have heard people say that this tradition still exists, and is the reason Keene residents are so friendly and welcoming to outsiders.

I like to imagine the town as it was then, full of hundreds of room guests, the streets loud with people and horses. Yes, it was the scenery and the trout streams that attracted the visitors, but what did they do for entertainment on rainy days, or at informal get-togethers before the advent of television and computer games?

Here are some hints I gleaned from “The Successful Housekeeper,” 1886.

Chapter XLVIII: Household Amusements

The ball of wool

The party are seated around a table, from which the cloth must be drawn. A little wool is rolled up into the form of a ball and placed in the middle of the table. The company then commence to blow upon it, each one trying to drive it away from his own direction, and the object of all being to blow it off, so that the person by whose right side it falls may pay a forfeit.

The longer the ball is kept on the table by the opposing puffs of the surrounding party, the more amusing the game becomes, as the distended cheeks and zealous exertions of the players afford mirth to lookers-on as well as to themselves.

Dumb crambo

Half the company leave the room. The others fix on a verb which the absent ones are to guess and perform. By-and-by, when their decision is made, they call in the leader of the absent party, and say, “the verb we have chosen for you rhymes with pie” (or any other word chosen). The leader retires, and discusses with her followers what the verb can be. It is best to take those which will rhyme with the  noun given in alphabetical order. “Buy” would come first for “pie.”

The party enters and begin to buy of each other. If right (that is, if “buy” was the word chosen), the spectators clap their hands; if wrong, they hiss. Speech on either side would entail a forfeit. If hissed, the actors retire, and decide what next to do. “Cry” would be next in rhyme, or “dye,’ or “eye,” all of which are acted in turn, till the clap of approval announces that the guess is a successful one. Then the spectators go out, and become in their own turn actors, in the same manner.

A great deal of the fun of this game depends on the acting and on the choice of the verbs; but it is almost sure to cause great amusement.

The giantess

This is a very amusing deception. A tall young lad is dressed in a petticoat. Then a large umbrella is covered over its silk ribs with a gown and cloak; a ball, for a head, is tied on the point of the umbrella stick above the dress, and a bonnet and thick veil put on it. The umbrella is partially opened, so that its sticks set out the dress and cloak as a crinoline does. The player gets under it, and holding the handle up as high as he can grasp it, appears like a gigantic woman.

Somebody knocks at the hall door to pretend that there is an arrival; and a minute or two afterwards the footman is to open the drawing room door and announce “Miss Tiny Littlegirl.” The giantess then walks into the drawing-room, to the amazement of the company, bows, etc. It has a good effect to enter holding the umbrella-handle naturally, and then to raise it by degrees, which will give a comical appearance of growth. We have seen this giantess thus appear to rise till she peered over the tops of the highest pictures in the room.

The effect is exceedingly funny. She may talk to the company also, bending her head, and speaking in a shrill tone of voice. In clever hands, the giantess causes a great deal of fun. Have a good week!


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