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Old Timey Cures for Cabin Fever: Feathers, Forfeits, and Fortune Telling

Record low temperatures and un-melting piles of snow kept parents scrambling to entertain house-bound children in the winter of 2015. This winter hasn’t been quite as cold or snowy in Rochester but, just in case the snows return, I’m ready with some practical advice drawn from The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, a research repository devoted to the history of play. Its resources include books that document some of the ways families survived long winters more than a century ago. Many activities will sound familiar: card games, word games, crafts. Others will make you fall to your knees and kiss your video gaming system in gratitude that you are not a harried parent of yesteryear. According to Within Doors: A Book of Games and Pastimes for the Drawing-room by Alfred Elliott (1872), nothing makes dreary days pass quickly and peacefully like caring for and training a pet. Don’t believe all the hype about a dog being man’s best friend. Elliot proclaims, “Of all pets … boys can tend or nurture, the most delightful to themselves, and, certainly, to those about them are Singing Birds.” He goes on to provide all you need to get started with birds including “how they should be reared, and how they may be caught.” That’s right! You get to catch the bird, too.

Wild birds and sonnets, the perfect pairing.The Strong, Rochester, New YorkWhat kind of bird should you stalk and trap? The possibilities are endless! Take the perennial children’s favorite: the raven. Elliott says that not only is the raven’s “voice the voice of one from a grave,” he “becomes a source of infinite amusement from his trickiness, intelligence, and wonderfully retentive memory.” What better way to stay warm and active during a cold snap than to observe with delight as your raven “paralyzes the poultry, steals the silver spoons, darts at the dog, and coquettes with the cook.” What fun you will have hiding your shiny possessions from a bird who can remember your hiding places. Make sure you clip one wing to prevent your raven from escaping its corner in the shed or barn. The hard work and missing silver will pay off when your son calls out, “I’m going out to the barn to watch my raven be sneaky and have its creepy squawks remind me of my own impending death!” To spice things up between trips to the shed, invite your friends over for some parlor games. Take a page from The Boys’ Own Book of Indoor Sport and Choice Parlor Games by Professor Blitz (about 1855) and try “Forfeits,” aka “extortion,” which offers endless options for amusement. Professor Blitz explains that in Forfeits all of the players give up a possession and earn it back by performing a “penance” designed to “either make the victim look mildly ridiculous, [or] to puzzle him with some apparently impossible task.” Blitz offers up timeless challenges that you can adapt to the present day. Hold your neighbor’s smartphone hostage while he puzzles out how to “leave the room with two legs and come in with six.” Make your great uncle act as a “Living Statue” as guests pose him “according to their various (and sometimes very original) conceptions of Grecian statues” before he can have his asthma inhaler back. Mash a wetted dime onto a carpool friend’s forehead and have her try to shake it off without using her hands in exchange for her car keys. Penances are also designed to get a kiss where you might normally get slapped for your efforts. If you are tasked with “kiss the Lady you love best without anyone knowing it,” you get to kiss all of the ladies in attendance, “the favorite being thus effectually concealed.” This might not be the best game to play if your friends are litigious, however, or if they are overly sensitive. The American Home Book by Mrs. Caroline L. Smith (1873) warns that “a whole game may be ruined by the absurd actions of someone who foolishly refuses to redeem his forfeit, for fear of lowering his dignity, or making himself ridiculous.” Humiliate your friends like this and they just might stop asking you to join the PTA! The Strong, Rochester, New York “Fortune-telling, as a practice, is morally wrong, and they who intentionally deceive credulous people commit a sin,” the American Home Book states. “But as a game and pastime, [it] is harmless and amusing.” Author Smith suggests a lovely game where one person pretends to be the Sibyl, “dressed in character, under a tasteful canopy, and invents merry ‘oracles’ for her playmates.” I believe there are tasteful canopy tutorials on Pinterest. American Home Book of Indoor Games Amusements and Occupations, The Strong, Rochester, New York. Smith, or “Aunt Carrie,” desired her book to “carry to the home circle the spirit of enjoyment which is natural to the young heart, and which should not be absent from the more mature.”The Boys’ Own Book instead shows how to intentionally deceive your credulous friends, spilling trade secrets of famous mediums of the day. Want to spook your friends with the “icy-hand” or a little levitation? Nothing makes a winter’s night cozier than your children being convinced that there are ghosts lurking, waiting to touch their necks with an icy hand. Well, with the exception of witnessing a well-done levitation illusion. Kids fall right to sleep after that. If you were bristling at the mention of supplying a tasteful canopy for the Sibyl game, the supply list from The Boys’ Own Book for “Enchanted Portfolio” will make you weep. For this trick alone, some 19th-century parent had to scrounge up a portfolio and:

  1. Sundry engravings.
  2. A couple of elegant bonnets, the one of black velvet, with a white feather, the other of pink satin trimmed with flowers.
  3. Four live doves.
  4. Three large stewpans, one filled with haricot beans, another with water, and a third with fire.
  5. A cage, with a number of canary birds flying from perch to perch.
  6. A child of five or six years old.

It looks like the bird-catching skills you used when catching your raven will come in handy! I cannot fully endorse giving children access to a large stewpan of fire but I believe that older children would benefit from babysitting younger siblings. Keep these activities in mind when the weather turns chilly and your children whine that they are bored. All of you might appreciate modern convenience and playthings a little more.