American Board and Card Game History

Native Americans played with early versions of gaming cards made from leaves and bark before the first European settlers brought their traditional games to the new world. Although some religious groups frowned on games of cards or dice that, to them, resembled gambling, new arrivals played Europe’s earliest recorded games—chess, checkers, backgammon, bowling, and card games. The Strong collects examples of all these forms, as well as every game type that followed them, in order to discover and document what the games can tell us about the people who played them and what cultural or historical themes they may represent.

American Board and Card Game History

Click the image below to sample some key moments in American game history. Many artifacts illustrated here reside in The Strong’s collections.

Interpreting the History of Board and Card Games

Games reveal many dimensions of American social history, from major wars to societal reforms. They can teach and entertain us, but they also may persuade or change us. The lens of game play exposes the history of leisure; it demonstrates what ordinary people chose to do, rather than what was required.

What can games tell us and why would we collect and study them? Some questions they prompt include:

  • What did early Americans think about games?
  • How did game play vary across different ethnic groups?
  • How did the manufacture of games change over time?
  • How have games reflected major events, social movements, and cultural changes?
  • In what ways do games reflect changing attitudes about race and gender?
  • What lessons have games taught over the years?
  • What are some of the benefits of playing games?

The Strong has created a long-term, interactive, on-site exhibit Game Time! to help explore these and other questions about the history of board and card games.