The graphic appeal of old games boards

Quebec game board, 2nd quarter, 20th cent. offered by Martin Osler on the Collectivator site

The board game called “Checkers” in North America and “Draughts” (pronounced as “drafts”) in Europe is one of the oldest games known to man. The history of checkers can be traced to the very cradle of civilization, where vestiges of the earliest form of the game was unearthed in an archeological dig in the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, which is now modern day Iraq.

Draughts (British English), or checkers (American English) is a group of strategy board games for two players which involve diagonal moves of uniform game pieces and mandatory captures by jumping over opponent pieces.

Octagonal sided game board, late 19th cent.,Waterloo, Ontario, offered by Wendy Hamilton on the Collectivator site.

The most popular forms are English draughts, also called American checkers, is played on an 8×8 checkerboard; Russian draughts, also played on an 8×8; and international draughts, played on a 10×10 board. There are many other variants played on 8×8 and 12×12 boards. Canadian checkers and Singaporean/Malaysian checkers (also locally known as dum) are played on a 12×12 board.  I have found that what is referred to as Canadian checkers, might better be called Quebec, or French Canadian checkers, because after years of buying and selling both 8, 10 and 12 square variations of the board, I have found that it is pretty much accepted that if a board has 12 squares across it is from French Quebec.  With 8 or 10 spaces, it is assumed to be Ontario or other “English” culturally based province.  How did this variation get started? Maybe folks in Quebec just liked a bit longer game.  After all, the winters are cold in Quebec so what’s the rush to get outdoors.

Circa 1820, Lunenburg Cty, Nova Scotia Parcheesi board, illustrated on page 216 of Canadian folk art to 1950, by John A. Fleming, and Micheal J. Rowan.

Chess may be considered the game of kings, but Pachisi is the game of emperors. Long before the American game of Parcheesi was first played in the late 1860s in North America, Pachisi, the Royal Game of India, had made its way around the world.

You won’t find nearly as many parcheesi boards out there, which illustrates that many more people went for the simpler game of checkers, but the boards are particularly sought after for their more complex graphic pattern.  And let’s face it, not a lot of people are buying old game boards to occupy their time on a Friday night.  For the most part, People buy old game boards to put them up on the wall as a graphic focus.  And who can blame them.  A checker board  is  inherently interesting.  We like looking at contrasting squares.   The orderly rows of squares suggest discipline, and harmony.  It’s peaceful and it draws the eye.

Quebec, mid 19th century Parcheesi board, illustrated on page 40 of the Price’s book “Twas ever thus”

I have bought and sold many game boards over the years although we have never added one to our collection.  I’ve found many that attracted me, but I think the reason I am happy to appreciate them and then find them a good home is because we like paintings so much that we want to donate all our wall space to them.  It’s the same reason we don’t collect old advertising.  I love looking at a great old sign, and some of it is as exciting visually  as a good painting, but they rarely turn my crank like a good painting will.  It’s true that some boards and ads do transcend into the realm of fine art, but they are few and far between, and such a thing has never fallen into my hands.

late 19th cent checkers board, Waterloo, Ont, offered by Wendy Hamilton on the Collectivator site.

Unlike most antique furniture or accessories, a game board can fit into many room décors be it traditional, or modern because of it’s graphic nature.   They also look fabulous grouped together.  We have friends with about 14 game boards placed carefully  over a very tall and wide wall in their living room and the overall effect is breath taking.   They are all different, while also being similar in that they all have the graphic checkerboard as the main component.  Some are primitive.  Some refined.  They all say something about who made them.  And of course patina can be a large factor.  The wear on some old game boards can beautifully tell the story of usage and age.  You are struck visually with the pattern, and at the back of your head you can’t help thinking about all the happy hours spent talking and playing the game together by countless individuals over the years.  You think about how when these boards were being used regularly, there were no game boys, television, or U-Tube to occupy your “down” time.  You could read when you wanted to be solitary, or if you wanted to have some entertainment and commute with others you would  find the local checkers or parcheesi game.  Or I suppose if you wanted a bit more of an intellectual work out you may play chess.  You still needed the board.

Because gameboards offer many interesting variations on a similar theme they are a natural and fun thing to collect.  I love looking at them.   If only we had more wall space.

Circa 1880 Quebec Parcheesi board, offer on Collectivator by Croyden House.

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Changes

I’ve just looked on my Word Press home page and this is my 107th blog entry.   I promised myself 100 entries.  Tiny drum roll please.   I’m enjoying it, so I’ll keep on going.  My goal has been to write something once a week about an aspect of my life spent in the antique trade, and the pursuit of Canadian folk art in particular. Beyond this my intension has been to go beyond the technical, and take a look at a life spent as I suggest “seeking authentic”. What is it in an item that catches me, and keeps me interested? Why do I care?   Actually, I am more interested in the expression of beauty, and the preservation of it, than I am in the industry per se, but I have also made a living from my full time involvement, so the industry part affects me.  Today I’m thinking about that.

We listen to a lot of NPR in this house.  Jeanine tries to clear her agenda every day at three to listen to Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  I’ve become a fan as well.  It’s too much politics these days, but it’s still intelligent radio. On Wednesday in the morning I was listening to a business review as I was doing up the breakfast dishes, and a report came on about changes in the antique business since the introduction of on-line shopping about the year 2000.  The program confirmed that as those of us in the industry know, the antique industry has taken a hard punch, and is now greatly reduced in size.  I think it suggested over-all the industry is down 60%, but I could have that figure muddled, and after spending a half hour searching the NPR site I could not find the interview to check it.  In any case it’s dramatic.  They had a quote from one of the appraisers from the Antiques Road Show on how half of the shops in his home town of Houston, Texas had already closed down, and the others were in trouble.  The thesis suggested that the value of dark furniture, china, pottery, etc. dropped dramatically as these items became more easily available on-line.  Basic consumerism. Why drive around when you can sit at your desk and order exactly what you are looking for?  This situation is essentially true for all retail, and with rising costs for a bricks and mortar location, it just takes a trip through the down town of a small city to see the results of this situation.  We have big box stores on the edges of towns but less and less independent little shops in the core. It’s a shame really for those of us who live to dig around in crowded, interesting spaces, but it is entirely understandable.

They chose the antique industry as an example because it has suffered the double whammy of changing retail structure, and of changing cultural tastes.  There are now more Millennials than there are baby boomers.  It’s a fact, and so far the kids don’t want their grandparents finely made dining room suites, or their knick-knacks.  Nor do they want their Great-Grandparents diamond point armoire or harvest table as difficult as that is to comprehend.  At this point the show tried to be up-beat by suggesting that the day may come when the children of the Millennials will decide they want fine mahogany furniture again instead of Ikea, and the cycle will begin again;  but I doubt it will be as simple as that.  And what dramatic changes would need to take place in the economy for the rents of commercial space in busy markets to drop significantly so that an antique shop could start to open up again.  I’m not looking to bring everybody down here although the program did not make me feel chipper.  I believe that by looking at the reality of the situation, and acknowledging the changes , we might better be able to make the best of it.  There is no question that the industry has diminished, but there is still a lot going on.

Pickers are still dropping furniture off the back of their pick-up trucks at various antique shows. A lot of the  co-ops, on-line sites, and surviving shops continue to do good business.  Facebook groups, and magazines continue to support and bolster the ideas behind collecting, and at the heart of it all, yes, I still believe that many people will potentially come to grow tired of mass consumerism, and will come to “seek authentic” for themselves.  To everything, change, change, change.

O.K. next week I will be back to tell a humorous story about my truck catching fire or some such thing, but this week I really wanted to acknowledge the effect that radio report had on me.  It can’t all be happy face, and I believe in facing these realities head on to understand and move beyond them.  And the one thing I know for certain is that  some unforeseen thing,  or event will come along that will totally change everything.  We have to remain positive to make  that positive change.  We have to keep at it.  Support and encourage, and enjoy what you love.  It’s still the best game in town.

The Art of the Grenfell Mission

The April  2000, Bowmanville Antiques and Folk Art show was a special year in that it featured the show and sale of a large collection of the work created by artisans of the Grenfell Mission of Newfoundland.  The collection of about two hundred pieces was accomplished over a twenty year period of dedicated searching by Ontario collector Robin Moore, and the sale was organized by her friend and mentor, quilt and fabric specialist Carol E. Telfer.  A beautifully illustrated, 45 page catalogue “art of the Grenfell Mission, the Robin Moore collection” accompanied the show.  The collection was offered to be sold only in its entirety.

In her opening comments Robin Moore suggests “ Michael Rowan, an old antiques buddy, has always maintained that antiques are on loan to us – we are their custodians for a period of time.  It has been my pleasure to have been the custodian of this truly marvelous legacy of the people of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, which I humbly refer to as “my Grenfell collection.” The time has come to pass it on to the next custodian – to love cherish, and preserve.  My dream?- to have my collection return to St. Anthony, Newfoundland where it all began 100 years ago. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  Well, wonderful things do happen, as the entire collection was sold on opening night to a Newfoundland museum.  A prime example of the importance and contribution to our national heritage that a dedicated collector can make.

There is quite a bit of information about Grenfell on line.  What follows are quotes from the heritage Newfoundland and Labrador site:

“The Grenfell Mission provided some of the earliest permanent medical services in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. Before the mission opened its first hospital at Battle Harbour in 1893, almost no health-care resources existed in the area – hospitals were nonexistent. Alongside its medical endeavours, the mission sought to make other social changes, specifically in the areas of education, agriculture, and industrial development. To this end, mission workers built schools and helped establish lumber mills, community farms, co-operative stores, and a commercial handicraft industry to create alternative sources of income.

British medical missionary Wilfred Grenfell arrived at Labrador in 1892 to investigate living conditions among local fishers for the United Kingdom’s National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. Shocked by the area’s widespread poverty and almost complete absence of medical resources, Grenfell spent the next year raising money at St. John’s and England to establish regular health-care services in Labrador. The mission opened a hospital at Battle Harbour and began construction on another at Indian Harbour. It also acquired a second hospital boat, the Princess May, to help medical personnel service fishing stations and coastal communities.

Alongside providing medical services, the Grenfell Mission sought to improve living conditions in general for people in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. To stimulate industrial development, the mission established a series of co-operative stores near many of its medical stations. Mission workers helped to create a local handicraft industry that allowed residents to sell hooked mats, knitted goods and other items at North American retail shops.”

From Wikipedia we learn “The Grenfell Mission established a Village Industry Department prior to 1930. Artists came from abroad to support the artistic endeavors of the residents of northern Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Grenfell Mission was famous for its burlap rugs, which were sold to hospitals in the United States and Britain. Encouraged and promoted by Dr. Grenfell, the rugmakers of the mission sometimes used designs created by Mrs. Grenfell. Beginning in the early 20th century, the International Grenfell Association (IGA) hired Jessie Luther of Providence, Rhode Island, to set up and direct the Grenfell Industrial Department. Grenfell established retail shops in England and in several U.S. cities. These shops were staffed by volunteers and augmented by travelling salesmen. Following the death of Dr. Grenfell and the surge in machine-made rug production, the business gradually failed.”

Carol Telfer did an excellent job of summarizing the Grenfell history in the catalogue with her two page essay “a brief history of the Grenfell Mission”.  I suggest you buy the catalogue which is still available, but if you want to learn the complete history in precise detail you can go to http://www.grenfellassociation.org/who-we-are/history/   the international Grenfell Association site.

The dedication to the catalogue reads “Dr. Wilfred Grenfell arrived on the north shore of Newfoundland more than a century ago.  He was greeted by a shy, yet industrious people who inhabited a beautiful, but isolated land. They led a harsh existence.  This catalogue- a visual tribute- is dedicated to the men and women of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, for the incredible works of art which they produced through the Grenfell Mission.  May their legacy continue.

Amongst the stars in Port Carling

There were many reasons to look forward to doing the Port Carling antique show in the early nineties. It was very well run and promoted by the Gadsden’s. Unlike today, the town and area had very few antique shops and there were a lot of rich people building and buying cottages. In those days they would actually trust their own taste and come to the show looking to furnish their cottages themselves.  Nowadays they don’t trust their judgement and not wanting to embarrass themselves with something that would have their friends questioning their taste, they bring along their decorators who tell them what they should buy.

Also, in those days the show opened Thursday night and ran Friday and Saturday, which was not only great from the perspective of getting home on a day when the southbound traffic was light, but also worked well because many wives would stay at the cottage with the kids during the week while hubby worked in the city.  These wives would come to the opening and buy as they wished, or make notes of what they wanted and then drag their husbands in on the Friday or Saturday.  It held the potential in those days of being our most profitable show, and we were always looking for “cottagy” things to take to the show.   Canoes, rustic furniture, folk art, and all things you associate with a vacation home were almost certain to sell.  The Thursday night opening was a feeding frenzy, and as soon as the doors opened and the line-up filled in you had to be on your toes because it was common to have more than one person wanting to buy something at the same time.  You had to be careful, especially with two sellers operating the booth that you didn’t sell the same thing twice, to two different people.  There’s your potential for some nasty exchanges.  Things would settle down a bit after that initial hour, but  sales would remain strong over the next two days.   And then there was the additional excitement of exchanges with movie stars. 

During set up on Thursday all the talk would be on whether Kurt and Goldie were in town, and which famous friends they might bring along to the opening.  Nancy Short, Martin’s wife could be counted on.  She came every year and would buy a lot.  She would also bring along friends and encourage them to buy.  She was also a very nice woman, so we definitely looked forward to seeing her.  I enjoyed selling a pyrotechnic decorated rocking chair to Mary Tyler Moore one year, who was as nice as you would imagine her to be.  When Joanna Cassidy bought a piece of folk art from me, I have to admit that the scene in Blade Runner of her running away from Harrison Ford and eventually being shot and falling through panes of glass, kept running in my head.  Quite distracting.   It was always a delight when the wonderful Catherine O’Hara would turn up looking like an un-made bed and trying to rope in two or three unruly children.  She was always funny and friendly, and would treat you like her neighbor.

It was the talk of the show one year when on the opening night,  Kurt and Goldie decided to buy a little side table from us. At the time, I was helping to load a dresser we had sold in the parking lot, but I heard all about it before I got back into the hall.  Jeanine does not know, or for that matter much care who Kurt Russell is. I don’t think she was into “Escape from New York’ the way I was. “Snake” didn’t mean anything to her.  She recognized Goldie Hawn of course, but she is not particularly impressed with stardom in any case, and tends to treat stars like anyone else. I think that for the most part most stars actually appreciate this, but they do get used to being treated as “special”. It started when she questioned Kurt about his visa card.  “well, I can assure you it’s good”.  “I’m not worried about that, it’s just that I’ve never seen a card like that before”.  It wasn’t that she mistrusted him, but it was from a bank she had never heard of.  “O.K., can you bring the table to the loading door, and I’ll get my car.”  “Well as you can see I am on my own here, so if you can wait until my husband returns he will do it, or otherwise might I suggest that you seem like a fit and strong man, perhaps you can carry it yourself. “  He looked surprised, and somewhat taken aback, but then smiled, and said “Of course I can.”   Our neighboring dealer could hardly contain herself.  She immediately rushed over. “Don’t you know who that was.  That’s Kurt Russell, he’s a movie star and married to Goldie Hawn”.  “Oh really.  How nice for him, but still I am right that he was perfectly capable of carrying that table himself”.  That’s the way Jeanine calls them.  I love that. Everything I hear suggests that Kurt’s a regular guy, he just forgot how it felt to be treated like one.  I think he enjoyed it.

our booth at Port Carling, one year in the early nineties