You wouldn’t ordinarily think of an airport as a venue for an art exhibition, and if you did, that exhibition probably wouldn’t be all about antique board games. But that’s exactly what’s so amazing about the latest show at SFO Museum in San Francisco.
Let’s Play! 100 Years of Board Games is a tribute to a form of old-fashioned recreation inside a technological hub, the San Francisco International Airport. Seeing as how SFO Museum is the world’s only accredited museum inside an airport, it’s interesting to note that the subject of its most recent exhibition is neither straight-up fine art nor technological in nature, but that’s part of the mission behind SFO Museum, which opened in 1980 in order to “humanize” the airport environment.
While Let’s Play! reminds us of our roots in gaming before the advent of the PS3, Wii, or the Xbox 360, it also calls attention to the subject of leisure in a place that is by definition anything but leisurely, offering an interesting form of diversion from the otherwise monotonous task of waiting around to board a plane.
We chatted with Nicole Mullen, curator of Let’s Play! 100 Years of Board Games, who offers lots of insight on the individual games. About the exhibition in general, she had this to say:
“For those ticketed passengers traveling, they will have the unique opportunity to view Victorian era board games that are quite different from what we think of as board games today. Early board game graphics, unlike today’s games, display a vibrant chromolithography printing process introduced in the late 1800s. The goal of many games involved teaching moral lessons. The Checkered Game of Life challenged players to choose virtue over vice: landing on bravery sent the player to honor, ambition led to fame, while idleness resulted in disgrace. In 1960, The Checkered Game of Life became The Game of Life. The object of the game completely changed. Instead of acquiring virtue, the player who “retires” with the most money now wins the game. Popular twentieth-century board games that viewers may remember playing are also on display such as Barbie: Queen of the Prom, Captain Video, the Nancy Drew Mystery Game, Clue, and Monopoly.” —Nicole Mullen
Since the exhibition is past airport security, you’ll need to be flying Virgin America or American Airlines in order to see it. SFO Museum does have special passes for the general public, but you’ll need to contact the museum to make advance arrangements and go through the general security line as though you were flying. Fortunately, if you’re not in San Francisco, you can still see some of the items from the exhibit right here.
Game of the Telegraph Boy (1888)
“Game of the Telegraph Boy was one of many games from the 1880s that depicted the American capitalist dream of Horatio Alger’s novels. In many of his novels, young men rise from rags-to-riches and are rewarded in the workplace based on merit, regardless of their humble backgrounds. The goal of this game is for each player to work one’s way up from low-level employee to company president.” —NM
The Game of the Sociable Snake (c. 1890)
“The Game of the Sociable Snake is another version of The Game of Goose, an early race game that was played in seventeenth-century Europe and may possibly be traced back to Ancient Egypt. It inspired many other games such as The Mansion of Happiness. Like The Game of Goose, The Game of the Sociable Snake has spaces marked for good behaviors that allow players to advance, while landing on spaces marked for bad behaviors cause players to move backwards.” —NM
Lost in the Woods (c. 1890)
“The New York-based McLoughlin Brothers was one of the largest American game manufacturers in the nineteenth century. During the 1880s and 1890s, game makers employed the newly introduced chromolithography printing process to produce vibrant board game packaging for games such as Lost in the Woods.
“To attract young children, many nineteenth-century games were based on classic fairy tales, characters from popular children’s stories, and nursery rhymes. Most of these board games were simple race games and have little relation to the actual stories.” —NM
The Yale-Princeton Foot Ball Game (1895)
“Organized and spectator sports became common in the second half of the 1800s, when Americans had more time to pursue leisurely activities. With its origins in rugby, football began sweeping college campuses in the late 1800s. Despite the game’s growing popularity, many colleges and universities banned football from their campuses for several decades due to its rough play and high rate of injury.” —NM
The Game of the Spider and the Bee (1912)
“Although the game play has nothing to do with prizefighting, the game maker depicted an image of a spider and a bee boxing on the cover of this game due to the popularity of the ringside sport at the time of the game’s manufacture. In this game, the bees moving from the hives attempt to travel around the web without being caught by the spinning spider. The player whose bee first travels completely around the web and arrives back in his hive wins the game.” —NM
Pa-chee-zee: The Game of India (c. 1935)
“One of the most widely played games of all time, The Game of India, also known as Pachisi, is the forerunner of Parcheesi and the English game Ludo. Pachisi is the national game of India. England printed its own version of the game in the 1860s, and by the 1870s, it was also produced in the United States. Parcheesi was one of the highest selling games in America, until Parker Brothers released Monopoly in 1935. The Indian version of this game is cross-shaped and is played by four players acting as two teams, unlike Parcheesi, in which each participant plays independently.” —NM
Ration Board Game (1943)
“This game promoted the rationing of goods during World War II. During the war, rations of common goods were available through the use of government issued cards and booklets, controlled by the ration board. The game board illustration depicts a road winding through the countryside and suburbs into a city where the ration boards are stationed. The first player who returns home with five ration cards for butter, gas, sugar, coffee, and meat wins.” —NM
The Nancy Drew Mystery Game (1957)
“Mysteries have continuously enthralled a variety of audiences, from detective fiction to television and films. Mystery and detective games first began to appear in the late 1800s and enjoyed a golden era in the 1930s. The teen-sleuth Nancy Drew first appeared in a series of books during this decade. The object of this game is to be the first player to discover Nancy Drew’s whereabouts.” —NM
Candy Land (1968)
“While recuperating from polio, Eleanor Abbott invented the game Candy Land in 1945. She envisioned the game for polio-stricken children to play as they recovered. The game required no reading or mathematical skills so young children could easily play it. Players simply draw a color card or a sweet and advance to that square on the board.” —NM
(“Let’s Play! 100 Years of Board Games” is on view at SFO Museum until May 20, 2013. All photographs are courtesy of SFO Museum.)