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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

An Evening at Home with Friends in the Early Republic - Part 2

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

In Part 1 of this series we looked at Federal Era entertainments played with cards or dice. However, those were not the only ways to pass an evening with family and friends. People in the years of the Early Republic valued education and accomplishments in the arts and sciences and were not shy about showing it. Nor were they unappreciative of demonstrations of these accomplishments by their friends.

For male children of the “well to do”, a “liberal education” was the goal. A liberal education combined an education in the classics, English literature, the humanities, and moral virtues with other scientific skills. Education in this era depended on the seven liberal arts, divided into the three-fold Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, and the four-fold Quadrivium of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. The study of the “Classics” also involved learning Greek and Latin. Additionally, Young men often learned to speak French since, at that time, it was the “universal language” for conducting all diplomacy and quite a bit of international business.

For women of the "genteel" classes in addition to “domestic” subjects, such as handwork (sewing and embroidery), conduct, and household management, “non-domestic” education focused on the acquisition of "accomplishments", such as the ability to draw, sing, play music, or speak modern (i.e. non- Classical ) languages.


Artistic Accomplishments were valued in a lady, who, according to period expectations, should be educated, but not so much as to be threatening to her husband. As a result, many young women devoted a good part of their time to drawing and painting with common subjects being landscapes and portraits. Drawing could be a form of group entertainment, as the artist’s friends and family might watch her at work if they were not serving as her models.

Group of ladies.  One painting another one's portrait
Painting a Friend's Portrait

Handwork. Most ladies embroidered or practiced other fancy work. They might adorn their clothing in this way or make decorative pillowcases and other household items. Ladies also created other fashion accessories and domestic ornaments, such as painted screens and filigree baskets. All of this was done, and displayed, to highlight the young lady’s “cleverness” in the hope of making herself more attractive as a possible wife.

Embroidered Reticule (purse)
Embroidered Reticule (purse)

Music was also acceptable and so; one might find many kinds of musical instruments, such as the guitar, dulcimer, and flute in period homes. However, society considered the pianoforte and harp the most suitable for young women. The harp was more expensive than the piano, making it less common but more impressive. Young men might show their musical accomplishment however, they were more likely to play bowed instruments such as the violin, viola, or cello. Singing, both solos and group singalongs, were quite popular; although sometimes the eagerness of the singer far exceeded their talents.

Young Lady Playing the Piano Forte - 1796
Young Lady Playing the Piano Forte - 1796

Reading became a popular pastime with the first novels published at this time. Many ladies favored Gothic novels, but women also read history, conduct books, assorted magazines and journals, or the Romantic poets of the era. Reading was not just a solitary pursuit. A young lady and her friends (and family) often took turns reading aloud to each other. Books were quite expensive, but in larger towns, you could pay to join a circulating library.

Gentleman Reading to Ladies While They do Handwork
Gentleman Reading to Ladies While They do Handwork

Parlor Games

Parlor games were a common way of passing an evening with friends and relatives. They might be mentally stimulating, physically assertive or even somewhat messy (like snapdragon or bullet pudding!) Books such as Winter Evening Pastimes; or, The Merry-maker’s Companion, by Rachel Revel offered stimulating and sometimes even daring diversions from the staid entertainments of reading, writing, music, and card playing.

Blind Man’s Buff is a children’s game played as early as 2,000 years ago in Greece. In the Middle Ages, blind man’s buff was an adult game, and the blindfolded player was usually struck and buffeted as well, hence “buff.” A player touched or caught by the blind man takes on the blindfold, although sometimes the blind man must guess the identity of his captive before the removing the blindfold. If the guess is wrong, the blind man must release the captive and the game continues.

A group of people playing Blind Man's Buff
A Game of Blind Man's Buff Gone Wrong

The game has been popular among adults on and off throughout history. The game has been played in England since the Tudor period, when there are references to Henry VIII's courtiers playing it. During the 17th Century, the English diarist Samuel Pepys reported a game played by his wife and some friends in 1664. Art from the 18th and early 19th centuries shows the game continuing to be popular with adults throughout the era.

Buffy Gruffy is a substitute for Blind man’s buff for those occasions where you do not want the racket of the legitimate Blind Man's Buff, having your toes trod on, or your furniture bruised and battered. One player, with a blindfold over the eyes, stands in the middle of the room. The others arrange their chairs in a circle and silently trade places. Someone claps to start the game. The blindfolded person passes around the chairs and stops in front of one. The player may use his knees to decide if someone is sitting in that chair, since physical contact is not allowed in polite society, especially between gentlemen and ladies this was quite "stimulating”.

The blindfolded player begins questioning the seated player who answers, while disguising their voice as much as possible. Here is an excellent opportunity for an individual to mock someone they do not like, all under the guise of polite hilarity. After three answers, the blindfolded player must guess who they have questioned. If they are correct, the seated player takes the blindfold and play begins anew. Otherwise, the blindfolded player moves on to question another.

Bullet Pudding is a quite messy, but in a fun way. The game involves retrieving a bullet (round ball) from a bowl of flour using your lips, tongue, and mouth. The following is a description of the game taken from a letter written by Fanny Price Austen (Jane Austen’s cousin).

“You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek at top. You must then lay a bullet at top and everybody cuts a slice of it, and the person that is cutting it when it falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths of which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choking you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out.”

Guests Playing Bullet Pudding at a Party
Playing Bullet Pudding at a House Party

Charades originally involved a riddle, either in verse or in prose, which the listener must guess the meaning, often given syllable by syllable. In France and Italy, the word 'charade' still refers to this kind of written linguistic riddle. In the form most played today, it is an acting game in which one player acts out a word or phrase, often by acting out similar-sounding words, and the other players must guess the word or phrase. The idea is to use physical movement instead of verbal language to convey the meaning to another party. In England, the game is traditionally played at Christmas and on New Year's Eve.

Here is an example of one of the Georgian Era charade riddles:

To suffer my second's the doom of my first,

And of all of my seconds, my whole is the worst.

Answer: Heartache

Letters of the Alphabet is a game that tests one’s conversational skills and ability to think on your feet. Have everyone write a general topic of conversation down on a slip of paper, along with a letter of the alphabet. Have someone pick a topic out of a basket or bowl. They then must start a conversation with one another about the topic. The catch is that, as they take turns speaking in the conversation, they must begin each sentence with the next letter of the alphabet, beginning with the letter written in the slip of paper. They must follow the conversation through the alphabet, ending back with letter with which they started. Anyone unable to continue the conversation incurs a forfeit and draws the next subject from the basket.

Musical Magic provided, the perfect opportunity to flirt openly under the cover of being a good sport. One of the parties leaves the room until the rest have determined what task he must do. The task can be as simple as snuffing a candle, for a novice player, or, for an experienced player, as complex as kneeling before another player, removing their ring and placing it on the finger of a third player. The player is guided in discovering his task by the playing, singing, or humming of music from soft to loud. When the player is close to the object, or action he must do next, the music becomes louder until it stops when he has gotten it right. The further away the player the softer the music. If the player in despair gives up, he must pay a forfeit and another player takes his place.

Short Answers is a game designed to allow young men and women to flirt, or not, and at the same time reveal trivial things about themselves. The group seated in a circle that alternated ladies and gentlemen, begin the game. A lady begins the game by asking her right-hand neighbor a question, which he must reply to with a word of one syllable. Longer words will exact a penalty, one for each additional syllable. He then turns to the next lady with a question she must answer with a single syllable. The questions may be ordinary as in: “Pray, Sir, permit me to ask if you love dancing?” or distinctive as in: “Pray, Madam, what wood do you think the best for making thumb-screws?” The challenge comes in that neither question NOR answer may be repeated. Any player who repeats a question or answer incurs a forfeit.

Snapdragon (Snap-dragon, Flap-dragon, or Flapdragon) was a parlor game popular from about the 16th to 19th centuries. It was played during the winter, particularly on Christmas Eve. Brandy is heated and placed in a wide shallow bowl; raisins are placed in the brandy, which was then set on fire. Typically, the host extinguishes, or dims, the lights to increase the eerie effect of the blue flames playing across the liquor. The aim of the game is to pluck the raisins out of the burning brandy and eat them, at the risk of burning oneself. Snapdragon was played in England, Canada, and the United States, but there is little evidence of the practice in Scotland, or other countries.

Children Playing Snapdragon
Children Playing Snapdragon

The liquid used in Snapdragon is typically brandy, although similar flammable liquors could also be used. Traditionally, raisins were the treat snatched; other treats, however, could be used. Of these, almonds were the most common alternative, but one could also use currants, candied fruit, figs, grapes, and plums. The low bowl was typically placed in the middle of a table to prevent damage from the inevitable splashes of burning brandy. In one variation, a Christmas pudding is placed in the center of the bowl with raisins around it.

Simile shows one’s mastery of English idiom. As we mentioned earlier, people at this time valued a quick, educated, and clever mind as well as a mastery of the English language. A Simile, as we all should have learned in primary school, is a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind. It is used to make a description more emphatic or vivid such as; as brave as a lion, or crazy like a fox.

The rules are quite simple. One member of the party, acting as inquisitor, presents the first part of the simile to another member of the party and that person must complete the simile.

For example, the inquisitor might say “As cold as . . .” and the person to whom the simile was addressed would then respond. In this case with, “As cold as Ice”. If the person questioned is not able to respond, then they incur a forfeit and the inquisitor moves on to another person.

The Yes and No game is best played if the host has prepared beforehand several slips of paper, each one listing a different “thing”. It might be a landmark, such as the Alps; a building such as the Capital; an animal such as a buffalo; or even an item in the room. The first person picks a slip of paper and commits it to memory. They do not tell the other players what this item is, but they say, for example, “I’m thinking of something large”. The other players then ask yes or no questions. “Is it a building?” “No” “Is it an animal” “No” “Is it a monument?” “Yes”, “Is it in Europe?” “No”, and so on until one person guesses the item correctly. If the person guesses incorrectly the game still ends and the person who guessed wrong must choose a new slip of paper. Players should never guess until they are completely sure they know the answer.

As you can see from this list, evenings in a Federal era household did not have to be dull and boring. There were plenty of entertainments in which the family and their invited friends might take part.

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Some of the information included in this article was first published in a blog post I wrote for "The Historic Interpreter" blog some years ago.


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