Spotlight on Summer: Jack Straws

by Jennifer Scerra

Can you name a game played with a stick?

Stick games have been around for a very long time—probably thousands of years—and are played all over the world. Because stick games are played so widely, even games with the same basic set of rules will often go by several names. One game involves dropping a handful of small sticks in a pile. Players then carefully pick them up, one at a time, without disturbing any of the neighboring sticks. Variations of the game are known as Pick-Up Sticks, Mikado, Spellicans, or Jack Straws.

Historians, anthropologists, and other people who study the history of games are still trying to learn more about how Jack Straws and related games came to be in so many different places. By the 18th century there were versions played around the globe in Asia, Europe, and even Hawaii. In North America, colonists and Native Americans both played the game.

The Girl’s Own Book, published in New York in 1833, describes one way to play Jack Straws:

“A large number of straws, or fine splinters of wood, of equal length, are placed in a pile…like a tent, or hay-stack; two of the sticks are reserved, and on these are placed little crooked pins…Each one, in turn, takes these hooks and tries to remove one from the pile, without shaking any other straw. The one who succeeds in removing a straw…takes it to herself, and counts one. Sometimes they cut little notches, or they black the heads of three, which they call king, queen, and bishop. The king counts four, the queen three, and the bishop two.”

Though the simplest versions of Jack Straws use plain sticks, it is common to make the sticks look different, as was described above, and to make some of them more valuable than others. The sticks may look different because of color, by adding a pattern, or by carving them into shapes:

  • The American Girl’s Handy Book, published in 1887, suggests making a giant lawn version of Jack Straws for a Fourth of July party, where 3 or 4 foot long slender branches are painted red (1 point), white (2 points) and blue (3 points).
  • The Lenape Indians of Deleware painted or burned striped patterns into sticks for their version of the game called Selahtinalitin.
  • Another popular theme is to carve the wood, bone, or ivory straws into the shape of tiny farming tools (shovels, axes, rakes, saws, etc.).
Catalogue of games, sectional pictures, toys, puzzles, blocks an
Jack Straws. 1889 Milton Bradley Catalogue of Games. Image courtesy Smithsonian Libraries.

By the second half of the 19th century, professional toy makers began to produce commercial versions of Jack Straws. American companies, like the McLoughlin Brothers, Milton Bradley, and the Parker Brothers produced and sold the game in toy shops and in mail order catalogues. Sets were available large and small, fancy or simple, and at a variety of price points.

Soon Jack Straws was popular enough that other toys were marketed as being similar in style. In their 1889 brochure, Milton Bradley said that their game The Fisherman’s Luck was “played on the general principles of the popular game of Jack Straws, but with the added fascination of the toy fisherman.” Another game involved a cup of sand with a small flag planted inside. Descriptions said it was like Jack Straws because players took turns removing small amounts of sand while trying not to cause the flag to fall.


2 1927 Seards, Roebuck Catalogue - Magnetic Jack Straws
Magnetic Jack Straws. 1927, Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, pg 577. From the Homestead’s library collection.

Other innovators brought new technologies to the ancient game. In 1891 the E.I. Horseman Company made Magnetic Jack Straws. Invented just a few years after the light bulb, and high tech enough to have warranted an article in Scientific American, the game was advertised as “Magnetism used in a new way.” Magnetic Jack Straws was played with traditional Jack Straws rules, but came with metal sticks and a small magnet to grab the pieces. In the early 20th century, inventor Jim Prentice and The Electric Game Company built another version, Electric Jack Straws. This game used metal sticks in a metal jar, which the players had to remove though small holes with tweezers. If the tweezers or the stick touched the edge of the hole, a buzzer would sound. The game was a success and a conceptual predecessor to the Hasbro game Operation that is still produced today.

Here at the Homestead Museum blog, we’ll be talking more about picnics and other summer fun in conjunction with our new First Sunday Picnics. Keep an eye out for future posts, and check out our previous post on vacuum bottles.

Remaining First Sunday Picnics will be held on July 3, August 7, and September 4, 2016 from noon to 4:00p.m. Bring a picnic and enjoy the beautiful grounds of the Homestead just like the Workman and Temple families did when they lived on the site between the 1840s and 1920s. Special surprises await picnickers each month!

No reservations are required, however, only traditional picnic setups are permitted (please no umbrellas, pop-ups, grills, radios, or access to electricity). Sorry, no alcohol or pets. Admission is free.

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