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Child's play: when games needed imagination

September 17, 1998

Civil War toysBy KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer




There was no television. There were no video games.

Whatever did the children of the Civil War period do to occupy their time?

You can find out if you visit the Sharpsburg Heritage Festival this weekend.

Michael Mescher, billed as the Ragged Soldier, will teach several old-fashioned games Saturday, Sept. 19, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and at 10 a.m. and noon on Sunday, Sept. 20. He'll be in the grassy field behind the U.S. Post Office in Sharpsburg.

--cont. from lifestyle--

Mescher, 49, of Burke, Va., went to his first Civil War re-enactment in Gettysburg, Pa., 10 years ago. A member of the 42nd Virginia Infantry, Mescher portrayed a soldier in pants held together by patches, thus the name Ragged Soldier. He says he easily could have passed for a member of Stonewall Jackson's shabby troop.

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Re-enacting can be a family activity, Mescher says. His wife and three sons went along. Taking a few reproduction toys for his kids, he realized other parents could benefit from having toys of the period. One thing led to another, and Mescher doffed his military attire and put on the clothes of a merchant. He now portrays a "neutral civilian" and has documented the authenticity of more than 40 of the reproduction toys he sells.

Mescher turned to activity books of the period for his research. He learned about the toys and games and learned about life in 19th century America as well.

Activities were a lot more gender specific. He found no team sports for girls - archery and gymnastics were two suitable forms of physical activity for females. Girls also could jump rope, and playing with dolls was almost universal.

Mescher makes kits for rolled fabric dolls and sells them in his sutler's booth. Directions for making the African-American version of a "rolled linen doll," found in an 1863 edition of "The American Girl's Book," include what he says a probably was an unintended "great statement for equality": "This doll is made just the same as the doll on the previous page."

Children had to develop their imaginations. They became imitators, as in a game called "The Tradesman." They weren't so segregated by age; older children would teach the younger children.

"Adults were flat out too busy," Mescher says.

They learned tolerance and leadership, and Mescher says he's seen this happening again when he teaches the games today. He witnessed a group of older children give a little girl a boost of self-esteem by letting her succeed in a game called "Puss in the Corner." The game involves four players - one in each of four corners, one in the center of the enclosure. As in musical chairs, players change places, one in the middle without a corner spot.

The 4-year-old girl wasn't "getting it," repeatedly ending up in the losing spot until an older girl noticed and arranged for her to have her period of success, Mescher says.

Weather permitting, Mescher will set up a maze of sheaves, a pattern of bundles of wheat and oats, something that would have been done at the harvest during the Civil War era. He'll probably teach "Thread the Needle," and he has a few adult Victorian parlor games in his bag of tricks.

Adults also are welcome to play.

"Leave your inhibitions behind," Mescher advises.

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