Fun from the past was on display Wednesday, Aug. 9, at the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum as Michael Mescher presented a selection of Civil War era toys and games to members of the Clifton Community Women's Club.
Mescher, a military reenactor, father of three and a Civil War toys and games expert demonstrated everything from handmade husk dolls to wooden pin ball games.
"I've seen a lot of these toys made in plastic and you can buy them in stores still," said Georgia Weatherhead, an impressed observer.
In 1988, Mescher's children sparked his interest in this unusual hobby. "Civil War military reenactments sure weren't the most exciting place for my 7, 9, and 11 year old children," said Mescher. He started researching toys from the 19th century that would be appropriate for children to play with at the Civil War events he and his family attended. His research inspired him to travel to exhibits and museums across the country in search of magazines and books that could date toys back to the Civil War period. For example, the well-known Jacob's Ladder was first mentioned in a Charles Dickens' novel during the 1800s.
"The Jacob's Ladder was my favorite toy," said John Hallin. "I thought it was ingenious the way someone figured out how to make that happen. It was really cool."
MESCHER'S RESEARCH didn't stop at just toys. He came across parlor games from the 19th century and wanted to share the information he'd gained with not only his children, but with anyone willing to listen.
"People don't know much of the toys and games played with during [the Civil War]," he said. "Most people are misinformed and I wanted to be the one to inform them." He did his first demonstration in 1993 and has written two books on the subject as well as sold various toys from the period.
"I'm taking two books home for a big birthday party. We are going to play some of the parlor games because I enjoyed them so much tonight." said Weatherhead.
"Games for the children were simple during the Civil War period," said Mescher. "They were usually passed down from sibling to sibling or at parties by other family members. There was usually only toy stores in big cities or towns with a large population so children who lived on farms or in small towns were forced to make their own toys. Girls sewed their own dolls or used simple things like bran and corn husk to stuff them with."
Games from the 1800s, such as chess, hide-and-seek, checkers, and pick up sticks, are still played today. A lot of toys, like a wooden pin ball game Mescher brought to Fairfax Station Train Museum demonstration, have influenced toys of the 21st century.
"Some of the games Michael had, my children and grandchildren have played with before." said Joan Rogers, president Clifton Community Women's Club, which sponsored the event.
After a show and tell of the toys, Mescher had all the participants sit around in a circle for the parlor games. He explained that these games were played in the late 1800s by the wealthy; usually those who were 18 and older because of the shorter attention span of children. A popular game of the night was "The Flying Feather." Players sat closely around in a circle and took a small feather that is blown as a free-for-all. Whenever the feather descended on one of the players, they get a point. The person with the lowest score is the winner with bragging rights.
"I enjoyed the history of [the demonstration] and how simple it was and how it forced everyone to be together." said Pete Conklin, an observer.
Mescher had the whole room at a roaring laughter throughout the night. "I knew he would be very entertaining because he's been with us before. [What I liked most] was the interaction between all of us." said Joan Rogers.