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Photo: Strong Museum, Rochester, New York
Candy Land was created as a distraction for young polio victims. The 1949 game board depicts a boy in a leg brace, like many polio patients had to wear.

When my children were young, I made a game called Vegetable Land because I wasn’t crazy about the enthusiasm for sugar in the Candy Land game. Little Miss Holier-than-Thou.

Come to find out, Candy Land was created 70 years ago to lighten the monotonous days of young polio victims immured in iron lungs.

Alexander B. Joy writes at the Atlantic, “If you were a child at some point in the past 70 years, odds are you played the board game Candy Land. According to the toy historian Tim Walsh, a staggering 94 percent of mothers are aware of Candy Land …

“You know how it goes: Players race down a sinuous but linear track, its spaces tinted one of six colors or marked by a special candy symbol. They draw from a deck of cards corresponding to the board’s colors and symbols. They move their token to the next space that matches the drawn color or teleport to the space matching the symbol. The first to reach the end of the track is the winner.

“Nothing the participants say or do influences the outcome; the winner is decided the second the deck is shuffled, and all that remains is to see it revealed, one draw at a time. It is a game absent strategy, requiring little thought. … Yet for all its simplicity and limitations, children still love Candy Land, and adults still buy it. … It was invented by Eleanor Abbott, a schoolteacher, in a polio ward during the epidemic of the 1940s and ’50s.

“The outbreak had forced children into extremely restrictive environments. Patients were confined by equipment, and parents kept healthy children inside for fear they might catch the disease.

Candy Land offered the kids in Abbott’s ward a welcome distraction — but it also gave immobilized patients a liberating fantasy of movement. That aspect of the game still resonates with children today. …

“The virus targets the nerve cells in the spinal cord, inhibiting the body’s control over its muscles. This leads to muscle weakness, decay, or outright fatality in extreme cases. The leg muscles are the most common sites of polio damage, along with the muscles of the head, neck, and diaphragm. In the last case, a patient would require the aid of an iron lung, a massive, coffinlike enclosure that forces the afflicted body to breathe. For children, whose still-developing bodies are more vulnerable to polio infection, the muscle wastage from polio can result in disfigurement if left untreated. Treatment typically involves physical therapy to stimulate muscle development, followed by braces to ensure that the affected parts of the body retain their shape.

“Vaccines appeared in the 1950s, and the disease was essentially eradicated by the end of the millennium. But in the mid-century, polio was a medical bogeyman, ushering in a climate of hysteria. ‘There was no prevention and no cure,’ the historian David M. Oshinsky writes. ‘Everyone was at risk, especially children. There was nothing a parent could do to protect the family.’ …

“According to Walsh, the toy historian, the [Milton Bradley executive Mel Taft met Abbott when she] brought Milton Bradley a Candy Land prototype sketched on butcher paper. …

“In 1948, when she was in her late 30s, she herself contracted the disease. Abbott recuperated in the polio ward of a San Diego hospital, spending her convalescence primarily among children.

“Imagine what it must have been like to share an entire hospital ward with children struggling against polio, day after day, as an adult. Kids are poorly equipped to cope with boredom and separation from their loved ones under normal circumstances. But it would be even more unbearable for a child confined to a bed or an iron lung. That was the context in which Abbott made her recovery.

“Seeing children suffer around her, Abbott set out to concoct some escapist entertainment for her young wardmates, a game that left behind the strictures of the hospital ward for an adventure that spoke to their wants: the desire to move freely in the pursuit of delights, an easy privilege polio had stolen from them. …

“Every element of Abbott’s game symbolizes shaking off the polio epidemic’s impositions. And this becomes apparent if you consider the game’s board and mechanics relative to what children in polio wards would have seen and felt.

“In 2010, when he was almost 70 years old, the polio survivor Marshall Barr recalled how only brief escapes from the iron lung were possible. The doctors ‘used to come and say, “You can come out for a little while,” and I used to sit up perhaps to have a cup of tea,’ he wrote, ‘but then they would have to keep an eye on me because my fingers would go blue and in about 15 minutes I would have to go back in again.’ Children would have played Abbott’s early version of Candy Land during these breaks, or in their bed. …

“At least part of Candy Land’s appeal is the feeling of independence it provides its young players. In a backstory printed in the game’s instruction manual, the player tokens (in the current edition, four brightly colored plastic gingerbread men) are said to represent the players’ ‘guides.’ They represent the chance to be an active agent, with assistance — an ambulatory adventurer, not a prisoner of the hospital or home.” More here.

I well remember the fear of polio and especially my parents’ anxiety about public swimming places. After all, my father had had polio as a child and knew the scourge for what it was.

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Rainy days at the shore and holidays are for many families today the only time they play board games.

But for folks in Omaha, Nebraska, an unusual coffee shop provides frequent opportunities to play games — including some that, guaranteed, you never heard of.

Robyn Murray reported the story at the radio show Only a Game.

“Remember playing Monopoly and Scrabble around the dinner table? Arguing with your siblings about who gets to be the car or the Scottish Terrier? Or whether Z-A-Q could ever be a real word? Well those days are coming back — with just one variation: The arguments are getting weird. Did you feed your monster properly? Can you trust her to save the world with you? And what’s the best way to ensure your family doesn’t have to go begging — selling bread or planting beans?

“Welcome to the revamped world of board games.

“At Spielbound in Omaha, Neb. — a newly opened coffee shop and board game library with what’s believed to be the largest collection of board games in the country — the Short family recently played Takenoko, a Japanese board game.

“ ‘We are trying to please the emperor by taking care of his panda and growing a most excellent garden that feeds his panda,’ Justin Short explained.

“There’s a comfortable feeling about Spielbound. The tables are wooden and the booths leather. There are no television screens, just a cozy bar that serves beer and coffees with names like ‘Taste of Sweet Victory’ and ‘Dice Delight.’ Downstairs, four foot shelves are stocked with board games. Each box is a little work of art, with titles like ‘Arkham Horror’ and ‘The Road to Canterbury,’ with pictures of ships, dragons and submarines.

“The Shorts come here a lot on their monthly family pass. Short has a collection of 200 board games at home. But that’s nothing compared to the 1,200 available at Spielbound, at least according to the Shorts’ children:

“ ‘It’s just fun to play as a family whenever we get down here,’ Isabelle said.

“ ‘I like pretending to be something else and do something else,’ Sabrina said.

“ ‘I like beating people,’ Cameron said, laughing.”

More here.

Photo: Robyn Murray/Only A Game 
Spielbound, a coffee shop and board game library in Omaha, Neb., holds what’s believed to be the largest collection of board games in the U.S. with over 1,200 games available for patrons.

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