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How Hilton Head played, back in the day


Story by Richard Thomas

For Hilton Head Island’s earliest residents, there was no concept of leisure or play. All day, every day, waking hours were spent working to provide food, shelter and bodily safety from the harshness of the elements. But as society evolved and social order brought the communal benefits of functional and task specialization, the concept of leisure time began to emerge. In early social groupings leisure time was filled with forms of interpersonal interaction, often founded in contests of one kind or another, or in common pursuits. Men engaged in storytelling and in trade with external groups. Women cooked meals for the village or cured and prepared animal skins for use. Uninvolved social group members became the first spectators, deriving amusement or pleasure from the communal activities. Only among the small children was there time for activity unrelated to bettering communal or personal interests

By Colonial times common pursuits had assumed a social character but were still closely tied to home or business. Activities for men like hunting and fishing were embraced for more than simply providing food, and drinking had been added as a form of amusement. For women, baking, sewing and quilting bees provided both entertainment and productive labor. Also, involvement with neighbors attached social significance to activities like barn-raising, cattle roundups, sheep-shearing and dining. In rural communities like Hilton Head, the fair assumed prominence as a leisure event. Fairs ran several days and engaged Colonists in livestock trading, craft sales, wrestling matches, foot races, greased pig chases, horse races, cock fighting, target shooting, cooking and beauty contests. In the South drinking as a leisure “hobby” was quite widespread. In addition to having certain “rituals” connected to the art of alcohol consumption, there were accompanying medicinal rationalizations. Having a “julep” before breakfast was believed to be protection against malaria. A “toddy” of liquor, or wine or beer, at the end of the day was thought to ward off “consumption” and had general health benefits as well. Beer was homemade of molasses or malt and was consumed in vast quantities, and cider was a favorite alternative supported by the planters with apple orchards. The culture of genteel Southern hospitality was based heavily in the free offering of spirits for guests and hosting dances and balls in which attendees displayed their finery and dancing skills.

For some boys and men, contests of strength or speed gave way to games of skill as another form of competition. Many early “toys” were actually props in games, and the toys and games were exceptionally simple. “Roll the Hoop” was one in which a hoop was rolled along the ground with a stick, keeping the hoop upright over a fixed course, or for speed, or for doing tricks with it. Other games were leap frog, marbles, cat’s cradle, hopscotch, hide-and-seek, sack racing and kite flying. An outdoor game called “Nine Pins” was an early form of bowling. Another game called bowls was a version of bocce. Indoor games included board games like checkers, chess and backgammon, and the upper class played whist, a card game, and hazard, a strategy dice game.
Toys tended to be simple and most often made out of natural materials. Apples would be dried and have objects poked in them as features for a doll head. Dolls were made of corn husks and rags. Corn cobs were cut into pieces and used as building blocks. Shells were used as doll dishes or as tossing pieces for hopscotch. Dandelions and wild flowers were used to make necklaces and bracelets. Walnuts were halved and gilded and hung as ornaments. Fruit pits were used as counters in board games. Gourds were hollowed out and punctured to use as musical instruments. Pressed flowers were used to make designs or pictures. Toys carved out of wood included things like ball-in-cup, jacks, buzz-saw, tops, bean bags and quoits (like horseshoes).

Most of these toys and games were used through the Civil War period, but during the war years toys began to reflect the elements of war. Boys would fashion guns and swords out of wood, and girls would make beds and coffins for the dead and wounded soldiers they would tend to in their play hospitals. Toys also reflected current events. Puzzles depicted generals, politicians, monuments and landmarks. Building blocks were manufactured with images of Abraham Lincoln and his family on them. Racial stereotypes were often infused into playthings such as dolls reflecting Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Other dolls and puzzles depicted the leading figures of the Confederacy.
Today we have many toys and hobbies, mechanical and electronic, with which to fill the ample time for leisure we have as modern residents; and as residents of Hilton Head, we typically have more than the average amount of time to enjoy the special place in which we live. LL

Richard Thomas is an owner and guide for Hilton Head History Tours and is the author of Backwater Frontier: Beaufort Country, SC at the Forefront of American History.