Beautiful covers highlight antique game collection

In 1953, when Lee and RAlly Dennis purchased an ornately carved Victorian card table, they found bits and pieces of three early board games inside one of the drawers. With their curiosity stirred by the lovely old lithographed covers , wooden markers, and fanciful titles, they went on to acquire one of the largest and choicest collections of antique board games in the US.

Today the old table sits in a focal point in their cozy living room, several of their favorite games resting on top. On the wall behind it, the oldest American board game, the Mansion of Happiness, manufactured in 1840, is displayed in a hermetically sealed frame. Its vibrant colors and graphics still beckon one to spread it out on the carpet for a few turns around the board.

What is unique about the Dennis collection is not the games themselves, as varied and colorful as they are, but the way it is displayed and shared with the public. Much of the floor and wall space of their Peterborough home has been claimed by their 750 games, charmingly arranged to form a private museum aptly called the Game Preserve.

Although the couple laments that the evergrowing collection usurps more of their home each year, they clearly enjoy living with it. They also enjoy the visitors who come to tour. "To me the joy, in fact the whole point, of having a collection or hobby is to share it with other people," says Mrs. Dennis.

What visitors to the Game Preserve primarily see are games manufactured in the US from 1840 to 1929. Most are board games, examples of the endless varieties that firms such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers turned out for an enthusiastic public. But different nooks and crannies also reveal card games , particularly the Old Maid in several of her sour guises; an early Punch and Judy; Ping Pong paddles made of vellum or embossed with the portrait of a Gibson Girl; a miniature general store with an array of miniature wares; and a host of other playful antiques.

A long hallway serves as an art gallery of board game covers securely mounted on peg board. While each calls for attention, the most eye-catching are the lithographed covers made by McLoughlin Brothers, a firm bought out by Milton Bradley in 1912. Their 1901 Man in the Moon game features a bright yellow orb with a man's head and ruffled collar sticking out above and two red and white stockinged feet poking out beneath.

"The covers and nearly always the most colorful and artistic part of the game ," says Mrs. Dennis. "The boards inside can sometimes be a bit of a disappointment. The large McLoughlin games are my particular favorite as the lithography was so great."

The beautiful covers are the chief reason that Mrs. Dennis enjoys collecting games. But many of her games came into her possession with so much grime that it was difficult to tell what sort of cover they had. Often her method of gently washing the covers with a soft sponge reveals a lovely surprise. Her next step is to spray the cover with a thin coat of laquer to protect it from decay.

To look at the displayed game covers is to get a good sense of American social concerns and developments during the period they span. Many covers depict new modes of transportation, particularly trains and early airplanes. Flight to Paris, for example, celebrates Lindbergh's transatlantic solo. Pike's Peak or Bust and Race to the North Pole are other games that commemorate historic achievements.

Others were made to serve a direct educational purpose. The Dennis collection includes games that instruct players in arithmetic, geography, history, botany, and other subjects. A game called the Trials of Aesop takes on moral education as well. No matter where a child lands on the Aesop board, he is greeted by a fable's rueful warning.

Most of the games on display have long since been discontinued, but one shelf contains the early editions of such perennial favorites as Monopoly, Parchesi, and Uncle Wiggly. Uncle Wiggly, the board game that depicts the adventures of a gentlemanly rabbit from Hollow Stump Bungalow, was the creation of Milton Bradley, who launched his company with a game he invented during the Civil War.His first game was a collapsible kit called the Checkered Game of Life designed for soldiers to carry in their knapsacks.

His chief rival, Parker Brothers, started making games in 1885, gaining great success in 1902 when they invented Ping Pong. But, as Mrs. Dennis points out, the firm almost missed out on Monopoly, which the company first rejected as too long and complicated. Since its invention in 1933 the real estate game has sold over 80 million copies in 14 different languages.

But for every game classic there are hundreds that have been discontinued. The ones that find their way into collections usually are missing their playing directions. Part of the Game Preserve includes a small research library in which Mrs. Dennis keeps files of information on antique games. She is often able to help other collectors with their questions.

An increasing number of collectors are calling the Game Preserve these days, a sharp contrast to the days when the Dennises were among only half a dozen or so enthusiasts. Mrs. Dennis notes that a disproportionate number of game collectors live in California, despite the fact that both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley are Massachusetts firms.

As a result of their increased popularity, the games that Mrs. Dennis once found at flea markets for 50 cents are now fetching prices in the $150-$200 range. "Games in bad condition sell for much less, but I don't recommend purchasing them," she says. "The desirable games, those that will increase in value, are the ones with their covers in good condition and all their parts intact. But don't expect to find a game in perfect condition -- they were, after all, designed to be played with."

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