Black child images on playing cards
The sketches of African American children on the playing cards were not typical. For one thing, some of the children were smiling and the cards were devoid of color.
Had there been color, the most predominant would have been red and green, because that’s how most images of black children appeared on these early cards: red for lips and green for watermelons.
A lot of the cards were awful, and at least one was the ubiquitous boys eating watermelons and dressed in torn clothing. Some of the cards showed them naturally smiling even though the captions were insulting.
The cards were part of a game up for sale at an auction of African American manuscripts recently in New York. Even the auction catalog noted that “while a few are somewhat offensive in their stereotypical format, these cards are for the most part quite sympathetic and generally mild in terms of the genre.”
I came across the cards during a preview of the sale and instantly wanted take a look because they appeared different. The last set of similar playing cards I had come across were Old Maid cards from around the 1940s and 1950s. One deck contained stereotypical images of African American adults and another of children. And these were not the only such games distributed: The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia noted others in an historical article on games that featured African Americans in less-than-flattering images.
The one at auction was called “Game of In Dixie-Land. No. 1118” from 1897. The deck contained 52 cards with letters A to M and numbers 1 to 4. The rules were on the inside cover of the box top, and they were the same for as those for another Fireside game called “Flags (No. 1111)” from 1896. Each four cards having the same letter constituted a book. The winner was the person with the most books at the end of the game.
In Dixie-Land was one of more than 30 games made by the Fireside Games Co. of Cincinnati, OH, starting around 1895. The series was sold as educational games for 25 cents to 35 cents.
Others included European castles, wild animals, nationalities, the Mayflower and the White House. They were all meant to “amuse and instruct at the same time,” for “social entertainment, children’s parties, etc,” according to an 1898 ad in the School Journal. The ad also noted that the series was endorsed by teachers, superintendents and other educators.
“In Dixie-Land,” according to the company, were “life-like reproductions of characteristic sketches from the Sunny South.” (Shouldn’t that be “cloudy South?”) The cards showed African American children and adults along with messages – “Anticipation. Don’t Like Cold Weather No How. An Alabama Cabin. A Virginia Mammy” – printed beneath the sketches. On the backs were watermelons and cotton, and a sketch of an alligator and a tree. Here are some images from the cards.
Fireside was a subsidiary of the United States Playing Card Co., which started it to fill what it saw as a need for educational games, according to the Mooncat Antiques site. The first reference to Fireside and the games was in the 1895 edition of “Card Games and How to Play Them,” the site noted.
The World Web Playing Cards Museum has a listing of Fireside games starting with “Strange People. Types of All Nations” in 1895 up to 1901.
At the auction, the cards for “In Dixie-Land” were in reasonably good condition, but the purple top with its gold lettering was split at the side seams and the bottom was missing. Bidding was pretty hefty, with auction-goers going tit-for-tat until stopping at $1,200.
That was high compared to similar prices over the past few years. In 2006, a deck sold at auction for $200, in 2009 for $140 and in January 2011 at the British auction house Bonhams for 240 pounds (about $390).