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Happy Families and Vintage Games


My apologies to Tolstoy, but happy families are NOT all alike. In the Library’s Rare Book Division,  two distinct sets of playing cards prove the point.  Here they are:

These cards, designed to be used in a card game called Happy Families, are two series of cigarette cards.

The George Arents Collection includes among its holdings thousands of cigarette cards, which were premiums tucked into cigarette packages. The cards were produced in various series meant to be collected--and also meant to encourage cigarette brand loyalty. (In NYPL’s Digital Gallery you can view both sides of each card; I like to browse by series name--but I warn you, it is addictive!) Some series were meant to be used as games, and that’s what’s behind the Happy Families series pictured here.

Each family set is made up of four characters — a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter — and every family name is a joking allusion to the livelihood or profession of the father of the family. So, for instance, families include the Pipes (he’s a plumber), the Matches (he’s a footballer), the Bulls (he’s a butcher), the Batches (he’s a baker), and the Tacks (he’s a tailor).

You can see the full decks of cards (one is called Happy Families and the other is Happy Family) on the Library’s Digital Gallery. Here are a few of my favorites from each deck:

Miss 'Arris, the aristocrat's daughter., Digital ID 1631179, New York Public LibraryMiss Match.The Footballer's daughter., Digital ID 1631309, New York Public Library

       Mrs. Gasper.The Undertaker's wife., Digital ID 1631227, New York Public LibraryMiss Bull, the butcher's daughter., Digital ID 1631147, New York Public Library

Happy Families is played a bit like a more difficult version of Go Fish, and, handily, the instructions appear on the back of one set of cards. 


You can read more about this and other card games in The Oxford Guide to Card Games or in Goren’s Hoyle Encyclopedia of Games. I also highly recommend the Victoria and Albert games site to learn more about the histories of a variety of games. I’m hoping to make myself a deck of cards and try a few rounds of Happy Families over the coming holidays. If you try, too, let me know how it turns out!


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Miss Match's outfit looks

Miss Match's outfit looks fine and her handbag matches her belt. They say Miss Match. I say not true !!

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