from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2013.
In this Connecticut household, the game's the thing. Behind the front door of the large stately house lies an unexpected and dazzling world of color and geometry. Displayed throughout the interior and arranged from floor to ceiling are almost 250 hand¬made game boards of various types, sizes, and patterns. But the promise of hours of family fun is strictly for the eyes: these game boards have been retired from active duty.
If you ask the genial homeowners, Bruce and Doranna Wendel, what they collect, they answer in unison, "Art." Although they both recognize the playful nature of the collection they have assembled, the couple considers their game boards examples of modern art. Take for instance the abstract masterpiece of brilliantly colored circles and rectangles on a plain black and incised board that they have dubbed "Colorforms," after the classic 1950s toy of die-cut adhesive vinyl shapes (see Fig. 6). Hanging high on the wall, almost at the ceiling, the visual impact is powerful-and quite unrelated to its function as a Parcheesi board.
Bruce Wendel was excited about antiques from a young age, attending shows and auctions with his European-born parents as the designated family curator with an interest in art nouveau furniture and art glass, particularly Tiffany. Doranna Wendel is the daughter of an artist and a fashion model and was raised in Connecticut and Rome. She is a diminutive dynamo of creative energy; he is round-eyed, mellow, and expansive. Fittingly, they met in an antiques shop where Doranna was working at the time, and they married in 1981. Although Bruce seriously considered going into the antiques business after high school rather than attending college, he knew it would devastate his parents. He continued on to law school, becoming a successful legal counsel for the pharmaceutical industry. This occasioned four major moves for his and Doranna's growing family: to Indiana, New Jersey, Florida, and California, before recently returning to Connecticut.
The Wendels still have the first board they purchased, a Mill game that Bruce describes as "Frank Lloyd Wright-ish" in its linearity. It is one of several Mill games they now own, although Bruce estimates that probably some 65 percent of their boards are for playing Parcheesi. He spins around the room and darts up ladders, pointing out seemingly unique and disparate abstract "paintings" that are all Parcheesi boards: squares, circles, rectangles; plays of dark and light, color and pattern. But all have the "home" center square that gives the game away.
One such square features the portrait of a dog (a family's loyal pet perhaps?), another a naturalistic painting of a homestead, rather than the word itself. The sheer variety of Parcheesi board patterns suggests an interesting visual relationship to similar geometric permutations in pieced quilts of the late nineteenth century. In fact, a conventional Parcheesi board might be described as a combination of a Nine-Patch quilt with a circular motif in each corner and a Log Cabin quilt with its rectangular logs that lap around a center hearth-or home-square. Parcheesi is one of the world's oldest games. Known as a cross-and-circle game because of its cruciform design, it is derived from Pachisi, invented in India around the fourth century ad. Its roots in the United States are less clear; the game was being played on handmade boards by the 1850s, but was patented in the late 1860s. The rights were sold to E. G. Selchow and Company of New York, which trademarked and published the game in 1870.
The preponderance of highly colored and unusual Parcheesi boards in the Wendel collection is not indicative of the general production; the couple has spent forty years seeking unusual examples because of their inherent artistry and seemingly infinite iterations.
The history of American board games began in earnest in the 1820s with the emergence of a strong middle class and the notion of the nuclear family. At the same time that the home became a man's castle, it also became his rook, his pawn, and his bishop. Board games became a means of engaging the entire family in a domestic activity that inculcated basic strategic thinking and friendly competition, and that reinforced moral codes. The Mansion of Happiness, for instance, taught that material success and domestic happiness were achieved through ethical decision-making. The path around the board was fraught with forks in life's path; choose wisely and you prospered, choose poorly and you sank into vice.
The lack of standardization evident in the games in the Wendel collection emphasizes that most boards were homemade through much of the nineteenth century, allowing a high level of creative expression and individual interpretation. The Wendels seek this idiosyncratic approach to the art of the game. They are far less attracted to the highly refined and ornamental Victorian game boards and are drawn instead to bold personal statements; one example even shouts an evangelical message, "Love God." They also respond to evidence of wear; the abraded surfaces and splits in a board become part of its history, charm, and texture. "We prefer the ones that show their age," Bruce explains. He surmises that the earlier boards hail primarily from the Midwest and Northeast, and also Canada-regions with long cold winters.
Bruce and Doranna delight in unpredictable juxtapositions and use the informality of their collection as a counterpoint to the formal architecture of their house. On the way up a wide, winding staircase and set into a deep window recess, is a trio of family portraits cast in bronze by Doranna's father, the sculptor Herzl Emanuel, including one of Doranna as a girl. From this second-story vantage one enjoys the cathedral-height walls of the light-filled living room, and the interplay between the natural beauty of the landscape glimpsed through an arcade of mullioned, arched windows and the drama of the game boards interspersed in all the available spaces above and around these interventions.
In addition to the Parcheesi boards, the collection comprises checkerboards and the related game of draughts, Ludo, Chinese checkers, and Mill games, as well as the Noble Game of the Swan, Trip Around the World (one example is hand-lettered with moves such as "loose [sic] one day"), and a recently acquired hand-painted Chutes and Ladders. One board that is unique in Bruce's experience is an eye-grabbing 1880s honey¬comb-pattern board for playing Agon, a game that was popular in Victorian England, and usually seen as a published board in America. The Wendels also have an impressive selection of amusement park ball tosses, and large gaming wheels and wheels of fortune.
Among the rare finds is a forbidding Masonic checkerboard that features a border of skulls and crossbones and corner blocks replete with Masonic symbols. It hangs over a Ouija-board-like fortune-telling game that contains a glazed window protecting a fragile notepaper that is set next to the playing board marked with coordinates of numbers and letters. The lines of writing, penned in a faded spidery script, pose questions: Will my friend be true in his dealings? Shall I have to live in foreign parts? Will the marriage be prosperous?
In 1984 the Wendels organized the exhibition Winning Moves: Painted Gameboards of North America at what was then called the Museum of American Folk Art. Including forty or so of their own boards and examples from other collections, the project granted them an opportunity to research the history of game boards in North America. Since that time their collection has more than doubled, their knowledge has deepened, and the rules of the game have changed. When they started, it was a laborious process of phone calls, letters, and ads. Few, if any, people were collecting handmade painted and incised game boards. Bruce recalls with amusement that the first postcards he sent to dealers in the 1980s reaped an unanticipated result. To his queries about game boards he instead received "gameboards"-slabs of wood with iron hooks to hold the carcasses of felled game animals. Today the hunt is easier, though no less intense. Deep into the night he hovers over his computer, relentlessly search¬ing the Internet for game boards. When he first started it might be months between "sightings." Now, with the advent of liveauctioneers.com and other such sites, barely a week passes without a packing carton appearing on the front steps, and his challenge is finding new search words to input for results.
Today Bruce and Doranna live with their Shar-Pei Theo and their parrot Pippo, who sings all day long. It is a quirky, happy household-just what a house of games should be.