Stroboscopic photo of a wink being potted in the game of tiddlywinks The North American Tiddlywinks Association
T i d d l y w i n k s !
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by Fred Shapiro
from Fleas, November 1978, pages 37 to 41

The information that follows was not easily come by. Since the Library of Congress and the New York Public, Harvard University, Boston Public and National Geographic Society libraries were combed for relevant materials, it may be said that virtually the entire library resources of the United States were exhausted. I studied the recreational, social and linguistic histories of many different countries and eras, written in many different languages (for the crucial segment of my research, I had to find someone who could read ancient Chinese!). This is not the kind of thing usually discussed in books; tiddlywinks has such low status that even books describing hundreds of children's or table games often omit it. Accordingly, I had to search through things like historical dictionaries, anthropological journals, ETwA references and toy catalogues. Rick Tucker helped me in this work, but the essential findings were my own.

I also want to state at the outset that this is entirely serious, unlike the historical conclusions of some other winkers, such as the early Oxonians who had me on the wrong track for a month because of their claim that Alfred the Great had played winks. This turned out to be a joke.

It is necessary to begin by defining the essential elements of tiddlywinks, those features which differentiate it from other games and enable us to determine whether a given game corresponds to it or is a possible precursor. I believe that there is a single item which is the core: the squidger. Of course, the wink, the target (not necessarily a pot) and a suitable surface are all necessary, but there are many other games which involve propelling a small object and are quite distinct from winks. The squidger sets tiddlywinks apart; only winks has it and without it, no game can be identified with winks. By a "squidger" I mean anything which is used to apply a downward pressure on something else, resulting in a forward motion for the "something else." Maybe even this is too narrow: when you squidge a coin with another coin, it often goes backward, yet I might call the pressing coin a squidger. In any case, a baseball bat or a shuffleboard cue is not a squidger, since the pressure is not downward. A fingernail might be.

This basic concept, the Platonic Idea of tiddlywinks, is a very simple and almost obvious one, Therefore, although we would be shocked to find the one-point transfer in Egyptian hieroglyphics, it would not be at all surprising to find a winks-like game of great antiquity, probably evolving spontaneously in different areas and time-periods. This is the way most children's games "originate."

Having said this, I will now explain the actual history of tiddlywinks, as far as is now known. In the Hsi ching tsa chi (Anecdotes of the Western Capitol), a Chinese manuscript of uncertain but ancient date, the following passage occurs:

The Emperor Ch'eng Ti, B.C. 32-6, was fond of soccer; but his officers represented to him that it was both physically exhausting and also unsuitable to the Imperial dignity. His Majesty replied: we like playing, and what one chooses to do is not exhausting An appeal was thon made to the Empress, who suggested the game of t'an ch'i for the Emperor's amusement.

The account, which is of great importance to historians of soccer, goes on to report that the Emperor (elsewhere described as "grave and dignified in manner.. but overfond of wine and women") was extremely pleased with the game and gave his wife a new fur coat to reward her, What, then, was the game of t'an ch'i? Looking at the words involved, we discover that "ch'i" means chess (or probably game in general) and "t'an" means to snap, flick, shoot or press down. This in itself is suggestive. Much more interesting, however, is the fact that Herbert Giles, Professor of Chinese at Cambridge, translated this word in 1906 as "tiddlywinks" and in 1912 as "a kind of Chinese 'tiddlywinks."' This would seem to clinch the case for the antiquity and possible Eastern origin of tiddlywinks, except for three problems: first, Giles worked when Chinese studies in the Occident were very primitive and was notorious, even in this age of inaccuracy, as a particularly inaccurate translator; second, even if he were a good translator, the exact meaning of t'an ch'i might have been lost through the centuries; and third, who knows how familiar a university don around 1910 would be with the English game, so as to know what the word "tiddlywinks" itself meant?

My only recourse at this point was to Chinese-Chinese dictionaries and the general knowledge of Chinese professors at Harvard. The consensus of these sources was that t'an ch'i was played (and may still be played today) on a board by two players, each having six pieces {small discs) lined up at opposite ends like chessmen. What exactly they did with these pieces is not clear. Probably they snapped their fingers directly at them, as in marbles, in order to stake out a position and/or knock the opponents off the board, as in marbles, shuffleboard, curling or boccie If this is true, then there was no squidger and this is not tiddlywinks. But I continued to hope, despite the absence of any evidence, that t'an was used here in the sense of "press down" and that some squidger equivalent was present. After all, Giles couldn't have been a complete fool, and it would take a complete fool to translate "marbles" as "tiddlywinks."

Giles did not, however, only translate t'an ch'i as tiddlywinks. The full entry in his 1912 dictionary was "a kind of Chinese 'tiddlywinks'; squails." What is squails? With this word we traverse time and space, like Kubrick's brilliant associative cut from bone to spaceship in 2001 moving from Han China to Victorian England. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "a table-game in which counters or disks are propelled toward some mark by snapping. App. introduced in 1857 by Mr. John Jaques, London." As with t'an ch'i, snapping suggests tiddlywinks if there is a squidger mediating between hand and counter, but only boccie if there is none. The Young Folks' Cyclopaedia of Games and Sports by John D. Champlin Jr. and Arthur E. Bostwick (1890) gives a good account of squails, but it seems to be a slightly different game there. Four or six people, playing as two teams, sit alternately around a table with a smooth top, in the center of which is a short metal column. Each player has two squails (small wooden discs), which he propels toward the column by striking them (another book talks of pushing) with the open palm of his hand. If they go off the table, a turn is missed. A variation of this game, called cachinole [Footnote 1], involves a circular board and snapping with fingers (probably the middle finger) from the board's edge. Both squails and cachinole seem to resemble indoor curling or bowls in their play. Webster's Second New International Dictionary (1934) lists squails as a "formerly common" game, "now rare," in which the discs are "driven or snapped."

It's All in the Game by James J. Shea and Charles Mercer (1960), the history of the Milton Bradley Company (which does not even mention winks), devotes a page to squails, adding no information about the method of play but including a few interesting facts. Squails was introduced to America by Mr. Bradley himself in 1867 and was a "boisterous" affair billed as "the jolliest game ever invented." It was hundreds of years old [Footnote 2] and had at times been as popular in English taverns as darts or bowling. Bradley devised new rules for both team and individual play. The game was not initially popular and died out, but was later revived and was "well received" for a time before fading again.

None of these sources associates squails with tiddlywinks (although there is one book which suggests that winks could be used as squails counters), as well they should not if there is no squidger. The squails connection only strengthens the probability that Giles was confused about his games. He could not have translated t'an ch'i as both a kind of tiddlywinks and as squails unless he thought there could be tiddlywinks without squidgers, or unless he saw some foreshadowing of winks in a certain kind of squidger-less game. I am going again to appeal to the presumption of Giles' non-cretinism and conclude that the latter possibility is the correct one, and that t'an ch'i therefore has some claim to consideration as a precursor of tiddlywinks, since at least one scholar seems to have thought so, although just what about it resembled winks l cannot say. If "snapping" your fingers can be interpreted to mean pressing downward with the fingernail, then t'an ch'i is definitely Chinese tiddlywinks.

Having lingered too long on speculative origins that are mostly diverting dead ends, I turn now to more solid ground. Leslie Daiken implies in Children's Toys Throughout the Ages (1953) that tiddlywinks originated in England, and perhaps he is correct. Marchant Games Ltd. wrote to Cambridge pioneer Bill Steen in 1955 that "unlike most board games it is of English origin. This company has been manufacturing Tiddleywinks for over 100 years." (Steen asserted after associates had canvassed the British Museum and Cambridge libraries that "the game was quite well known in the middle of the nineteenth century in Europe, but thot it tended towards obscurity at the turn of the century.") The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh has an exhibit on winks which indicates that the game dates to about 1860. The museum also, though, displays a fish-shaped squidger, dated at 1850 [Note from Rick Tucker in August 1998:  These dates are not substantiated and may be considered suspect; no substantiated tiddlywinks sets are known prior to 1888.] . This is the earliest real evidence of tiddlywinks, but a somewhat older history cannot be ruled out: one one book about toys calls winks in 1883 [Note from Rick Tucker in August 1998:  This date is also suspect.] an "old English game," as do other references around the same time or slightly later, often speaking of its traditionalness and popularity. The 1883 quote is the first known use of the word itself (the O.E.D., in a pretty disappointing performance for a work of such overwhelming outhority, gives 1898 as the earliest example). [Footnote 3]

In contrast to the mystery surrounding Chinese and English origins (not to mention the Continental "flea-game," about which no one knows anything), the birth of American tiddlywinks is completely known. In 1883, "several elderly English ladies" entered the New York store of F.A.O. Schwarz "and asked for the game of 'Tiddley Winks.' None could be found in America, so Schwarz undertook to have some rather crude sets made for them. These caught on, and when American manufacturers began making (tiddlywinks) Schwarz stopped" (quote from Toys in America by Inez and Marshall McClintock, published in 1961, based on Schwarz' later recollections).

By 1890, a scant seven years later, "Tiddledy Winks," as American game companies like to call it, had become quite developed. The rules given in the Young Folks' Cyclopaedia show some surprising similarities to modern winks. It was played on thick cloth on a table. Four people played as partners and sat opposite each other. There were six winks of the same color per player. Potting was rewarded with an extra turn. A covered wink could not be played until it was uncovered but note that intentional squopping was illegal). A wink shot off the table was replaced one inc from the edge. Finally, one variation nf the basic game included a form of boondocking.

Richard Hussong discovered an 1890 set of "Tiddledy Winks" manufactured by McLoughlin Bros., New York (later bought out by Bradley). The rules for this game featured four or six players playing as pairs on a table "with or without a thick cloth." The idea of potting was called "novel" here. Two different games were described, an "English" and an "American" one. In the former, play began with winks in a row near the table edge, there was a free turn after potting and replacement at tho edge, and "if one (wink) lies on his and he has no other to jump," a player "must wait until the opponent removes the wink before he can play. Another's wink must not be purposely covered." (This latter provision corresponds to the Cyclopaedia rule and to the Marchant rule which inspired the modern game.) The latter differed in the use of a small mat as a surface and in the mechanics of winning.

The company history of Parker Brothers, 90 Years of Fun (1973), describes "Tiddledy Winks" as the outstanding example of a "fad," an item that was extremely popular and profitable for a short time. This fad occurred in America in the 189O's (the very time when European winks declined), and it also encompassed "hop scotch tiddledy winks" and "tiddledy winks tennis." it seems that perversions are almost as old as the game itself. butler bros. (now city products corp.) had a tiddledy winks set, described as a "standard, well known game, as well as a quick seller," at least as early as 1895 (they also made the hop scotch variation). milton bradley, which is today probably the leading manufacturer of the children's game, entered the market between 1901 and 1905. in general, antiques books associate tiddlywinks with the period 1890 to 1910.

There are available to us studies which trace in a scientific way the varying popularity of tiddlywinks in America. These are collected in Brian Sutton-Smith's The Folkgames of Children (1972). In 1896 "tiddleywinks" was the 68th most popular play activity (this embraces sports, games and other pastimes such as snowball-throwing, bicycle riding, climbing, see-saw, dolls, model airplanes, cooking and using tools) among boys in Worcester and 52nd among girls. In 1898 in South Carolina the rankings were 66th and 58th for boys and girls, respectively. 1921 Bay Area, California children put winks 59th and 54th, and in Northwest Ohio in 1959 it was 90th and 76th. Methodological factors make meaningful conclusions from these figures difficult, but Sutton-Smith does point out that, as games go, tiddlywinks is relatively equally popular among the two sexes. Its sex-blind popularity has remained fairly constant for 63 years, although S.-S. sees a mild overall decline from 1896 to 1921. We can observe from the rankings that winks has been slightly more popular among girls (Sutton-Smith, in another article, finds the difference statistically significant for older girls); this fact, coupled with the apparent preponderance of women in the 1962 National Undergraduate Tiddlywinks Society, must give winkers accustomed to the overwhelmingly male modern game pause.

In the 1959 study tiddlywinks was named as a game they liked to play by 43% of boys (ahead of drawing and soccer and just behind chess and kissing) and 54% of girls (ahead of chess, kissing, dominoes, see-saw and bowling), so maybe being 90th and 76th is not so bad after all. Outside of the United States, there is little direct evidence of the extent of winks activity except for the existence of German-manufactured sets and English sets that are apparently sold on the Continent, and the compelling testimony of foreign-language dictionaries, which include translations for the word (usually equivalent to "fleas") in French, Spanish, Purtugese, Dutch, German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Croatian, Russian, Ukrainian, Latvian and Afrikaans, among others. In New Zealand, however, the game appears to be unknown.

I would like to conclude by offering a 1939 quote which concisely illustrates the status eventually achieved by the children's game in Anglo-American life: "The composition disks of a Tiddledy-Wink game cannot be made at home, but Tiddledy-Winks is such a popular game the chances are that every boy and girl who reads this book has one of these games, or at least they have a few of the composition disks saved from an old Tiddledy-Wink set" (Table Games: How to Make and How to Play Them by Ray J. Marran). Perhaps a game of such wide appeal could indeed, as the late Rev. E. A. Willis liked to think, "get us back to the primeval simplicity of life."

These are not footnotes, but inserts of material added after the text was typed:

  1. (still played today, with somewhat altered rules, under the tradename of "crokinole")

  2. (Darwin Hindman also calls it "ancient")

  3. The first known appearance in a dictionary came in 1891 in The American Slang Dictionary by James Maitland, which listed "Tiddlywink (Eng.), the name of a game." At some time in the late 1800's the word was a trade name, although it soon became generic. is the official web site of the North American Tiddlywinks Association.
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