Born in Philadelphia and raised in Pennsylvania, in 1892 Culin was appointed Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Paleontology. In 1903 he became curator of Ethnology at the Institute of Arts and Sciences of the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. At various times he served as a consultant to the United States Bureau of American Ethnology; was on the Editorial Board of the American Anthropologist, and was a contributing member of the American Folklore Society. He had a profound interest in the occult and the mysterious, as evidenced by his articles on the subjects of voodoo, Chinese secret societies, and sorcery. Culin was a “diffusionist”, and through his studies he attempted to illustrate how and why similar games appear in different cultures. Bell states:
(Culin) went on several field expeditions to Japan, China, Korea, and India, setting out with his fare, a lead pencil, a set of ideas, and a smile. He came back with the same smile, more ideas, and many packing cases whose contents were used to reconstruct the very air of the visited country in the exhibition hall of the Brooklyn Museum. (Bell, R. C., Board and Table Games From Many Civilizations, London: Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 192-193.)
Culin’s first published report on games in 1889 concerned Chinese games with dice. He reported on another aspect of leisure in 1890 – Italian Marionettes – with an article in the Journal of American Folklore (1890/03/155-157), describing a visit to a marionette theater in New York City operated by a non-English speaking troupe from Sicily.
During 1891 he worked on an exhibit of games of the world for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and published two papers on games – one about street games of city boys – and the second about Chinese gambling games. A 1893 report on Chinese games with dice and dominoes was published by the United States National Museum. Also in 1893 Culin reported on the Columbian Exposition exhibit of games. Perhaps inspired by his work at the Exposition, in 1894 he prepared a paper on Mancala games from Africa, which was published later that year by the U.S. National Museum.
In the preface to his book on Korean Games published in 1895, Culin said:
The incentive to the preparation and publication of this work was primarily the inspiration drawn from suggestions based upon his studies of the institutions and games of primitive American peoples, made to me by my friend and collaborator. Mr. Frank Hamilton Cushing, of the Bureau of American Ethnology of Washington. In his suggestions as to the object and origin of American games, I recognized a means of removing the study of games and allied customs from the uncertain domain of so called Folklore into the realm of true scientific investigation. I have left the direct comparison of the games of the two continents to Mr. Cushing, while I have carried forward the investigation of the Asiatic games. (Culin, S., Korean Games, With Notes on the Corresponding Games at China and Japan. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1895. Reprinted as Games of the Orient. Rutand, Vermont: Charles Tuttle Co., 1958, p. v.)
In 1896, chess and playing cards interested Culin, and he prepared an almost 300 page paper on this subject for publication by the U.S. National Museum. In a report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (published in 1896) we find these comments about Culin:
(Culin’s) researches have also brought to light many significant facts bearing on the usages, beliefs and ethnic relations of early peoples, and the material result of the investigation is an elaborate paper on “Arrow games and their variants in America and the Orient,” under the joint authorship of Messrs. Cushing and Culin, now well advanced in preparation. (Annual Report to July, 1894 of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1896, p.53.)
Cushing became very ill and died in 1900. Culin seems to have taken on the task by himself while Cushing was ill, publishing a short paper on American Indian games in 1898, and then a paper on Hawaiian games in 1899, and one on Philippine games in 1900. All of these papers were inter-related, and concerned many more cultures than just the ones the titles alluded to. As a result of these studies, by1903 Culin had revised his conclusions about American Indian games and published his new views in a short paper. He brought all of his theories and ideas together in a major book, published in 1907. In his preface to this book – Games of the North American Indian – he states:
During the course of the (Columbian) exposition . . . attention was directed by Mr. Frank Hamilton Cushing to the remarkable analogies existing between the oriental and modern European games in the collection and those of American Indians. A joint work in which Mr. Cushing would discuss the American games, and the writer those of the Old World was then projected. Mr. Cushing’s ill health delayed and finally prevented his proposed collaboration. Deeply impressed with the importance of the subject, the present author took up the systematic study of American games, constantly aided by Mr. Cushing’s advice and suggestion. (Culin, S. Games of the North American Indians, Twenty-Fourth Annual Report at the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing” Office 1907.p.29.)
Culin’s interests changed after publication of the book on Indian games. He became more occupied with costume, fashion, furniture, and other decorative art, writing articles on these subjects. However, during the 1920s, he did write three more papers about games of China and Japan. He permanently retired from his role at the Brooklyn Museum some time in the 1920s, and became well known in the fashion industry.
Cullen’s contributions regarding games is best summed up by the words of W. H. Holmes, Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, in a 1903 report to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution:
The popular notion that games …are trivial in nature and of no particular significance as a subject of research soon gave way, under the well-conducted studies of Mr. Culin, to an adequate appreciation of their importance as an integral part of human culture. Although engaged in by both men and women, apparently as a pastime, and played persistently . . . games of all classes are found to be intimately connected with religious beliefs and practices, and to have universally a devotional aspect and in some cases a divinatory significance. Mr. Culin’s studies, therefore, not only afford an understanding of the technology of the games and of their distribution, as well as their bearing on history. but they contribute in a remarkable manner to an appreciation of native modes of thought and of the motives and impulses that underlie the conduct of primitive peoples generally. (Culin) …creates the science of games and for the first time gives this branch its proper place in the science of man. (Holmes, W. H. Twenty-Fourth Annual Report at the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1907, pp. 39-40.)
Here is an annotated bibliography of Culin’s principal publications on games. Culin published over 65 papers, articles, and books on a variety of subjects, ranging from the practice of Chinese medicine in the United States, to the evolution of fashion as found in works of fine art.
1889: Chinese Games with Dice (pamphlet)
Philadelphia: Oriental Club, 21 pages. Games described “…are chiefly those of Chinese laborers in America…” Although most of these were dice games played in Canton province, reference is also made to similar games from India and Japan. Pictures of equipment are included.
1891: Gambling Games of the Chinese in America (pamphlet)
University of Pennsylvania Series in Philology, Literature and Archaeology, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Vol. I, No.4, 17 pages. Detailed explanation of “Fan Tan,” a table game involving coins and special equipment; and “Pak Kop Pin,” a type of lottery. Pictures of required equipment are included.
1891: Street Games of Boys in Brooklyn (paper)
Journal of American Folklore, 4, pp.221-237. Describes street games played by both boys and girls before the turn of the century. Discusses modification of games to suit the urban environment.
1893: Chinese Games with Dice and Dominoes (monograph)
Annual Report of the U.S. National Museum, Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, pp. 491-537. In addition to providing detailed information on dice and dominoes, considerable information on backgammon and other games is presented. The narrative and illustrations are not limited to Chinese games. Information is presented on Korean, Malaya, Siamese, Japanese, Indian, Philippine, Burmese, Celebes, Eskimo (Inuit), Egyptian, Syrian, Tibetan, European, and Ancient Roman games. There are many illustrations.
1893: Exhibition of Games at the Columbian Exposition (paper)
Journal of American Folklore, 6, pp. 205-227. Describes types and kinds of games on exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Includes information similar to the type found in subsequent articles, but in less detail.
1894: Mancala, the National Game of Africa (paper)
Annual Report of the U.S. National Museum, Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, pp. 597-606. Describes many variations of the game as played in Africa, Turkey, Asia Minor, India, Ceylon, and other places. Discusses the spread of the game due to Arab influence. Photographs and diagrams of many types of boards are included. Details about a Milton Bradley game CHUBA issued in 1891 are presented.
1895: Korean Games, with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan (book)
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 177 pages. Reprinted as Games of the Orient, Rutland, Vermont: Charles Tuttle Co., 1958. “. . . intended not only as a survey of the games of Korea, but as a practical introduction to the study of games of the world.” Includes hundreds of adult and children’s games from many countries. Games that require special equipment, non-equipment games, and information on toys, with numerous illustrations and diagrams are presented. Introduction sets forth Culin’s theory of the function of games in society. Includes bibliography.
1896: Chess and Playing-Cards (monograph)
Annual Report of the U.S. National Museum, Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, pp. 665-942. Comprehensive exploration of chess, playing cards, and other table and board games as played in Europe, Asia, North America, and South America. Some content deals with similarity of North American Indian games and the games played in Europe and Asia.
1898: American Indian Games (paper)
Journal of American Folklore, Oct.-Dec., pp. 245-252. Preliminary exploration of the meaning and distribution of these games (see 1903 and 1907).
1899: Hawaiian Games (paper)
American Anthropologist, New Series, 1, (2), pp.201-247. Describes equipment and non-equipment games as played by children and adults in a number of islands of the Pacific, ranging from the Hawaiian group to New Zealand and other places in Oceania. Includes many diagrams and illustrations, and a special illustrated section on string games.
1900: Philippine Games (paper)
American Anthropologist, New Series, 2, pp. 643-656. Games of Spanish, Chinese, Malay, and Hindu origin as played in the Philippine Islands are present with illustrations and diagrams.
1903: American Indian Games (paper)
American Anthropologist, New Series, 5, pp.58-64. Revised conclusions about the meaning and distribution of these games. Presents some of the ideas that are expressed more fully in the 1907 monograph.
1907: Games of North American Indians (monograph)
Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 846 pages. “Monographic study of American Indian games… affording an understanding of the technology of the games and their distribution, as well as their bearing on the history of the tribes.” Probably the most comprehensive work on the subject. Includes hundreds of pictures and illustrations.
1920: Japanese Game of Sugoroku (paper)
Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, 7, October, pp. 213-233. Detailed examination of the place of this game in Japanese society and its significance. Includes illustrations and a bibliography.
1924: Game of Mahjong (paper)
Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, 11, October, pp. 153-168. Detailed discussion of the origin and significance of the game and its relationships to other games. Photographs and illustrations are included.
1925: Japanese Game of Battledore and Shuttlecock (paper)
Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, 12, July, pp. 133-150. Two articles with accompanying illustrations indicating the relationship of these two games to festival holidays in Japan.
Elliott Avedon Museum and Archive of Games
University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada