The Domino effect

When I found a domino underneath a house in Lyttelton recently, I thought it probably wasn’t the first time that a stray piece of a children’s game was discarded, overlooked or lost. Children’s toys aren’t known for their longevity, and one could speculate that this game piece was easily separated from its comrades through a sudden distraction, followed by a slip of a hand and a lack of regard by its young owner… Or so I thought before I started further researching this entertaining artefact. While dominoes were a recognised children’s game in the 19th century, just as they still are today (if kids actually still play anything that doesn’t require an electronic controller?), it was actually a popular pastime for Victorian and Edwardian adults as well.

The domino in question was typical of the Victorian type, rendered in a dark ebony wood backing with a front panel of bone, which was carefully incised with numerical dots. The two pieces were connected with two small brass nails, the copper element of which had left a greenish residue on the front. What a fun artefact to find, and presumably, the domino’s original owner also had their share of fun with it while it remained in their possession (however briefly)! So who could this owner (child or adult) have been, and what might they have been doing with it? Was it child’s toy, a game piece from an illegal, back ally gambling den, a leisure item from a workingman’s club or something more obscure; like a piece involved in an attempt to break a domino stacking record (Press 17/10/1938: 4)?

Figure 1. The domino in question

Figure 1. The domino in question.

Dominoes are said to have found their origins in a small lonely cell of a monastery, where two monks were serving a punishment for breaking their vowel of silence. The pair attempted to alleviate their boredom by playing with some nearby marked stones (Manawatu Herald 18/7/1890: 2). While this tale may or may not be completely factual, the game progressed from this crude diversion into the form that we know today.

Dominoes experienced a dynamic spark in popularity around the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Hastings Standard 29/1/1914: 3). The trend was so marked that London shop assistants were reported to have been embezzling from their employers to pay off their dominoes gambling debts (Mataura Ensign 17/11/1911: 7). Viennese wives were also reported to have ‘dobbed in’ their husbands to the police for partaking in (what was then) an illegal gambling enterprise, in order to prevent them from squandering family fortunes on domino gambles (Mataura Ensign 31/3/1911: 5). The popularity and the longevity of the game could possibly be explained by how varied it can be. A newspaper article from 1895 reported that if you made ten moves a day for 118 years, you could not exhaust all of the moves that are possible in a game of dominoes (honestly, was that really worth calculating? (Grey River Argus 15/10/1895: 4)).

Figure 1. Domino addictions. Image: Auckland Star 23/12/1922: 4.

Figure 2. Domino addictions. Image: Auckland Star 23/12/1922: 4.

What I found notable (and slightly amusing) was the juxtaposition of the negative and positive attitudes towards dominoes in the 19th and early 20th century newspapers. Dominoes are reported to have been associated with gambling dens, which were linked with crime (including violence and drugs; NZ Truth 17/11/1923: 6), not to mention, the debts that domino gambling produced. Dominoes were even the direct cause of several deaths! The most unusual of which included death duels that were decided by domino games (over girls!) and death by (non-accidental) swallowing of the pieces (Figure 3, Nelson Evening Mail 25/05/1882: 4).

Figure 3. A case of undiagnosed Pica disorder? Or a crude 19th century joke? Image: Evening Star 4/11/1904: 7.

Figure 3. A case of undiagnosed Pica disorder? Or a crude 19th century joke? Image: Evening Star 4/11/1904: 7.

These reports contrast with how commonly dominoes came up in my newspaper searches as a decent and respectable game that was allowed to be played by prisoners, supplied to tramps, was an acceptable game for children in child rearing handbooks, was played by children in convents and was donated to public libraries (Lake County Press 13/9/1877: 3 Lake Wakatip Mail 19/11/1893: 3 New Zealand Herald 7/6/1928: 9, Wanganui Herald 3/4/1868: 2; 27/8/1872: 2).

There also sometimes seems to have been an elitist attitude towards the game. I found a ‘humours’ article where a man of lower class was invited to a party, and made a social faux pas by mixing up the dominoes game with the style of fancy dress, of the same name (Otago Witness 6/7/1888: 38). I also found numerous references to alternative and intellectual ways to play the game (New Zealand Herald 21/05/1938: 8). If you’re feeling confident in your arithmetic and problem-solving skills today (or just feeling pretentious), you can perform the “mental exercise” in the article below… It made my head hurt.

Figure 4. Game Problems. Image: Evening Post 12/11/1927: 20.

Figure 4. Game Problems. Image: Evening Post 12/11/1927: 20.

A slightly more unexpected use for dominoes in the 19th and early 20th centuries was more mystic in nature. Prior to the invention of the daily horoscope text message or an app that delivers a regular personalised reading to your smart phone, some Victorian and Edwardian fortune seekers may have found solace or guidance in a medium who gave fortune readings from dominos. More conveniently, save yourself a trip to the travelling carnival and learn how to read your domino fortune yourself! (By the way, how does one drink liquor at a distance? (Figure 5)).

Figure 4. The meaning of dominoes. Image: New Zealand Herald 24/12/1912: 7.

Figure 5. The meaning of dominoes. Image: New Zealand Herald 24/12/1912: 7.

If this article intrigued you and you’d like more information on how to draw and interpret your mystical dominoes, or if you really just aiming to draw a five-two so you can go to a 19th century water party (whatever that is), please read on below. (But fair warning, the readings may heavily contradict what you read above. Gloriously confused? Me too).

Figure 6. Image. New Zealand Herald 10/6/1916: 6.

Figure 6. Image. New Zealand Herald 10/6/1916: 6.

The above hopefully illustrates some interesting possibilities for the life of our domino before it was lost or discarded underneath a house in Lyttelton. Whether it was clumsily lost by a child, a gambler, a fortune-teller or a well dressed man-about-town, it is evident that we should not immediately assume that all dominoes that are recovered from archaeological sites have been lost by children, and thus represent the presence of children at such sites. On that note, let me leave you with a topical joke…

“While I was playing a game last night, black spots came in front of my my eyes.”
“Oh dear, you must see a doctor!”
“I was playing dominoes.” (Auckland Star 7/6/1933: 16).

Funny, right?

Chelsea Dickson


Auckland Star. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Evening Post. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Hastings Standard. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Lake County Press. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Lake Wakatip Mail. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Manawatu Herald. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

 Mataura Ensign. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Nelson Evening Mail. online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

NZ Truth. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Otago Witness. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Press. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Wanganui Herald. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

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