It’s funny how, as we age, memories from decades ago are triggered by everything from a smell, circumstance or in this case for Mister Boomer, a mundane act. Recently, while Mister B was emptying the dishwasher and putting away the flatware, he pulled the knives from the drawer in the door and flashed back to playing pick up sticks with his sister more than fifty years ago.
Boomer Sister loved games of all types, from card games to board games, skill games to games of chance. Inevitably, she would receive games for Christmas, and would constantly attempt to rope the family into playing the games with her. She was instrumental in getting the family to gather around Candy Land, Monopoly, the Game of Life, Mousetrap, dominoes, checkers, Old Maid, Uno, Yahtzee and more. One of the games she enjoyed in her early years was pick up sticks.
Pick up sticks is an extremely old game known by many names in different cultures. It has been called Mikado, Jackstraw and Spillkins, among other labels. Most historians trace its origins back to 12th century China, where sticks of ivory or bone were used to make predictions that were centered around one stick of a different color that was called the Emperor stick. No one knows for sure when or how it became a game for adults and children, but the simplicity of it may have had something to do with the spread through Asia to Japan. It is thought it spread to Native Americans over the Bering Strait, around the same time it was moving through Asia into India, and then Europe. Native Americans taught the game to English colonists.
Somewhere along the line, the sticks were made of wood instead of bone or ivory, making it much more portable and affordable for average gamers. Native Americans used wheat straws in their version. In each, however, the sticks were designated — usually by color — as having different points when they were retrieved. The highest-point value was associated with the Emperor stick, which was usually blue. In several countries that knew the game as Mikado, the name comes from the translation of the name as “emperor,” harkening back to its origins.
The general consensus is the modern-day version of the game came from Hungary to the U.S. in the 1930s. The name we know — pick up sticks — is thought to have been taken from the children’s nursery rhyme:
One, two, buckle my shoe
Three, four, shut the door
Five, six, pick up sticks
Seven, eight, lay them straight
Nine, ten, a big fat hen
Boomer Sister usually played the game on the living room floor, which was carpeted with the sculpted broadloom of the day. This meant an uneven surface, increasing the difficulty level of removing a modern-age plastic stick without disturbing others. It was this scene that Mister B flashed back on, he and his sister stretched out on the carpeting, rising only to take their turn at dropping the sticks.
Did you play pick up sticks, boomers?