An image of Milton Bradley



Milton Bradley, acknowledged as the father of the North American board game, was a printmaker.

Briefly mentioned in an article in Print (the design mag), this bit of trivia peaked my curiosity.  And apparently, it’s true.  Not only was he a printmaker,  in 1860 he actually “enjoyed a successful career in lithography.” But this story is about how that came to an end … and what happened next.

Born in Vienna, Maine, in 1836, to Lewis and Fannie (Lyford) Bradley, Bradley grew up in a working class household. The family moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1847.

After completing high school in 1854, he found work as a draftsman and patent agent before enrolling at the Lawrence Scientific School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  But he was unable to finish his studies as his family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he could not find gainful employment.

So in 1856, Bradley moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he worked as a mechanical draftsman.  Then in 1859, Bradley went to Providence, Rhode Island, to learn lithography; and, in 1860, he set up the first color lithography shop in Springfield, Massachusetts.

One of the first lithographic works turned out by Milton Bradley was a popular portrait of Abraham Lincoln … without his famous beard.You can see it here below.

Image in black and white of Abraham Lincoln without his beard


Lincoln had just been nominated for the Presidency of the United States. Unbeknownst to Milton, an 11 year old girl living in New York wrote to Lincoln.  She had seen pictures of Abraham Lincoln and in a combination of child-like wonderment and condescending hubris she told Abe his face was too thin and he would get more votes if he grew a beard.


A copy of the letter written in pen and ink by the little girl mentioned in this blog.


As you can see, her  letter is lengthy, but the takeaway is this line here: “I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President.” 

So, unbelievably, Abraham Lincoln then grew a beard!


A black and white photographic image of Abraham Lincoln with his beard.


Did it help him become possibly America’s most significant President? Perhaps. But as the sale of Milton Bradley’s lithograph was now out of date, sales stopped overnight!

Now Milton needed to find a way to keep his business afloat.

Struggling to find a new way to use his lithography machine, Bradley visited his friend George Tapley.


Tapley challenged him to a game, most likely an old English game.

Bradley conceived the idea of making a purely American game.  He created The Checkered Game of Life, which had players move along a track from Infancy to Happy Old Age, in which the point was to avoid Ruin and reach a satisfactory life conclusion.

Squares were labeled with moral positions from honor and bravery to disgrace and ruin.


Players used a spinner instead of dice because of the negative association of dice with gambling.

a picture of a very old board game and all the mixed parts that go into the game. “Bradley was very much a product of his day,” Jennifer Snyder says.  She’s an assistant professor of art education at Austin Peay State University, and she wrote her dissertation about Bradley’s fascinating life.

“He was a very religious man … he seemed very interesting, but in some ways also probably pretty rigid in terms of his view of what was appropriate or not.”

“Milton Bradley didn’t believe in dice, because dice were associated with gambling,” Snyder says. “And gambling was bad.” So as an alternative, Bradley developed a spinner — the original device was a top-like spinner called a teetotum


This certainly does not look like any “board game” we’d see today.

By spring of 1861, over 45,000 copies of The Checkered Game of Life had been sold.  Bradley had finally become a success, and became convinced board games were his company’s future.

Bradley was also a follower of Friedrich Froebel, a German educator generally credited with inventing the whole idea of a kindergarten.


Froebel’s innovations included Froebel Gifts, play materials that helped children learn.  Bradley also attended lectures by Elizabeth Peabody, who developed the first English-speaking kindergarten in 1860. (Bradley was such a fan that his company published her portrait.) Snyder believes Bradley’s background in early education led him to make games that, like the Froebel Gifts, could help people learn through play.

“Everything Milton Bradley published had a really strong moral tone to it when he was still in charge of the company,” Snyder says. “He viewed everything as an educational opportunity.  It was an opportunity for people to be educated in the way he thought they should be.  The game of Life is very much about taking the moral high road and walking the appropriate path.”

That philosophy lent the Game of Life a dual purpose: moneymaker and vehicle for moral instruction. Often, the money from Life even fueled other educational ventures, like the production of teacher supplies and educational materials.

When the American Civil War broke out in early 1861, Milton Bradley temporarily gave up making board games and tried to make new weaponry.

Upon seeing bored soldiers stationed in Springfield, where he lived, Bradley began producing small games which the soldiers could play during their down time.  These are regarded as the first travel games in the country.  These games included chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes, and “The Checkered Game of Life.”  They were sold for one dollar a piece to soldiers and charitable organizations, which bought them in bulk to distribute.


a picture of some old fashioned board games its a coloured picture.


For further reading about the kindergarten movement and this extraordinary social change read this article.

Deeply invested in the cause of early childhood education his company began manufacturing educational items such as colored papers and paints.  The company was hurt by Bradley’s generosity as he gave these materials away free of charge.  Due to the Depression of the late 1870s, his investors told him either his kindergarten work must go or they would go. Bradley stuck to his guns, and chose to keep his kindergarten work.  His friend George Tapley bought the interest of the lost investors and took over as president of the Milton Bradley Company.



Springfield’s first kindergarten students were Milton Bradley’s two daughters, and the first teachers in Springfield were Milton, his wife and his father.

Milton Bradley’s company’s involvement with kindergartens began with the production of “gifts,” the term used by Froebel for the geometric wooden play things that he felt were necessary to properly structure children’s creative development.

Bradley spent months devising the exact shades in which to produce these materials; his final choice of six pigments of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet would remain the standard colors for children’s art supplies through the 20th century.

By the 1870s, the company was producing dozens of games and capitalizing on popular fads.



Milton Bradley became the first manufacturer in America to make croquet sets. The sets included wickets, mallets, balls, stakes, and an authoritative set of rules to play by that Bradley himself had created from oral tradition and his own sense of fair play.  In 1880, the company also began making jigsaw puzzles.

The company’s educational supplies turned out to be a large portion of their income at the turn of the century.

They produced supplies any grade school teacher could use, such as toy money, multiplication sticks, and movable clock dials.

But Milton Bradley continued producing games, particularly parlor games played by adults.  They produced “Visit to the Gypsies,” “Word Gardening,” “Happy Days in Old New England,” and “Fortune Telling.” They also created jigsaw puzzles of wrecked vehicles, which were apparently popular with young boys.

When Milton Bradley died in 1911, the company was passed to Robert Ellis, who passed it to Bradley’s son-in-law Robert Ingersoll, who eventually passed it to George Tapley’s son, William.

The advent of the television could have threatened the industry, but the company used it to its advantage.  Various companies acquired licenses to television shows for the purpose of producing all manner of promotional items, including games.  In 1959, Milton Bradley released Concentration, a memory game based on an NBC television show of the same name, and the game was such a success that editions were issued annually into 1982, long after the show was cancelled in 1973. (Similar practices were used for box game adaptations of the game shows Password and Jeopardy!)


coloured picture of a board game looks like snakes and ladders.


Milton Bradley celebrated their centennial in 1960 with the re-release of The Checkered Game of Life, which as you can see in the image above, was modernized.  It was now simply called The Game of Life and the goal was no longer to reach Happy Old Age, but to become a millionaire. Times change, I guess. Twister, the famously successful 1960s game responsible for many a sore back, was released in the same year.

I happen to think that Milton Bradley wouldn’t have become the huge success it did without the strong moral basis for their game development … placing educational achievement at the heart of American society.  Eventually MB was bought by Hasbro and merged with former arch rival Parker games. But the brand still exists, and the company was independently owned and run for 124 years: quite some achievement.

And all because Abraham Lincoln grew a beard.



Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?