Despite its name, an abbreviation of the Swahili word kujenga, meaning to build, the fiendish game of Jenga is a British invention. The brainchild of Leslie Scott, it was first marketed at the London Toy Fair in January 1983. The starting point is to build a tower from the 54 wooden blocks that make a set and then each player takes it in turn to remove a block and then place it on top of the structure which becomes increasingly unstable. It takes a steady hand and some luck not to send the structure crashing down with a loud thud accompanied by the gleeful cheers of your fellow players. I have always liked to think that this visual and practical demonstration of the stability of structures is part of the (ahem) foundation course for would-be architects.
Games involving the come-uppance of a clumsy player have a long legacy. A game that proved a bit of a hit in the Regency period was Bullet Pudding, a mix of Jenga and the children’s game, Pie Face, and apple bobbing. Fanny Austen Knight, Jane Austen’s niece, was a fan of the game, mentioning it at least twice in her surviving correspondence. In 1806, she wrote “different amusements every evening! We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon” – we will look at that curious game another time – “and…we danced or played cards”. Sounds fun.
Not everyone knew of or was enamoured by Bullet Pudding and, fortunately, one of Fanny’s correspondents, a Miss Dorothy Chapman, was blissfully unaware of the delights of the game. This prompted the incredulous Fanny to give her a detailed description of the fun and japes they had at Godmersham Park in a letter from 1808.
I can do no better than to quote it in full. The lack of punctuation and the breathlessness in the description is Fanny’s; “I was surprised that you did not know what a Bullet Pudding is but as you don’t I will endeavour to describe it as follows: You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek at top. You must then lay a bullet at top and everybody cuts a slice of it, and the person that is cutting it when it falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths of which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choking you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out”.
You can imagine the reaction of the rest of the players as the unfortunate loser emerged with their faces covered in flour. If you did not have a bullet, a coin of the realm would do just as well. The servants must have groaned inwardly when they heard that their betters were proposing a game, thinking of the mess that would be left for them to clear up.
As well as the mess and seeing one of your part undergo a mild form of humiliation, one of the attractions of the game was that it allowed both sexes to mix in fairly intimate circumstances and such opportunities were to be snatched at in their otherwise closely chaperoned world. Sadly, the delights of the game soon waned but its legacy is still with us to this day.
The illustration at the top of this post was by Francis Hayman and shows the moment when the bullet toppled from the top of the pyramid of flour to the delight of all bar one.