In 1860, Milton Bradley decided America needed a new game, and so he created a modern blend of the old-fashioned morality games and the simple checkerboard. The result: The Checkered Game of Life.
Born in Vienna, Maine, in 1836, Bradley grew up in Lowell, Mass., and later moved to Springfield. He initially worked as a lithographer, but in 1860 he hit it big with the new game.
Bradley’s creation was a departure from most children’s games of the day. They featured more overt religious overtones. In the game Mansion of Bliss, for instance, players navigated the board by moving their game pieces along a track covered with spaces such as chastity, truth and prudence, which allowed the player to advance. Cruelty, immodesty or ingratitude would force the player backwards. Events such as failing to honor the Sabbath would send the player to the ‘Whipping Post.’ The goal of the game was to reach the ‘Mansion of Bliss,’ also known as heaven. (‘Mansion of Bliss,’ by the way, was also a slang term for a woman’s breasts.)
In 1859. Milton Bradley lost his job in a Springfield locomotive works, so he went to Providence to learn lithography. When he returned to Springfield, he set up the city’s first color lithography shop.
The business got off to a good start. Bradley printed images of a little-known presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, and they sold well. But then one of his customers wanted his money back. Bradley used a picture of a clean-shaven Abe Lincoln, and he had since grown his beard. The lithographs were worthless.
So Milton Bradley turned his attention to the Game of Life. In it, he focused on secular themes. Players started from a square on the board labelled ‘Infancy’ and attempted to reach the ‘Happy Old Age’ square. Along the way they got rewarded with points for ‘College’ and ‘Perseverance’ and might find themselves in Congress. Alternatively, they could experience poverty, idleness, suicide or prison and lose points.
Bradley manufactured some stock of his new invention and headed off in 1860 to sell it.
The player’s object was simple: “To gain on his journey that which shall make him the most prosperous, and to shun that which will retard him in his progress.”
Game of Life
The Game of Life was an overnight success, selling 40,000 copies its first year and launching Milton Bradley into the toy business.
When the Civil War broke out, Milton Bradley stopped making his game and tried to produce weapons. But then he noticed bored soldiers stationed in Springfield, so he went back to making games — small travel games for the military.
After the war, Bradley branched out into croquet sets and jigsaw puzzles. In 1869, he got interested in the kindergarten movement after attending a lecture by Elizabeth Peabody. The company began making educational toys for kindergartners, and Bradley served as Springfield’s first kindergarten teacher along with his wife and his father. His two daughters were Springfield’s first kindergarten students.
In 1984, Providence-based Hasbro bought the Milton Bradley company. The National Register of Historic Places lists the Springfield factory, now residential housing.
The modern version of Life — updated with twists such as “buy furniture” — was launched in 1960 to mark the anniversary of the original. Today the Game of Life remains available today in a variety of editions.
Images: Game of Life By 松岡明芳 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15815838. If you enjoyed this story about the Game of Life, you may also want to read about Monopoly. This story was updated in 2023.