Museum of Femoribilia (1)

By: Lynn Peril
May 21, 2015

jolly game of old maid

One in a series of 10 posts exhuming and interrogating forgotten curiosities and outmoded technologies of womanhood. Reprinted with permission from BUST Magazine.



At some point in your childhood, you almost certainly played the card game called Old Maid, a staple of the nursery set for well over a century.

Of course, you don’t have to have special cards to play this simple game in which players draw and discard pairs of matching cards. In 1831, The American Girl’s Book described the rules of play with a standard deck, while a hatchet-faced character called “An Old Maid” showed up in an 1856 game called Yankee Notions. By 1900, however, the game as we remember it was available in a deck manufactured in Germany and sold in the United States as The Jolly Game of Old Maid.

1960s old maid

Playing Old Maid taught the same essential lesson as other girls’ games based on the rituals of dating and marriage: that woman’s appropriate role was as one-half of a preferably state-sanctioned heterosexual union. The rules couldn’t be any clearer (these date to the mid-twentieth-century): “The game proceeds until all pairs are matched, leaving the Old Maid card in one player’s hand. He is the loser.” (That’s right: he is the loser.) No one wanted to get stuck with (let alone be) an old maid — the unwanted leftover after everything else had been paired off.

The game of Old Maid played not only on the fear of remaining single, but also on the fear of “spinsters” themselves, long suspect characters in the culture at large. At roughly the same time that The Jolly Game of Old Maid was being played, Dr. George Napheys noted that “[c]ommon proverbs portray… the spinster as peevish, selfish, given to queer fancies and unpleasant eccentricities.” Napheys noted that often this characterization was untrue, but on the whole, “the popular opinion… must be granted to be correct.”


Visual depictions of the Old Maid presented her as either plump, jolly and elderly (i.e., sexually neuter and non-threatening) or horrific yet laughable, the love child of Olive Oyl and Don Knotts. In the early 1990s, two Chicago-area women, Jane Johnston and Debby Eisel, developed Old Bachelor, an updated version of the game featuring characters such as Josephine Judge, Consuelo Cardiologist, and Ann Archaeologist. The Old Bachelor himself looked a little like the Grinch with a comb-over, but Johnston and Eisel assured consumers he was “meant to be a figure of fun, rather than the cruel caricature” of the Old Maid.

Of course, if you really want to be gender-neutral, all you need to do is pull one card out of plain old deck of playing cards, and designate its mismatched partner whatever you want: the boo-boo, the double-whammy — or maybe even “the lucky card.”

Originally published in BUST #19 (Spring 2002).



CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators

What do you think?

  1. So very excited to start publishing this series. I’ve been a big fan of Lynn’s BUST column for years — hope that BUST will post the series to their website one of these days soon.


    I was telling Lynn, the other day, that the cover of this game reminds me of the cover of Kate Bolick’s book, SPINSTER. Similar framing and posture of the female figure — and both are set in a Victorian/Edwardian parlor. But the Old Maid, for all her eccentricity and “ugliness,” seems happy to see us; Bolick, stylish and glamorous, seems like she doesn’t want company.

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