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Something deposited and redeemable by a sportive fine, whence the game of forfeits. “Country dances and forfeits shortened the rest of the day.” (Goldsmith) — Webster, 1882

“Heavy, heavy, what hangs over your head?”

noteLaura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl briefly mentions games that are played at a country party she attends with a neighbor boy, Ernest Perry. In the manuscript for Little Town on the Prairie, a whole chapter is written about a particular party, humorously-titled, “A Quiet Evening at Home.” The chapter gives such a nice glimpse into active and fun evenings spent by the Ingalls family that it’s a shame it didn’t make it into the published book.

After the church revival is over, the Ingalls family is glad to be able to have quiet time to themselves after supper, just reading and talking. Pa draws his chair into the circle of his family and plays songs on his fiddle: “Boonie Doon,” “Highland Mary” and “Annie Laurie.” There are subtle hints that Pa knows what is about to happen, and Pa stops playing to listen to laughing voices and sleigh bells approaching. Neighbors have arrived, bringing “a surprise party from the country!”

Laura learns the names of the strange faces as the young people play games: Drop-the-handkerchief, Miller Boy, and Spat-em-Out. After some dancing, the guests pull chairs in a circle to play Spin-the-Platter, which leads to a game of Forfeits. Laura brings a tin platter from the kitchen, which is spun in the center of the circle. A name is called out, and if that person catches the spinning platter before it falls, they are safe. If not, they have to forfeit one of their belongings, which is placed in a cap. Ernie Perry loses his knife, Laura her pencil.

From The Young Folk’s Cyclopaedia of Games and Sports (1890), here are the rules for playing Forfeits:

Forfeits, a game played by any number of persons, in which articles given up by each of them are restored on the performance of some difficult or ridiculous feat. It may be played as a game by itself, in which case one or more forfeits are collected from each player, but usually the forfeits have been paid in a previous game, as punishment for breaking some rule. The forfeits are generally handkerchiefs, or small ornaments. In redeeming them, one of the players, who has been selected as judge, sits in a chair, while another, who must know to whom each of the forfeits belongs, holds them over the judge’s head one by one, saying as he does so: “Heavy, heavy, what hangs over your head?” The judge then asks, “Fine or Superfine?” to which the other answers “Fine,” if the owner of the forfeit is a boy, or, “Superfine,” if a girl, adding, “What shall the owner do to redeem it?” The judge then tells what the owner must do to get back his property. The tasks may be varied at the pleasure of the judge.

Imagine a 19th century version of Truth or Dare. An item is selected from the hat and held over Pa’s head (by Jennie Ross), and she chants, “Heavy, heavy hangs over your head.” Pa asks, “Fine or superfine?” which means, “Does the item belong to a boy (‘fine’) or girl (‘superfine’)?” In order to redeem their belongings, each must do a stunt or solve a riddle, all at Pa’s bidding.

You’ve no doubt heard that Laura said she didn’t like kissing games. Well, in order to get her pencil back, Pa instructed Ernie to “make a sugar bowl and Laura would put two lumps in.” Jennie further instructs Laura and Ernie to kneel in front of each other and cup their hands around their mouths, hands touching, and kiss each other twice behind this protection. Laura writes that she “didn’t want to be kissed, so she moved her hands a little and Ernie’s kisses fell on her thumb.” Do you think this really happened to Laura? Would Pa really be setting it up so his own daughter was kissed by the neighbor boy!? How does that make you feel about Laura’s engagement story in These Happy Golden Years, in which she says her first kiss is the night she and Almanzo become engaged?

Here is a bit about forfeits, from a Little House era newspaper:

FORFEITS FOR FUN. In evening games it often becomes necessary to punish some one or more of the company by imposing a “forfeit.” The penance should be something that either is not easy to follow out to the letter—that is, has some catch to it—or puts the person in a conspicuous and amusing light. In all cases a forfeit should be designed to amuse the company as a whole, and never to offend the person called upon to pay it. In order to illustrate our idea of a good forfeit, and also to furnish suggestions to those who enjoy and take part in such pleasant amusements, we give a few of the forfeits that may be imposed:

     First, put a newspaper upon the floor in such a way that two persons can stand on it and not be able to touch each other with their hands. This forfeit has the honor of being old, but it was not our good fortune to meet it until a short time ago, and be forced to “give it up.” By putting the paper in a doorway, one-half inside and the other half outside the room, and closing the door over it, the two persons can easily stand upon it and still be beyond each other’s reach.

     Second, to go out of the room with two legs, and come in with six. Not difficult, if one thinks to bring a chair along on the return.

     Third, to act the dumb servant. The person who has the forfeits to pay must act out the answers to the questions put by the master of the ceremonies; as, How do you make bread? How do you eat soup? Etc. This forfeit will cause much merriment if proper questions are put.

     Fourth, put one hand where the other one cannot touch it. One can get out of this difficulty by putting one hand on the elbow of the other arm.

     Fifth, place a pencil on the floor so that one cannot jump over it. May be done by putting it close to the wall of the room.

     Sixth, put a question that no one can answer with a No! That is not hard if one thinks to ask, “What does Y-e-s spell?”

     Seventh, push a chair through a finger ring. This forfeit is made by putting the ring on the finger and pushing the chair—any other object will do as well—with the finger. This last much resembles the next.

     Eighth, put yourself through a key-hole. This was a great puzzle to us for a while; but when a piece of paper was taken with the word “yourself” written upon it, and pushed through the hole, it was all clear.

There are many other of these amusing little tricks, but those given will suggest others, and help to make the social winter gatherings the enjoyable times they should be.


forfeits (PG)