Stewart Culin -- The First Games Ethnologist

Written by Howard Fosdick ©

Stewart Culin (1858-1929) was the first great ethnographer of games. His work was critical to preserving the traditional games of Asian and AmerIndian cultures. Though published between the 1880s and the 1920s, his writings remain accessible and critical to games researchers even today.

Stewart Culin is a great example of an individual who made critical contributions to academic and scientific study -- yet he had no formal university training. Culin was born in Philadelphia in 1858 and educated at a boy’s school called Nazareth Hall. He became director of the Archaeological Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in 1892 at age 34. Then he became curator in Ethnology at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1903 and he remained there until he passed away in 1929.

Mr Culin the in 1920s

What distinguished Mr Culin's work was the careful, respectful approach he took to gathering information. He was a meticulous record keeper who established standards that were unusual in their day and persist into today's academic methodologies.

Culin took numerous field trips where he obtained primary sources. He collected what today we would consider "multimedia" items: physical games, interview transcripts, correspondence, reports, manuscripts, publications, and clippings. He was far ahead of his time in realising that the fullest expression of understanding spanned multiple forms of documenation and communication.

While he studied many cultures -- as his list of published works below demonstrates -- he perhaps spent the most effort on Chinese and Native American cultures. The importance of this early work persists today.

At various times Mr Culin also seriously studied African, Hawaiian, and filipino cultures as well.

Mr. Culin was one of the first to take games seriously as an expression of the human psyche. He established the study of games as a valid method to understanding cultures, their similarities and differences. His published works created a whole new field of academic study.

Some of Mr Culin's major treatises on games include:

  • Games of the North American Indians (vols 1 and 2)
  • Korean Games
  • Chinese Games with Dice and Dominoes
  • Gambling Games of the Chinese in America
  • Mancala, the National Game of Africa
  • Chess and Playing-Cards
  • American Indian Games
  • Hawaiian Games
  • Philippine Games
  • Japanese Game of Sugoroku
  • Game of Ma-Jong
  • Exhibition of Games in the Columbian Exposition

License: Feel free to print, copy, and distribute these rules, so long as you retain this paragraph. Written by Howard Fosdick © 2023, distributed under Creative Commons License BY-ND.      HOME