Thursday, November 5, 2020

Teetotum or Spinner

by Anita Mae Draper

Boy with a Top by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin
A Child with a Teetotum by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin. Public Domain

In 1738, Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1799), exhibited his painting of a young boy playing with a teetotum. Yes, it looks like a marshmallow on a toothpick, but it's a toy like a spinning top. Many of the early games which I've featured in my recent posts used a teetotum to see what the player's options were instead of dice which were considered a vice and not suitable for those of good morale standing. It's a funny sounding word, but looks like a spinning top and was often called a spinner. 

Cassell's Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1888, says that teetotums originally had only four sides and were marked with the letters T for Take All, H for Take Half, N for Nothing, and P for Put in again. Those letters didn't work well with some board games and so more sides were added for more choices. Board game publishers created some with a flat disks through which the teetotum slid into, such as the one shown on the bottom right of The Wars of the Roses game which was published in the United Kingdom between 1835 and 1840. 

War of the Roses game, 1835. Public Domain

Teetotums resemble spinning tops, which have been around since ancient times, as seen in this next photo of an Ancient Middle Eastern top which has been dated back to no later than the mid-2nd millenium BCE by Wilfred G Lambert. 

Ancient Middle Eastern top. Public Domain

The ancient top above reminds me of the dreidel that is played with during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. (And now I have the song Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel running through my mind while write.) 

The teetotum is also used in the game Perinola in many Latin American countries.

My research into Google books showed that the word teetotum showed up in many conversations when talking about people spinning around, running in a frenzy, or even being confused. I haven't read Louisa May Alcott's Rose in Bloom, but one of her characters who is learning to dance says, "A fellow must have some reward for making a teetotum of himself."

References to teetotums are also mentioned in stories by Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and others. 

Have you played a game with a teetotum, or read a book that mentioned one?

Other posts in my puzzles and game boards series can be found here:

Aug 5, 2020 - Carom and Crokinole
June 5, 2020 - Virtue Board Games


Anita Mae Draper served a 20-year term working on air bases in the communication trade of the Canadian Armed Forces before retiring to the open skies of the prairies. She uses her experience and love of history to pepper her stories of yesteryear's romance with realism and faith. Anita Mae Draper's published stories appear in Barbour Publishing, WhiteFire Publishing, and Guideposts Books. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking out Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at 


  1. Very interesting. I wasn't familiar with this. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Linda, it was new to me as well when I started working on this game board series. One of the reasons I love researching for this blog.
      Thanks for dropping by. :)

  2. Thanks for your post today. I have never heard of this. It certainly does make one think of a dreidel.

    1. Yes, it does. Have you heard The Bare Naked Ladies version of the song, Dreidel, Driedel, Dreidel? That's the one that's going through my head again. :D
      I so appreciate your visits, Connie. Thank you.

    2. Anita, I haven't, and now I'm going to have to Google it!