The 1873 Antique Card Game of Totem by West & Lee

The 1873 antique game of Totem by West & Lee provides an early example of a simple card game for children.

West & Lee Antique card game

1873 Totem Card Game

In the mid 1800’s game production for the United States started on the up rise.  More and more card and board games were being invented and produced by American’s which depicted values and life shared around the country.  Some of the better known companies of the time were W.& S. B. Ives, McLoughlin Bros. or Milton Bradley.  Many other smaller game companies also strived to offer entertainment for children and adults. An example of one of these was the creator of Totem.  The company was called West & Lee.

The instructions for Totem start with promoting the simplicity of the game.  They say; “This beautiful game is especially intended for the amusement and instruction of very young children, and can be readily learned and played by even those who are unable to read…”

Lion Totem card

1873 Lion Totem Card

Totem is a simple card taking game which comprises of thirty-six cards made up of four groups.  The four groups are Birds, Domestic Fowls, Wild Animals and Domestic Animals.  Each card contains a number at the top corner of 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 or 100.  An exception to this is one from the wild animals group which contains the TOTEM and depicts a Lion.

The game begins by dealing all cards out, one at time, to the players.  The object of the game is to be the player which takes the most ‘books’.

The person to the left of dealer goes first and places a card from his hand, face up onto the table .  The following players must play a card of the same group (if possible).  The player who places the highest numbered card (of the group first led) takes the ‘book’.  A book is the group of cards taken on each round.

If a player has a card of the same group first played, it must be used.  If a player does not have a card of the lead group, he plays any other.  This unmatched card will not count towards taking the book (even if it is the highest number).

There is one card within the deck which can be played at any time and will take any book.  It is the Lion card.  He is King of all beasts and will form any Totem.  The definition for the word totem is a group of linked animals or objects.  Indian tribes of the country were discovered to form Totem Poles and most likely inspired the title for the game.  The front cover of the game includes a quote from Longfellow:

“And they painted on the grave posts
Of the graves yet unforgotten,
Each his own ancestral Totem;
Figures of the Bear and Reindeer,
Of the Turtle, Crane, and Beaver.”

As can be recognized, the four groups, the trumping of cards, and trick taking, are similar to other card games using regular suited cards.  It seems by the adding of animals to the cards, West & Lee wanted to attract children to the game of Totem and teach children about the Indian customs. Like many other games of the time, and even now, Totem shared an American interest.

Jenny Kile

Admin. of All About Fun and Games. Along with being an avid collector and player of table top games, I am a writer, researcher, treasure hunter, and Founder of Kardtects ( ) I believe fun is everywhere and you are welcome to visit my other sites: (which explores mystery, adventure and the search for treasures) and (which takes building card houses to completely new levels. Kardtects is the next generation of card house building!) Email:

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