Fun and games at sea. Guest post by John G. Sayers

Our wonderful and indefatigable donor, John Sayers, in another insightful post relating to the Sayers Collection of Ocean Liner Ephemera

Welcome aboard! Anyone who has been carried across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean by plane will probably have concluded that it was a long, boring trip. Not so. Or at least not by comparison to the travellers of decades ago when ocean liners were ‘the only way to cross’.

We’re talking about days and days at sea, interrupted only by meals. For some passengers, mal de mer sharply reduced their appetites. For others, the bar was the beacon, particularly during Prohibition in America. The shipping companies were aware of the days and days of uninterrupted boredom facing passengers, so they provided games and sports as distractions.

cover of Normandie Games booklet
Normandie Games Booklet


This ‘GAMES’ booklet from the legendary S.S. Normandie describes and illustrates ‘Little Olympics Afloat’ on the expansive deck space for tennis, shuffle-board and other sports in what they describe as a ‘Stadium at Sea; A Work-out on the Waves’. Also, there was the gymnasium with its rowing machine, hand-ball, and a shooting gallery; and Sun-Deck Sports and Sea Air including Tennis and Trap-Shooting. Exhausting!



For the 12 days between Honolulu and Yokohama in 1931, the S.S. President McKinley offered a daily schedule of sports capped off with a ‘Gymkhana’ on the final day of the trip.

President McKinley Games
President McKinley Games

Other ships offered Bridge and a variety of other games, and on board a British troopship in 1940 there was even a boxing match between members of the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) and the British Army! The trooping experience must have been a stressful one, because it was December 21, 1940 on board the Viceroy of India of the P&O Line. She had been requisitioned by the Government and converted for trooping service only the month before, and these men were off to battle – somewhere!


This material, and a vast quantity of other ephemera capturing social, shipping, historical, and commercial information in The Sayers Collection, continues to migrate across the Atlantic to the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library.

Work experience in the John Johnson Collection: a guest post by Amy Shaw

Amy did work experience in the John Johnson Collection in October 2012. She writes:

In October I was fortunate enough to gain work experience looking at the John Johnson collection. This was a really valuable experience which helped me to understand the complexities of cataloguing printed ephemera and allowed me to see some of the collection. I was struck not only by the volume of ephemera but additionally by the range of the collection.

One of the aspects which I found particularly interesting was the opportunity I was given to look at some book jackets from before 1960 as I had studied this period in History and was therefore informed about the contextual background to what I was viewing.

Additionally I was given the chance to explore some of the online facilities offered by the collection which allowed me to see how this collection is made accessible to the public. These facilities enable people to look in detail at an item or to search an individual and see if/where they are mentioned within the collection. These online facilities were brilliant as they were a quick way of viewing the range of the collection and enabling individuals to focus on a single item in detail, and indeed, view the collection as a whole.

I was also able to see how ephemera are used in exhibitions and to look round the Dickens exhibition which was recently displayed at the Bodleian library. This was a really interesting exhibition which enabled me to witness the thought and planning which goes into displaying exhibitions and how ephemera is carefully chosen and displayed to the public.

In October the collection was in the process of acquiring and cataloguing a new donation of games.  It was really interesting to see games from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century in order to evaluate how entertainment has developed over the years. It also enabled me to view the complicated cataloguing process which each item has to undergo.

In summary, my time at Oxford was invaluable; it has enabled me to focus on how History is used in the modern world and allowed me to look at the John Johnson collection which was fascinating. I am really thankful to Julie Anne Lambert for allowing me to visit the collection and gain an insight into her line of work. The collection itself was really interesting and thought provoking with regard to how our world has changed particularly with regard to entertainment.

Bodleian exhibitions and the John Johnson Collection

King Arthur at the Lyceum
JJ Lyceum 1 (26)

This evening is the official opening of the Bodleian’s superb new exhibition The Romance of the Middle Ages.  As the exhibition curator explores his theme across the centuries, I am delighted that he displays a programme for King Arthur at the Lyceum with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in the cast, music by Arthur Sullivan and costumes by Edward Burne Jones.

The John Johnson Collection is often used in exhibitions and smaller displays  and  there have also been three major Bodleian exhibitions showcasing the Collection. The first was in 1971 and was curated by Michael Turner, who brought the Collection from the Oxford University Press in 1968.  The catalogue: The Johnson Collection, catalogue of an exhibition is the standard work on the history and formation of the Collection and the text is  online as a pdf.  We hope to add images of the exhibits in due course.

The second, in 2001, was A Nation of Shopkeepers, trade ephemera from 1654 to the 1860s and this catalogue too is online with images of all exhibits

The most recent is Children’s Games and Pastimes, which I co-curated in 2006 with Clive Hurst. The guide to the exhibition is online.

Smaller displays have included The Season for Love: a selection of choice valentines and The London Year: London Transport Posters of the 1930s (both in 2010).

I am already looking forward to the forthcoming major Dickens exhibition.