John Adams’s statement, whatever its source, that apprentice Christopher Monk carried a catstick to the Boston Massacre indicates that the town’s adolescents were familiar with the game of tip-cat.
Tip-cat was one of many games humans have invented that involve hitting a small object with a stick and then running around while other players try to catch the object and/or you. Nowadays we play baseball and softball and Wiffleball and cricket and oina. In centuries past people played stoolball and rounders and one-ol’-cat and tip-cat.
In fact, the eighteenth century seems to have been when baseball, under the name of “base,” started to surface in that collection of games. George Ewing’s journal of life at Valley Forge contains entries like this, from April 1778:
Attested to my Muster Rolls and delivered them to the Muster Master excercised in the afternoon in the intervals playd at base this evening some Rogueish chaps tied a sheaf of straw to the tail of Joseph Andersons B Quartermaster commonly called leg and a piece of five Pound tens horse tail and set it on fire and let him run which very much offended him and he set out to the Genl to enter a complaintGood times.
The following explanation of tip-cat combines text from Joseph Strutt’s The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (first published in 1801, revised and republished many times afterwards) and diagrams from Daniel Carter Beard’s Outdoor Games for All Seasons (1896), shown above.
The Cat [fig. 272] is about six inches in length, and an inch or an inch and a half in diameter, and diminished from the middle to each end in the manner of a double cone: by this curious contrivance the places of trap and ball are at once supplied; for when the cat is laid upon a stone, or the ground, the player with his cudgel or catstick [or bat, fig. 273] strikes it smartly, it matters not at which end, and it will rise with a rotatory motion [fig. 274], high enough for him to beat it away as it falls, in the same manner as he would do a ball.You can also read Beard’s discussion of tip-cat from Inquiry.net.
What did Strutt mean by “trap and ball”? A trap was another mechanism for putting a ball into play. It was a lever, either with its own fulcrum or placed on the edge of a little hole. The batter stomped on one end of the trap to launch the ball on the other end up into the air, where he or she could hit it. These two pages contain images of children in the 1800s playing trap-ball. Fisher-Price and Little Tikes now sell machines that do the same thing as a trap for $40-60.
A catstick like Kit Monk’s could have been used with either a trap and ball, or a cat. Back in colonial times, not all children had wussy leather balls. No, some played with pieces of wood! And they liked it!