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Abraham Lincoln’s Favorite Table Game Was Pinball?

4 Minute Read
Feb 17 2020

Okay, maybe not exactly. But if using a political cartoon, huge leaps of extrapolation and hyperbole as evidence is wrong then I don’t want to be right.

February 17th, 2020 is President’s Day in the United States. It’s a celebration of George Washington’s birthday, who was born on February 22nd. We collectively decided to move the holiday to the third Monday of the month, so we can all get a 3 day weekend. It’s what George would have wanted.

Opponents beware

Not to be outdone, Abraham Lincoln challenged the ghost of George Washington to a wrestling match to take over the holiday and make it about his birthday (Feb 12th) instead. Lincoln’s unbeatable wrestling prowess contested against Washington’s incorporeal form all but guarantees the match will never end. This wrestling match, dubbed The Match Of Infinite Balance, is still being held today in a secret basement halfway between the Washington Monument and the incorrectly named Lincoln Memorial. There are only dreadful prophecies which hint at what would happen should the match ever complete.

Don’t tell me this isn’t the face of a man who knows he could drop you in a second.

Since then, President’s Day celebrations have been split evenly between Washington and Lincoln. So, in honor of the Rail Splitter (the person, not the axe) let’s take a look at a game that some believe Lincoln enjoyed in his free time: Bagatelle.

Abe charges in.

The above cartoon, drawn by John L. Magee in 1864 depicts Lincoln playing the billiards-type game with a couple of other political figures and at least one background character that we’re not going to talk about. Beyond that, you’re welcome to join me in the comments in an attempt to parse any meaning out of this cartoon.

A Little Bit Of History

But what is Bagetelle?

The game gets its name from Château de Bagatelle, which is a really big and old house in France. The château itself has a long and storied history which we won’t go over. We’re starting in 1775, when it was purchased by Comte d’Artois, who has Louis XVI’s brother. You might know him as the guy who couldn’t keep his head during the French Revolution.


Is it older than it is big, or bigger than it is old? Hard to say.

In 1777, d’Artois had a super big party in honor of his brother and of his sister-in-law who didn’t understand the price of cake. The party featured a new game that sat on an inclined table with raised edges, used cue sticks to shoot ivory balls into holes and around fixed metal pins. d’Artois dubbed the game Bagatelle, after his own big house. The game was hugely popular throughout France in the following years and underwent various iterations and modifications.  Rather than using a pool cue, a track was added along the side for the balls to hit up. As manufacturing improved, springs were added to replace the need for a cue at all. With all these modifications Bagatelle ultimately evolved into pinball (and Pachinko) as we know it today.

There has to be a twist.

By 1819, the game had become more standardized in terms of table size, reaching 7 feet long by 21 inches wide. Then, in 1775 a bunch of ungrateful upstarts got really upset about the cost of tea and asked France to help them beat up their dads. France was super punk-rock and anti-establishment and was down to brawl. While coming over to help America, they brought Bagatelle with them…. somehow. Those tables are huge. Once it was here, America fell in love with it.

Seriously, this game hasn’t gone anywhere since arriving.



Get the balls in the holes. The pegs get in the way. Score points.

You already know this game, even if you didn’t realize you did. Now the next time someone asks if you want to go play pinball, you can laugh haughtily and say “Don’t you mean Bagatelle?” Everyone will be super impressed by how smart you are and definitely won’t ditch you or punch you.

I’m already annoyed by this guy’s laugh.

Thanks for reading!

Author: Matt Sall
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