Steampunk Hands Around the World Stops at SteamU: Pick Up Sticks and Cultural Connections by Ray Dean

Dear Students,
Today we welcome author Ray Dean to SteamU; The Steampunk University Lecture series. SteamU Professor Ray Dean will be drawing some fascinating cultural connections concerning pick up sticks. Please be sure to take notes as we get set to learn more about the connection between this childhood game and steampunk.

Today’s Lecture by SteamU Professor: Ray Dean

Author of: "Fire in the Sky" from Shanghai Steam, "A Will of Iron" from Steamfunk!, and soon "Folie a Deux" in All the Night-Tide

Further Discourses Available: Ray Dean on Amazon

Office Hours:
Today’s Lecture: Pick Up Sticks and Cultural Connections
(The game includes 25 pieces and is housed in a wooden box. Among the pieces are 13 plain one, two spears, a mallet, an arrow, a saw, a hatchet, a hoe, a spade, three anvils and a peg with a bent nail at the bottom. This game was made by 13-year-old Charles Hanson for his sister Etta in 1872 (used with permission from Maine Historical Society)

I may be ‘showing my age’ when I say that I played Pick Up Sticks as a child. In my childhood the Speak and Spell was high tech! So if you don’t remember the highly frustrating dexterity game, let me fill you in…


Take at least a score of sticks and hold them in your hand. Drop the sticks onto a flat surface. You must then removed one stick at a time from the pile without disturbing the other sticks. Jostle one that wasn’t your target… and you lose your turn.


There are subtle differences in the game depending on the era you played it in, or the country that your particular version came from. The image above is one of the versions of Pick Up Sticks called Jack Straws. The added challenge of this particular version is that along with the plain, smooth sticks are jumbled up with wooden pieces carved into replicas of period items. Making it that much harder to extract something from the pile.


*Holds up hands to placate the gathering mob*


Just give me a moment and I’ll explain what this all has to do with Steampunk.


Much of the Victorian Era is wrapped up in Colonialism - the practice of controlling or having governmental influence over a another county or people.


The East India Company was a large factor in the international relationships with the Indian Subcontinent and China. Trade in tea, cotton, silk, indigo dye, and saltpetre were their main avenues of business, expanding into the import and export of opium.


Their private armies assured them control of so many aspects of trade and yet, there seems to be the overall idea that England, saw itself in the role of benefactor/benefactress to many of its Colonies and ruled what it could as if they were a part of the whole, yet separate. England grew rich in trade and influence and yet seemed to believe they were better than these colonial subjects that they ruled.


They were a civilizing factor. A benevolent ruler carrying for the less fortunate countries of the world. *ahem* 


But, part of the conceit of that mindset is that they believe themselves ‘untouched’ by the exchange. They give the benefit of their rule, economy, and military and they also control the exposure of their own populace to these colonized communities and races.


Still, when a person is exposed to a culture, they are changed by it. Even if they reject that culture with every fibre of their being, they are still affected by it.


British forces in India brought sometimes brought their families along. The children from these unions were sometimes raised by an Ayah (nanny) chosen from the women in their towns. Language and mannerisms were bound to ‘rub off’ on their young charges and change the course of their lives. Children of the ‘Raj’ were forever different than their counterparts that lived in England.


Fabrics changed the colors and cut of garments.

Art assimilated motifs and styles into other cultures.

Spices changed the taste and style of food.

Even vices were affected by this widening net of influence.


Trade with China brought other luxurious items into English homes and brought Opium into China. Initial trade exchanged silver for Chinese goods, but with the flood of Opium into China and the inability of ports to keep out the intoxicating cargo and England’s lack of support for laws in another country. Yet, the opium dens where many languished in the smoky haze of the poppy flower’s drug, caucasians joined asians in the depravity and addiction.


Prostitution was another ‘catch’ in societal relations. Merely another urge to satisfy, the unintended result were children or mixed-race.


Language itself changes. Words, phrases, inflections can change by exposure to other countries.


And of course, the tide of change didn’t just go in one direction. People from the colonies emigrate.


In America, Chinese emigrants tended to congregate in their own communities, but even though most ‘Americans’ considered the Chinese to be cheap labor and lesser people than the other citizens in their communities. Still, that didn’t stop people from crossing over into ‘Hop Town’ for the intriguing people, food, and temptations it represented.


Now in Steampunk, whether you are a writer, reader, artist, collector, cosplayer or what have you… what cultural pieces do you ‘pick up’ from the pile? What things ‘catch’ onto you as meet new people or learn new things? How much of a blend are you, or can you keep inside your original boundary lines?

~ Class dismissed!


  1. When we bump up against other cultures, whether historical or fictitious, we are inevitably changed by the encounter and this is, I believe, ultimately for the good. We are forced to view ourselves from another's perspective. Our strengths can flourish and our challenges can be brought to light.
    Steampunk has the guts in its gears to mix the factual 'sticks' (the plain ones?) with the imaginative shapes of fiction. It all boils down to human experience, anyway.
    Personally, my game of Steampunk sticks is influenced by my hobby as a live roleplayer, my (other) profession as an holistic practitioner, the (mainly visual) stimulus I receive from browsing Steampunk online and the things my friends share. I am the unique filter through which all these experiences are interpreted. Just as pick up sticks never fall the same twice, so no two Steampunks are the same. We are likely to form similar patterns within a culture but we are all so very splendidly unique!

    1. I also really love how steampunk is so aesthetically driven. In terms of literature, I don't think there are many other genres like that out there. I love how you said "steampunk has the guts in its gears" . . . I think I will be quoting you on that. And I agree that the multiple avenues through which one can arrive in steampunk land is so vast that it really creates such a wide spectrum; that's why a Victorian and dystopian steampunk can "fit" together, but a Tolkien-esque fantasy and a dystopian fantasy often look so dis-similar. Thanks for stopping by!