Candy Land Was Invented for Polio Wards

It is a game absent strategy, requiring little thought. Consequently, many parents hate Candy Land as much as their young kids enjoy it.

Yet, for all its simplicity and limitations, children still love Candy Land, and adults still buy it. What makes it so appealing? The answer may have something to do with the game’s history: It was invented by Eleanor Abbott, a schoolteacher, in a polio ward during the epidemic of the 1940s and 1950s.

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Rows of "iron long" respirators being tended to by a small army of masked doctors and nurses. The ward’s setup taxed the imagination. The staff, fellow patients, or radio broadcasts would have been a child’s sole company—only doctors and nurses were allowed allowed in the room. Images of polio wards depict a geometry even more rigid and sterile than typical hospital settings: row upon row of treatment beds and iron lungs. The children lying supine in iron lungs could only see what was on either side of their heads (a line of patients telescoping down the ward) or reflected in mirrors mounted overhead (the floor’s tessellation of bleached tiles).

Candy Land offered a soothing contrast. Repeating tiles line the game’s board, but instead of a uniform, regimented grid, Abbott rearranges them into a meandering, rainbow ribbon. Even tracing it with your eyes is stimulating—an especially welcome feature if illness has rendered them the most mobile part of your body.