Giant Pick-Up Sticks

Of all the games I designed for the Philadelphia Bicentennial celebration (now more than 25 years ago), the most successful by far was Giant Pick-up Sticks. And, the most surprising part of the success for me was the discovery that playing the game wasn't as much fun as getting it started.

We made the pick-up sticks out of the cardboard tubes that are found on the inside of carpet rolls. We found 30 sixteen-foot long tubes and painted them according to classic pick-up sticks colors: one black, seven red, blue and yellow, and eight green.

According to the actual rules, each color has a different point value: red 10, blue 5, green 2 and yellow 1. The black stick, worth 25 points, can be used to pick up other sticks. At least according to the actual rules. We never actually got that far.

To start the game, at least with regulation-sized pick-up sticks, one player holds all the sticks vertically in one hand, and releases them so that they form a pile. However, to start Giant Pick-Up Sticks, you need people to grab as many tubes as possible, stand the tubes up in a big cluster, and then, at a signal, run away as fast as possible so noone gets clonked by a falling tube.

This creates a completely hilarious scene that is visible for blocks (we had it at one end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and it could be seen down the whole stretch, all the way from the art museum). Sure, we could have continued our meaningful involvement by playing the actual game. Lifting up a sixteen-foot stick without disturbing any of the others was certainly a daunting enough challenge for even the most competitive minded. But the fact was, people just wanted to get those sticks together and then run away, over and over. And, given 250,000 potential players, we never needed to go beyond that.

The photo came to me by way of Marie Martin, who, based on the rather sketchy instructions in this article, came up with this wonderful set of pick-up sticks for the 2004 Festival of the Wind in Esperance, Australia. Meredith Waters, one of Marie's colleagues, explains: "We played pick up sticks not for very long, not, because of lack of interest, but, it was part of a number of organised activities being run for the community.  'December 5th was International Volunteer Day, and we held  "Thank a Volunteer" day in the park.  We invited community groups to come along with their families and share a sausage sizzle, and take part in many activities that were run throughout the day.  We only played one round after lunch, but everyong involved appeared to have a great time.  The poles were brought out, people were asked to come along & join in. A brief explanation about pick up sticks, and about 10 people played, while a good crowd (about 40) watched, and enthusiastically joined in "counting down" to let the poles go.  The people playing grouped themselves into pairs, and played.  Everyone involved was keen to play.  I think given more time, many more people would have joined in." 
A couple of the pick up sticks broke during play (when they were dropped) the rest are being stored for future use.  So far we are taking them to a primary school break up day, and are likely to be used next year for the Festival of the Wind - March 18 and 19.  The local carpet shop where we obtained the poles were very keen to give the poles to us, so at present we have an endless supply of the them.

Musing, for various reasons, on the game of pickup sticks, I discover that it is ancient in origin, attributed both to the Chinese and to Native Americans. And that it is also known as "jackstraws" and, depending on your spelling preference, "spilikins," spellikins," or "spillikins."

Though we are all probably much more familiar with the painted, pointy-stick variety of pick-up sticks, and though the game of Spellikins, etc., can be played with either, I find myself drawn to the beauty and invitation to complexity of the version shown in these illustrations. I like how the shape affects how easily each stick can be picked, and how that in turn creates the possibilities of scoring differently for each stick, or each set of sticks. Here's an excellent page describing the origins and history of this remarkably widespread game, from which we learn that the game, in its carved or stick form, has apparent historical links to the practice of divination, such as the throwing of yarrow sticks, no less. Which makes me muse on the global, timeless connections between fun and spirit. And leads me to bask in wonderment once again as I rediscover how one becomes a path to the other.

carpet tube pickup sticks

In doing some research on the Internet for good intergenerational games for our church's Gathering Sunday next week, I discovered your website, and the page wherein you describe your game of giant pick-up sticks. I can't speak for those of you that organized and supervised the game at the Bicentennial in Philadelphia - though you may have had great fun getting the game started, those of us who were 12-year-old boys at the time sure had a blast trying to play a familiar game on such a large scale. My brother and I and two aunts who we were visiting had such fun not only watching, but playing the game. It was, by far, one of the more memorable moments of that holiday. I'm glad to have found the person responsible, so I can thank you!

Kyle Powderly

The Rev. Kyle H. L. Powderly
Coordinator of Education Ministries
Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, Maryland, USA