Candy Land Was Invented for Polio Wards

By Alexander B. Joy for theatlantic.com

If you were a child at some point in the past 70 years, odds are you played the board game Candy Land. According to the toy historian Tim Walsh, a staggering 94 percent of mothers are aware of Candy Land, and more than 60 percent of households with a 5-year-old child own a set. The game continues to sell about 1 million copies every year.

You know how it goes: Players race down a sinuous but linear track, its spaces tinted one of six colors or marked by a special candy symbol. They draw from a deck of cards corresponding to the board’s colors and symbols. They move their token to the next space that matches the drawn color or teleport to the space matching the symbol. The first to reach the end of the track is the winner.

Nothing the participants say or do influences the outcome; the winner is decided the second the deck is shuffled, and all that remains is to see it revealed, one draw at a time. 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 ’50s.

The outbreak had forced children into extremely restrictive environments. Patients were confined by equipment, and parents kept healthy children inside for fear they might catch the disease. Candy Land offered the kids in Abbott’s ward a welcome distraction—but it also gave immobilized patients a liberating fantasy of movement. That aspect of the game still resonates with children today.


Poliomyelitis—better known as polio—was once a feared disease. It struck suddenly, paralyzing its victims, most of whom were children. The virus targets the nerve cells in the spinal cord, inhibiting the body’s control over its muscles. This leads to muscle weakness, decay, or outright fatality in extreme cases. The leg muscles are the most common sites of polio damage, along with the muscles of the head, neck, and diaphragm. In the last case, a patient would require the aid of an iron lung, a massive, coffinlike enclosure that forces the afflicted body to breathe. For children, whose still-developing bodies are more vulnerable to polio infection, the muscle wastage from polio can result in disfigurement if left untreated. Treatment typically involves physical therapy to stimulate muscle development, followed by braces to ensure that the affected parts of the body retain their shape.

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