Teetotum in the 18th Century and the 19th Century

Teetotum or tee-totum appeared in the English language between 1710 and 1720, although it is believed to have originated during the Middle Ages in Germany where it was called a “torrel” or “trundl.” A teetotum refers to a gambling spinning top that was spun with the object of winning the pool. Teetotums were hexagonal or octagonal in shape, but early teetotums were four-sided and sometimes even a six-sided die with a stick through it. By the late 1800s, teetotums had more sides and were sometimes used in place of dice.

A Twelve-sided Teetotum, Courtesy of Wikipedia

A twelve-sided teetotum. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Teetotums were created from wood, lead, bone, silver, or even ivory and either marked with numbers (from 1 to 6 or from 1 to 12) or an alphabetic letter. The letter or number that landed face up when it stopped spinning indicated what the player was to do. One explanation of the teetotum was “a Roman implement of gambling, and the letters meant as follows: A. Accipe unum [take from the pool], D. Donato alium [add to the pool], N. Nihil [nothing], T. Totum [take the whole pool].”[1] Another set of letters were later used. They were “T, H, N, and P, signifying [respectively] Take all, take Half, Nothing, and Put in again to [the] pool.”[2]

Cannonade was one nineteenth century game of chance played with the teetotum that required some skill. The board for cannonade was sloped and castles were placed in their respective positions and protected by wires, except in the front, as shown in the illustration below. Balls were also “placed in the centre of the board … [and] the teetotum … wound and spun just like a humming-top.”[3] It would fly across the board, strike the castles and knock them over, with a point scored for each castle that fell. The object of the game was “to wind up the teetotum properly, and … give it as much spin as possible, as the destruction of the castles depends greatly on the length of time during which it spins.”[4]

Example of a Cannonade Board with a Teetotum, Public Domain

Example of a cannonade board with a teetotum. Public domain.

The teetotum appeared to be popular with everyone in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Joseph Strutt, an eighteenth century engraver and antiquarian, talked about playing with a teetotum as a child, as did a writer named James Inglis, who claimed “among indoor games, the ‘teetotum’ was, I think, the only approach to an instrument of gambling known in our ingenuous and unsophisticated boyish experience.”[5] Even King George III played with the teetotum because according to Lord Mulgrave, he once delivered important news to the King and discovered:

“[T]heir majesties were … playing at teetotum for the enormous stake of some pins. His majesty received his lordship with his accustomed affability, and said, “You see I am at last turned gambler, but I hope I have too much sense to risk a crown upon the throw of a dice.”[6]

Child Holding a Teetotum, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Child holding a teetotum. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The teetotum was not just used as a gambling tool. Scientific experiments were conducted with them. One experiment used the teetotum to understand magnetism and another involved psychic research where a Mrs. Sidgwick worked with a subject named Goade in 1889. He believed an imaginary teetotum was “spinning on a (real) sheet of white paper.”[7] Sidgwick then “blew” the teetotum away and replaced it with a tiny scrap of black paper. Goade accepted the black scrap as the teetotum and “spun it in imagination more than once.”[8] Sedgwick removed the black paper and Goade then accepted a piece of dust as the teetotum. Eventually, Sidgwick “pointed to an empty space on the white paper, and told him the teetotum was there.”[9] He accepted it and Sedgwick thus concluded that reflecting surfaces, such as white paper, were capable of inducing “spontaneous hallucinations.”

Writers joined the teetotum bandwagon too introducing the spinning tops into their literary works. An English novelist and writer who published as Mrs. Trollope or Mrs. Frances Trollope and who also mentioned Madame Récamier in her book Paris and the Parisians in 1835, likewise commented about the domestic manner of Americans and noted:

“A traveller may pass his life in going round the world like a teetotum: accordingly, we are bound to look at all its sides, and not merely at that which happens to be uppermost when the teetotum stops.”[10]

Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island mentioned:

“Merry tumbled headforemost into the excavation; the man with the bandage spun round like a teetotum, and fell all his length upon his side, where he lay dead, but still twitching.”[11]

Robert Lewis Stevenson at Age 26, Public Domain

Robert Lewis Stevenson at Age 26. Public domain.

Even Charles Dickens found the teetotum a useful description in Little Dorrit stating:

“He rolled him about with a hand on each of his shoulders, until the staggerings of that gentleman, who under the circumstances was dryer and more twisted than ever, were like those of a teetotum nearly spent.”[12]

Charles Dickens graphite on paper, 1861 by Rudolf Lehmann. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Writers were not the only people to use the teetotum in a descriptive way. A Mr. Buchanan had a scheme and named his “combination-club, restaurant, tea-counter … by the catch[y] title of Teetotum.”[13] Buchanan’s Teetotum was located on High Street in Shoreditch and combined “the brightness of a Continental cafe and restaurant with the advantages of the University Club.”[14] It was described as bright, clean, warm and nicely lit.  However, it did “not differ materially from the ordinary cafe [until you went upstairs].”[15] On the upper floors members relaxed, smoked, and ate meals. There was a reading room, billiards could be played, and there was also a hall that held 500 people, with a stage at one end. It was concluded in 1891 by one reviewer the “public houses had found a most deadly rival [in Buchanan’s Teetotum].”[16]

Dreidel, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dreidel, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Although Buchanan’s Teetotum eventually closed, the teetotum used by Strutt, Inglis, and George III still survives today. However, today’s teetotum is in the form of the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top used during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. As in times past, each side of the dreidel represents a letter of the alphabet, but in this case the letters are Hebrew: S (Shin), H (Hei) N (Nun), and G (Gimel). S is shtel ayn meaning “put in,” H is for halb meaning “half,” N is Yiddish for nisht meaning “nothing,” and G is for gants meaning “all.” The dreidel has also turned into a competitive sport in North America, and, in New York, dreidel tournaments are hosted during Hanukkah. In fact, the dreidel seems to be rising in popularity within the last few years as new games, such as Staccabees and Maccabees, are using it.


  • [1] Inglis, James, Oor Ain Folk, 1894, p. 276.
  • [2] Cassell’s Book of In-door Amusements, Card Games, and Fireside Fun, 1882, p. 88.
  • [3] Green, Charles M., The Friend of All, 1884p. 376.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Inglis, James, p. 96.
  • [6] Huish, Robert, The Public and the Private life of His Late Majesty, George the Third, 1821, p. 548.
  • [7] Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1894, p. 109.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] The Edinburgh Review, or Critical Journal, Vol. 55, 1832, p. 497.
  • [11] Stevenson, Robert Louis, Treasure Island and Kidnapped, 1907, p. 175.
  • [12] Dickens, Charles, Little Dorrit, 1868, p. 522.
  • [13] The Review of Reviews, Vol. 3, 1891, p. 369.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 370.

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