Pocket Chess-Board

Dublin Core


Pocket Chess-Board


Smaller than your modern chess set, the pocket chess-board was a portable game for travelers to carry from one destination to the next. Because the object was created with a series of slips and paper chess pieces, it was easy to stop at any moment and close the book without disturbing the game.


The pocket chess-board, when closed, looks like a small hard cover book made out of cloth material. When closed, you can feel the roughness of the object as if you’re touching the cuff of a fresh pair of jeans. There are small bubbles on the back cover where air trapped itself inside the cloth material over time. On the object’s edges, you can see pieces of the cloth are slowly starting to rip off. The word chess is written in pencil at the top left. The chess board is light brown, but was probably burgundy or red once upon a time. Upon opening the small 4-by-6 book, a mini chess board is located in the middle with blue and white squares surrounded by a red-orange border. Below the border are the words Chess written in script again. Above the border reads: “Johannes Lefevre 126 reg. N.Y.R.” and “1862″ on the left corner. The chess board is made out of paper with blue lines on the left and right side, creating little slips for small white tear-drop shaped chess pieces. On the pieces there are printed chess shapes in red and blue ink. Some are in chess slots, others are to the side, waiting to be used.

Johannes Lefevre, son of Josiah and Elizabeth Lefevre, entered the war in this early 20s after graduating from Union College, where he obtained a science degree. He wasn’t planning on joining in the war until he received a letter from his brother, Peter. Peter told Lefevre of his plans to enlist in the Union Army. Hearing the news caused Lefevre to rush home from his travels in Michigan, where he hoped to find employment, and enlisted himself into the Union Army. He became a lieutenant of the 156th regiment of the N.Y. Volunteer Army. In his last days of being home, he gathered a few items: some writing material for letters he’ll send to family, his weapons and uniform, a pocket chess-board, a popular staple among travelers.
In 1858, D. Appleton & Company began selling its first-ever pocket chess-board for all to own. It became a staple for those who traveled because it was a portable form of entertainment for long journeys. Prior to it being sold at the D. Appleton & Company general store in New York City, it was invented by Peter Mark Roget. During the Civil War, its invention was created for the entertainment of travelers, soldiers and sailors who were always on the go during the Civil War.
It wasn’t uncommon for a civil war soldier to have such an item. For Lefevre, he had the item before the civil war. Because of his heavy traveling, he used the item as a form of entertainment with friends and other travelers. If this wasn’t the case, Johannes must have received the item as a gift or bought the item before his departure. To have a pocket-chess board wasn’t uncommon for soldier to own. It gave soldiers a way to put their minds to other usage while staying up long nights, guarding their forts. If areas were attacked, they closed the game at that moment without pieces being moved.
On his journey, Lefevre never wrote about his chess-board to his family and friends, but he was surely in possession of it during his duty as a solider. Throughout his journey in the Union Army, Lefevre picked up a pencil and wrote on the inside of the item: “Johannes Lefevre 126 reg. N.Y.R,” which is confusing because he enlisted in the 156 reg. He might have moved within the military once enlisted.  He also wrote “1862″ on the left corner of the chess-board  He wrote “Chess” at the bottom of the page and on the cover of his pocket chess-board too, possibly because soldiers always wrote down their names and the name of their item to keep ownership of lost items. The life of a soldier is always moving and it was important to label items because of the spontaneous and fast paced environment of a soldier.
Johannes Lefevre had a successful and emotional career in the military, as was depicted in his civil war letters about death, women and family. He soon faced a horrible death when he was fatally wounded during the battle of Cedar Creek. The bullet went into the side of his rear. He was then taken to a Dr. West who was helping him recover. His father, Josiah Lefevre, went south after receiving a letter from Dr. West about his son’s injury. Upon reaching him, Josiah realized his son was recovering and left for New Paltz. However, it wasn’t until his departure that Johannes developed Gangrene disease from the exposed wound. He died in the late fall of 1864.
The chess-board, at that moment, was with all of Lefevre’s things when he died. His brother, Isaac went down to get the body and return it to the family in a coffin, according to Huguenot Street researchers. His belongings, such as the chess-board, were passed down through relatives until finally ending up at Historic Huguenot Street, where it was donated. The item must have been kept by the family given it’s significance to LeFevre’s life. The pocket chess-board left with Lefevre and became part of his travels through battles and experiences in the Civil War. Because of the battle, most of his items must have been left at the battle scene but his chess-book stayed with him he died with it in his pocket. The item definitely held some importance to LeFevre as he traveled throughout the war because it was the only piece of home during his time at war. Given its historical and emotional context, it is no wonder the family chose to donate the item to historians in New Paltz. The chess-board is now part of a larger Johannes Lefevre collection which is split between Historic Huguenot Street and Elting Memorial Library.


D. Appleton & Company


Historic Huguenot Street


Historic Huguenot Street


November 15, 1862


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D. Appleton & Company, “Pocket Chess-Board,” Hudson River Valley Heritage Exhibits, accessed December 8, 2021, https://omeka.hrvh.org/items/show/600.

Transcribe This Item

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