Weekly Photo Challenge: Eye-Spy

I-Spy books were small paperback books that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s.  Each book covered a subject such as I-SPY Cars, I-SPY on the Pavement, I-SPY on a Train Journey, and so on and so on and so on.

The object was to be vigilant and spot objects such as animals, trees, policemen, fire engines, sea shells etc. etc.  a bit like train spotting and they were recorded in the relevant book, and the more things you spotted this gained points.  More points were available for the more difficult spots.  Once you had spotted everything and the book was complete, it could be sent to Big Chief I-SPY for a feather and order of merit.

No, I kid you not! 

The books and the challenges were supposedly written by a Red Indian chief called Big Chief I-Spy who turned out to be a man called Charles Warrell who was a former school teacher and headmaster who came up with the idea of  I-Spy in 1948. He retired in 1956, but lived on until 26th November 1995 when he died at the age of 106.  For part of this time he also worked as an antiques dealer in Islington.

Those who played the I-Spy game became members of the I-Spy Tribe and were called Redskins.  The head office was variously known as the Wigwam by the Water or the Wigwam-by-the-Green.  Neither of these exotic sounding places were situated on the American Plains or in the Black Hills of Dakota, the former was located next to the Mermaid Theatre at Blackfriars and the latter was in London’s Edgware Road.

I had quite a collection of I-Spy books but to be honest I never finished any of them because some of the items were absurdly difficult to track down (how, for example, do you I-Spy fish unless you are a deep-sea fisherman working on a trawler or a scuba diver?) and I never got a single feather although I did join the club and had an I-Spy badge that I used to wear on the lapel of my school blazer.

The original first thirty-two I-Spy books were in black and white only and cost sixpence each and the titles were:

At the Seaside The Army
On the Farm The Wheel
History Sport
On a Train Journey People and Places
Dogs Musical Instruments
In the Country Men at Work
At the Zoo- Animals Antique Furniture
At the Zoo – Birds and Reptiles The Universe
In the Street Road Transport
On the Road Town Crafts
The Sights of London Country Crafts
Horses and Ponies The Sky
Ships and Harbours People in Uniform
Boats and Waterways Motorcycles and Cycles
Aircraft Bridges
Cars Sports Cars

Some of these books were extremely useful for parents, especially on long journeys.  For a very small cash investment there would be short periods of peace while children were preoccupied with spotting things –  ‘On a Train Journey’‘Road Transport’ and ‘Cars’ were good for this sort of thing.

On a long car journey my dad would invent his own I-spy games and challenge us to spot a red lorry, spot a black cow, spot a petrol station, in fact spot pretty much anything he could think of if it successfully kept us all quiet.  When he got desperate he would tell us to look out for the sea and when we were on the way to Cornwall or Wales he usually started this little distraction roughly at about Oxford which is of course just about as far from the coast as you can possibly get!  This was very optimistic because if you are familiar with the geography of England this is the equivalent of trying to spot the Caribbean Sea from Kansas City, the Hudson Bay from Calgary or the Pacific Ocean  from Alice Springs.

When you finally got there, ‘At the Seaside’ was very useful for parents because they could send you off for hours at a time staring into rock pools and poking around at the shoreline to find things while they sat and enjoyed the sunshine.  I suppose some would be frowned upon today because they encouraged kids to go off to places that parents today would consider dangerous such as ‘In the Street’, ‘Boats and Waterways’, ‘Bridges’ and especially, probably the most dangerous of all, ‘Wild Fruits and Funghi’!

i spy wild flowers

Some were useless of course and we didn’t buy them, I mean what chance was there of completing ‘The Army’ I-Spy book unless your dad was a squaddie? And how were most normal kids supposed to spot ‘Aircraft’?  I never went near an airport until I was twenty-two and neither did most of my pals.

Some people took this all a bit too seriously and here is an entry that I have found on www.doyouremember.co.uk : “Glad to know that others remember the I-SPY Books. I used the books regularly as a child in the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), was a member of the I-SPY Tribe and won various prizes, including a wigwam (or tent!) I led my own local “patrol” and we met the second Big Chief I-SPY, Arnold Cawthrow, on a number of occasions. He visited my home in Barking twice and mentioned me and my Red Arrow Patrol in a number of his Daily Mail columns. I kept in touch until he retired in 1978 and remember the whole I-SPY experience with much affection.”

I-Spy a sad man!

What sad games do you remember playing as children? How did you keep kids amused on long car journeys?

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23 responses to “Weekly Photo Challenge: Eye-Spy

  1. There are I Spy books that have been more recently published, and I have studied them all.

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  2. This made me smile. I asked Norman if he had heard of the books and you will not be too surprised to know that, of course, he had bought some of the books. He was also a “jolly Robin” in the Loughborough Monitor. I suppose if I dug a bit deeper he was probably a member of the Tufty Club. And yes my dad continually lied to us that the sea was “over the next hill” although I got my own back by being car sick on most journeys, even ones from Nottinghamshire into Derbyshire.

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    • I think I was probably in the Tufty club but road safety was never as much fun after they retired the squirrel and replaced him with the Green Cross Code man. My sister was a member of the Tingha and Tucker club, I bet Norman remembers that too.
      Rooting for Jamie today!

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  3. I don’t suppose I should even admit to remembering these, Andrew. 🙂 I wasn’t a very good I spyer!

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  4. I used to do I-Spy books and I must have done Cars and Aircraft over and over again at gaps of a couple of years. We lived in South Derbyshire so, in the late fifties, we used to see a lot of military aircraft. all painted anti-radiation white and easy to see. They must have been taking a Severn-Humber short cut, I suppose. I have never told anybody this before but when I said that I’d seen a Convair 440 airliner, I was lying. Too often I used to give myself the benefit of the doubt. As for Tingha and Tucker,well, I bought Jean Morton’s autograph recently on ebay. One day we will return.

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    • I remember “The Sights of London” because we used to go regularly to visit grandparents. Granddad was a bus conductor out of the Catford garage and we used to get cheap travel tickets to go all around the city.
      I also remember sitting at the side of the road and recording car number plates – how sad!
      I am impressed about the Jean Morton autograph.

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  5. Andrew – great story I had never heard of this. We just used to have I spy with my little eye and going through the alphabet on number plates. I bet not that many girls bought into the I-spy books as it would appeal more to the male ‘collecting gene.’ It never leaves and that is why I hunt out all the Grommits, Shaun the Sheep, Paddingtons etc! The kid never leaves!

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    • Just recently I was playing I-Spy with my granddaughters. The eldest one (7) started things off and the game progressed quickly. Eventually it was the turn of the youngest (4) and she set a challenge of something beginning with B. It was hopeless, I just could not get the answer. Eventually the eldest one said ‘just say anything granddad, what she is thinking about probably doesn’t even begin with B anyway’. A priceless moment.
      I have got a few pointless collections I must confess. My latest fad is to collect models of the Mallard steam locomotive in the inevitably futile hope that the collection will one day be valuable. Needless to say Kim doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the project.

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  6. I have heard of these, however never had any of the books. We did play “I see something. ..” while roadtrips.
    The poor dog in the back of the truck is disturbing. .. 😯

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  7. Brought back so many memories, – only wish that I had kept one or two of the books. I thought that the butter cross and stocks on the front of I Spy History might have been Oakham but there is a hole missing from the stocks.I often wonder what the fifth hole was for!

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  8. Neat history of these books that I hadn’t even heard of. Of course, I’ve heard the phrase “I spy” and knew it was likely connected to some game I had not heard of. You’ve done a nice bit of education for me here, and I think the I-Spy books were a great idea. One thing I still do with Tara is to spot license plates, which around here are unique to each state and Canadian province. We keep a book in the car, and each time we spot a new one, we write it down. The most fun are the plates from places like Hawaii or the UK, and we marvel at how and why people brought their cars across the sea and keep the registrations current with the exotic plates. When we get all 50 states, we start the list anew.

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    • You have given me a memory nudge. When I went to Florida with my parents about 20 years ago my mum drove us all mad State number plate spotting!
      It is surprising that anyone would go to the trouble of taking a UK car to the States!

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  9. Andrew when our children were small we lived in the northern part of the province in a small town. there were may 8 hour drives to visit grandparents who lived in opposite directions. We were masters of I spy, 20 questions and games of naming locations etc from the last letter. Aberdeen – Norway-Yellowknife. We say that Parents have it so easy now with all of the DVD players and techno gadgets. 🙂

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  10. I chuckle at the idea that someone from the UK would call any trip a long road trip 🙂 That being said, when I was a kid, my family took a road trip from Kansas City to New York. This was five people and their luggage in a Honda Accord Hatchback for three days. We had regular books, sticker books, puzzle books, a potholder-making kit, and I had my Smurfs colorforms.
    These I-spy books sound like a lot of fun, but it is a bit ridiculous to expect a kid to go wandering out into the forest to find wild fruit and fungi.

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  11. The grandkids were here this summer. It’s about 40 minutes into town from where we live. Every time we took the kids to town, my wife Peggy would play I Spy with them. So I while I am not familiar with the books, Andrew, I Spy is alive and well out here in Oregon. –Curt

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