We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed; and we mean to avail ourselves of our kind papa's consideration, by not returning to Winchester till quite the evening of Wednesday. Jane Austen to Cassandra October 29, 1809
Jane Austen loved spending time with her many nieces and nephews. At the time this letter was written, two of Edward's sons were staying with her in Southampton after the death of their mother. Riddles, paper ships and cards are easy enough to decipher, but what was the "Bilbocatch" game that Jane Austen referred to? Commonly known as Cup-And-Ball, Bilbocatch refers to "a traditional childs toy. It is a wooden cup with a handle, and a small ball attached to the cup by a string. It is popular in Spanish-speaking countries, where it is called "boliche". The name varies across many countries — in El Salvador and Guatemala it is called "capirucho"; in Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico it is called "balero"; in Spain it is "boliche"; in Brazil it is called "bilboquê"; in Chile it is "emboque"; in Colombia it is called "coca" or "ticayo"; and in Venezuela the game is called "perinola".
A variant game, Kendama, known in England as Ring and Pin, is very popular in Japan. The cup-and-ball has its origins in Mexico in the sixteenth century. The game was loved by King Henry III of France; he was often seen playing in public. After his death, the game went out of fashion. For 100 years the game was only remembered by a small number of enthusiasts such as the Marquis de Biévre. The game had its golden age during the reign of Louis XV — among the upper classes people owned baleros made of ivory. Actors also sometimes appeared with them in scenes. The game was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions the game early in his Confessions when stating his reservations about idle talk and hands, saying (in trans.) "If ever I went back into society I should carry a cup-and-ball in my pocket, and play with it all day long to excuse myself from speaking when I had nothing to say." Jane was a masterful player, and her skill at many childhood games, as remembered by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, is related in the book, Jane Austen and Children, By David Selwyn:
Lydia Marie Child's 1838 book, The Girl's Own book, has a wonderful illustration and description of the game:
Whether your goal is to entertain young children, perfect your own hand/eye coordination, or simply occupy yourself when you have nothing to say, a quick online search will yield a number of shops, such as the online giftshop for Old Sturbridge Village, where you can purchase your own Cup-and-Ball.
Historical information from Wikipedia.com