The shell game dates back at least to Ancient Greece. It can be seen in several paintings of the European Middle Ages. A book published in England in 1670 (Hull Elections–Richard Perry and his fiddler wife) mentions the thimblerig game. In the 1790s, it was called "thimblerig" as it was originally played using sewing thimbles. Later, walnut shells were used, and today the use of bottle caps or matchboxes is common.
The swindle became very popular throughout the nineteenth century, and games were often set up in or around traveling fairs. A thimblerig team (comprising operator and confederates) was depicted in William Powell Frith's 1858 painting, The Derby Day. In Frith's 1895, My Autobiography and Reminiscences the painter-turned-memorialist leaves an account of his encounter with a thimble-rig team (operator and accomplices):
Fear of jail and the need to find new "flats" (victims) kept these "sharps" (shell men or "operators") traveling from one town to the next, never staying in one place very long. One of the most infamous confidence men of the nineteenth century, Jefferson Randolph Smith, known as Soapy Smith, led organized gangs of shell men throughout the mid-western United States, and later in Alaska.
Today, the game is still being played for money in many major cities around the world, usually at locations with a high tourist concentration (for example: New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, in the United States, La Rambla in Barcelona, Gran Via in Madrid, Benidorm, Paris in France, Westminster Bridge, London, Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Germany, Malta, Italy, Bahnhofsviertel in Frankfurt am Main). The swindle is classified as a confidence trick game, and illegal to play for money in most countries.
The game also inspired a pricing game on the game show The Price Is Right, in which contestants attempt to win a larger prize by pricing smaller prizes to earn attempts at finding a ball hidden under one of four shells designed to resemble walnut shells. While the ball is not shown during the game, and the host shuffles the shells before the start of the game, contestants can win by either winning all four attempts or winning enough attempts, and picking the one that has the ball. The shuffling is only allowed before the pricing part of the game begins, and once the first small prize is announced, no further shuffling is permitted. Federal game show regulations are designed to ensure the game is legally a game that can be won.
Our set includes 3 shells and 2 soft peas and one solid pea.