The History of Scavenger Hunts
Published on July 20, 2023
The modern scavenger hunt can trace its origins back to famed gossip columnist and socialite Elsa Maxwell. In 1927, she threw a party in Paris where guests were required to bring back random items, including a shoe from a music hall performer and a black swan from the Bois de Boulogne. Upon returning to New York, she hosted similar events and gave the details in her columns.
By Dave Lifton (@daveeatschicago)
Before long, scavenger hunts became popular games to play at high society parties, and Hollywood took notice. The 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey centers around an heiress (Carole Lombard) who finds a homeless man (William Powell) as part of a scavenger hunt. After he shames the guests for their callousness, she hires him as a butler, and they eventually fall in love.
In the ensuing years, scavenger hunts made their way down into mainstream America. The concept of forming groups to solve clues and find objects became ways to bring people together, such as icebreakers at summer camp or team-building exercises at office retreats. It can be argued that scavenger hunts paved the way for the current popularity of escape rooms.
According to Guinness World Records, the world’s largest scavenger hunt was held in Ottawa on Sept. 10th, 2017 as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations, with 2,732 participants. Teams of four players had to complete 150 challenges, including answering trivia questions, solving puzzles, and posting images to social media related to Canada’s history.
Some scavenger hunts are so intricate that they have become famous, such as the one created by Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins for a Manhattan Halloween party in 1968. As recounted in The New Yorker in 1993, “Each team of five had to drive to a spot designated on the map, and there they would find a clue telling them where to go next; the trouble was, the clues were numbers, and there was no way of knowing how they might be revealed. One destination was a bustling bowling alley in which the last lane was curiously empty; there stood a single enigmatic pin, which you had to bowl over in such a way that you glimpsed the number written on the side.”
Then there’s the annual Scav Hunt at the University of Chicago, which was created by Christopher Straus in 1987 as a way to take his friends’ minds off their studies. He offered points to residents in his dorm for securing anything from a hula hoop (10 points) to a naked, bound, and gagged dean (500). It has grown into a four-day event that concludes on Mothers’ Day, with an estimated 10 percent of the student body participating, with some preparing months in advance. The 2023 list contained 291 items, including the construction of a double-decker blanket fort (22 points) and souvenir mugs from Chicago’s annual Christkindlmarket (0.25 points per mug). And those are among the few clues that don’t require a University of Chicago education to decipher.
The hunts available from eATLAS aren’t as complex as that, but they are fun ways to explore cities on a variety of subjects. In our hometown of Chicago, for example, we have adventures devoted to Navy Pier, Lincoln Park (and the zoo), and the Museum Campus. Cinema lovers can check out downtown locations where classic movies were filmed, and history buffs can check out Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in Chicago. Those who are fascinated by the macabre can learn more about Chicago’s gangsters and ghosts, places in the Loop where disasters happened, and H.H. Holmes, the serial killer known as the “White City Devil” for his exploits during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Outside of the Windy City, you can find adventures that take you to landmarks in New York City (Radio City Music Hall, Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge), Nashville (Grand Ole Opry, Parthenon, Hermitage), San Francisco (Pier 39), and more!
To play any of our scavenger hunts, simply download the eATLAS app and look for an adventure where you live. You can play as an individual or assemble teams to compete against each other as a different way to explore a city. Happy hunting!
The Adventure starts when you say it does.
All eATLAS Adventures are designed and built by experienced eATLAS Whoa!Guides. They're always on. Always entertaining. And always ready to go.Check out our Adventures!