Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Card Paying like dicing, ninepins, and "tobacco-talcing," was banned in our earliest Colonies, not because it was thought sinful but because a community struggling for the very necessities of life could not afford this "great mispense of time." By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, social life in New York, Philadelphia, or Newport, or among the wealthy planters of the South, was not very different from what it was in many European cities and card playing enjoyed just as much favor. On the eve of the Revolution one French visitor remarked with concern on the fondness of the Bostonians for "high play." The hated Stamp Act of 1765 imposed duties on all playing cards and dice sold or used in the Colonies - suggesting that these items must have accounted for considerable revenues. And letters and diaries of the time give the impression that cards and related table games - backgammon, chess, and loo - were widely enjoyed.

Tables were specially made to accommodate these popular pastimes and, needless to say, they followed the newest fashions in their designs. Some examples illustrate both the progression of styles from Queen Anne to Duncan Phyfe and the regional differences which may be profitably studied in this particular form. The bold curves and substantial proportions of cabriole-leg Chippendale tables from New York, for instance, offer the greatest contrast to the lighter, more delicate interpretation of the Chippendale style as it is seen in Rhode Island tables attributed to John Townsend.

The card table seems from the first to have been conceived of as a dual-purpose piece of furniture, made to be set back against the wall like a console when not required for play. It is worth observing, however, that the earlier card tables are more elaborately equipped for gaming, having baize-covered tops, sockets at the corners for candles, and depressions hollowed out of the wood to hold game counters. Tables in the later, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and Phyfe styles, on the contrary, seem to be better adapted to their roles as consoles or pier tables, and, in fact, were sometimes made in pairs to flank a fireplace or window or in sets to complement the architecture of a large room. They have polished wood surfaces on both sides of the movable leaf and can be used, when open, for almost any purpose as well as for cards.

The methods of supporting the extended top of card tables are interesting. The "concertina action" of some English tables, by means of which the frame itself unfolds to make a larger parallelogram, was apparently little used here in the eighteenth century. The usual arrangement in American tables was to have one leg swing forward to hold up the leaf. Often an extra leg is provided, so as not to leave one corner visibly unsupported when the table is open. Some New York tables are such "five leggers." Duncan Phyfe made tripod-base card tables, two legs of which moved backward to balance the table as the folding top was opened - while at the same time short supporting arms came out from the back frame. This device, which depends on a connection running through the shaft of the tripod base, was fairly soon abandoned, presumably because of its cost.

The accessories and implements of gaming, from the cards or counters or chessmen to the candlesticks that lit the board, are a fascinating chapter in themselves and lent it much color and life. Cards, at first imported from England or the Continent, were being made here by the mid-1700's, probably as a side line by manufacturers of wallpaper, bookbinders and stationers, and the printers of newspapers. Before the end of the century they were offered regularly in the advertisements and a considerable quantity of Massachusetts-made cards were exported in 1792. Book of rules for card games came out by the dozen in Europe, and if the first American publication of this type did not appear until 1830, the gap might have been filled by a French rule book which included a supplement on "Ie Wisk Bostonien." Americans who took part in the China Trade brought back exotic and precious objects of ivory, carved wood, and lacquer, and many of these were for gaming - a European passion the Oriental could understand.