February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
The Chippendale card table on the opposite page was made in Massachusetts between 1760 and 1780, about half a century after special furniture for playing games first made its appearance in the Colonies. The idea came from England, where card tables—symbols of growing prosperity and the consequent expansion of leisure time—had become a social necessity in every fashionable home. The same held true in America by the time this beautifully preserved example was produced, and it is fairly typical of card tables in great houses along the Eastern seaboard.
They were made of walnut or—like this one—of mahogany, and each had a hinged two-leaf top that, when open and supported on a swing leg, revealed an inner surface lined with leather, felt, or the coarse woolen cloth called baize. Since household lighting was usually inadequate for evening play, most of the tables had four turrets projecting from the corners to accommodate candlesticks. In addition, there were often “guinea pools” or “fishponds”—shallow dishlike depressions to hold money, dice, or counters—and, in Chippendale styles, a single drawer in which to keep the cards. The tables stood on graceful cabriole legs (ideally meant to resemble a woman’s shapely calves); but their backs, unseen against the wall, remained unfinished.
Since so many of these tables were highly decorative and also bore their makers’ labels, they provide valuable evidence of the varieties of carving, inlay, veneer, and other detail used by the specific cabinetmakers, as well as of regional characteristics. Tables with bowed fronts were popular in Boston and Salem, and five- and six-legged examples appeared in New York.
For some, card tables had a utility and appeal beyond their intended purpose. The Philadelphian William Cowper was so enamored of his green baize-covered table, made in 1785, that he would regularly “write, breakfast, dine [and] sup upon” it, according to his correspondence of 1824. “The card table that stands firm and never totters,” he continues, “is advanced to the honour of assisting me upon my scribbling occasions; and … proves equally serviceable upon all others. It has cost us now and then the downfall of a glass: for, when covered with a table-cloth, the fishponds are not easily discerned, and not being seen, are sometimes as little thought of. But having numerous good qualities which abundantly compensate that single inconvenience, we … resolve that it shall be our table still, to the exclusion of all others.”
Still, in most households the card table was reserved for recreational use, and its ubiquity was hardly surprising in view of the fact that even the most upstanding Founding Fathers enjoyed gambling. George Washington’s account books, for example, reveal that he was an inveterate cardplayer. Thomas Jefferson was involved in the same pursuits just two days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And Benjamin Franklin was one of the few printers who manufactured cards in the colonies, selling them right in the post office.
From this country’s beginning, the gambling instinct overpowered every effort to restrain it. In Puritan New England and Quaker Philadelphia, as well as in the South, heavy sums were bet on cockfights and horse races, on bulland bearbaiting. Doctors and lawyers would wager their fees at the card table, and the “devil’s prayer book”—a deck of playing cards—was found everywhere.
In the upper-class eighteenth-century American home, in the afternoon at ladies’ tea parties (where guests might win or lose hundreds of dollars at loo), or in the evening, when servants would be summoned to bring the table into the center of the drawing room after dinner, card playing was the divertissement of choice. Players became embroiled in spirited games of whist (a simpler precursor of bridge), pokerlike brag, quadrille, or any of the several others while spectators observed the action seated astride “cockfighting” chairs.
When not in use, the card tables in most households were folded away to become consoles or side tables. They were lined up against the wall (as were chairs and other articles of furniture when not in service), sometimes with the upper half raised as a kind of ornamental backsplash.
Elaborately embroidered playing surfaces such as the one shown opposite—which incorporates design elements of the game of quadrille—were a feature of the finest card tables. The needlework here bears with it a poignant pedigree. The table’s owner was Dr. William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first president of Columbia College. He had four daughters, all of whom died of consumption in early girlhood, but not before each in turn had picked up the needle to continue her predecessor’s work, each contributing her labor and skill to produce this exquisite legacy.