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An Evening at Home with Friends in the Early Republic - Part 1

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

(Portions of this article originally appeared in a post written for The Historic Interpreter blog several years ago.)

Imagine it is December in Federal America (ca. 1815). Your family, and friends have just finished dinner and removed to the parlor. Ahead, looms a long winter evening in a world without electricity. You have the light from the fireplaces that you use to heat your home, but it is dim. It will cost you money to burn candles or oil lamps; and gaslights, while first installed in Newport, Rhode Island in either 1805 or 1806, and in Baltimore in 1817, will not gain acceptance for use in private residences until the 1850s. Since you are spending the money for lighting, how will your family and friends entertain yourselves for the evening? Although forgotten today, in favor of video games, TV, and streaming video, there existed a solution common around the open fires of homes throughout history: The parlor game.

Indoor games for groups are as old as human memory. From ancient Mesopotamia onward, people have enjoyed gambling on dice or card games and playing games of strategy to pass the empty hours. In England, Francis Willughby’s Volume of Plaies (1665) describes the rules of backgammon, and gives instructions for card games, beginning with the manufacture of the cards themselves: take “3 or 4 pieces of white paper pasted together and made very smooth that they may easily slip from one another, and be dealt & played.”

By the Georgian period, 1714 – 1830, things had changed to the point where you did not have to manufacture your own cards. There were entertainments considered proper for ladies, those proper only for men, and others considered proper for both sexes. In this article, we are going to consider those that one might enjoy with family and friends within your own walls.

Entertainments with Cards and Dice

Commerce is an 18th-century card game akin to the French Thirty-one and an ancestor of Poker. It was popular in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, however, some writers have shown that it was most popular with the older set during the Regency era. This game has many of the aspects of modern Poker including scoring using pairs, triples, straights, and flushes.

Cribbage was invented in the early 1600s by Sir John Suckling, an English courtier, poet, gamester, and gambler. The goal of the game is to be the first player to score a target number of points, typically 61 or 121. Players score points for card combinations that add up to fifteen, and for pairs, triples, quadruples, runs, and flushes. The scores were kept on a scoring board—a series of holes on which the score is tallied with pegs. Scores could be kept on a piece of paper, but a cribbage board was almost always used, since scoring occurs throughout the game, not just at the conclusion of hands as in most other card games. One registers points as scored by "pegging" along the crib board. Two pegs are used in a leapfrog fashion, so that if a player loses track during the count one peg still marks the previous score Following the rules of game etiquette was important, and players followed them closely in cutting, dealing, pegging, playing, and using terminology. Some accounts contend that for many centuries, Cribbage was the only card game legally played for money in English pubs.

Caricature of two Regency dandys playing cribbage

English settlers brought the game to American shores where it became popular, especially in New England. Requiring only two players, it was readily adopted by sailors and fishermen to pass the time. Cribbage boards, crafted from a variety of materials, have either 61 or 121 holes, and could be amazingly unique and elaborate in form and style.

Faro originated in France in the late 17th century and, with its name shortened to Pharo or Faro it continued to be widely played in England during the 18th and 19th centuries. The game was easy to learn, quick to play, and, when played honestly, the odds for a player were the best of all gambling games. Faro was little known before the American Revolution in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other Eastern cities – with the exception of Charleston, where it was a favorite gambling game among the French Huguenots and the refugees from Acadia Some claim it was introduced into New York by camp followers of the British Army, but it is more probable that it was brought to the east by visitors from Charleston, or by the French soldiers of Lafayette and Rochambeau. In the early 19th century, it caught on rapidly with the masses and became the most popular game in the gambling halls of the American westward expansion.

Hazard is an early English game played with two dice; Geoffrey Chaucer mentions it in his 14th century Canterbury Tales. Despite its complicated rules, Hazard was immensely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and often played for money. During the Georgian era, Gentlemen played hazard for high stakes in English gambling rooms. In the 19th century, Hazard spread from England to France and later to the United States where, through simplification of the rules, the game Craps developed and eventually supplanted it.

Caricature of "gentlemen" playing hazzard - Georgian era
"Gentlemen" at the Hazzard Table

Piquet has long been a favorite card games and is still played today in some quarters. The first written mention of the game dates to 1535. The game began in Germany during the Thirty Years War, and first became popular in England after the marriage of Queen Mary I of England (Bloody Mary) to King Philip II of Spain in 1554. During this period the game was known as Cent, after the Spanish game Cientos, referring to the fact that one of the chief goals of Piquet is to reach 100 points. Following the marriage of King Charles I of England to Henrietta Maria of France in 1625, the British adopted the French name for the game.

Piquet remained the foremost two-person game throughout the 18th century, eclipsing even Cribbage. Edmond Hoyle, after the success of his Short Treatise on Whist in 1743, turned his attention to Piquet in the following year. One of the principal centers of Piquet play, as well as card-play in general was at Bath, where England’s landed gentry won and lost large sums, indeed fortunes, as both bystanders and players.

In America, Piquet was just as popular. In 1753, William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin, penned the following “love” poem from his bachelor group, to a group of young ladies that were summering in Horsham, to the north of Philadelphia.

Sometimes we kill a tedious hour,

We venture at piquet

Yet even there we feel your pow’r

and know not how to Bett

For Cupid laughs at our mistakes

We lose our money for your Sakes.

Vingt-et-Un (French for twenty-one) is an early version of Blackjack that has not changed much since Regency times. Like modern Blackjack, Vingt-et-Un does not require partners and, if a man can keep track of cards, read his opponents well, and is brave enough to double down; the play can be tense and exciting. One variant, often played in England, called Pontoon, which differed from Vingt-et-Un by using a different deck than the “standard” English deck. This deck can be simulated today by removing the 10 spot cards from the deck. Thus, the card values run: A,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, J, Q, K.

Whist descended from the 16th century game of Trump or Ruff. Whist replaced the popular variant of Trump known as Ruff and Honours. The game takes its name from the 17th Century usage of the word whist (or wist) meaning quiet, silent, attentive, which is the root of the modern wistful.

A group of gentlemen, who frequented the Crown Coffee House in London, first played Whist in a systematic way around 1728. Edmond Hoyle, a member of this group, began to tutor wealthy young gentlemen in the game, and published A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742. It became the standard text and rules for the game for the next hundred years and led to the game becoming fashionable.

Caricature of two couples playing whist - late Regency era
An evening at Whist with friends

Whist was popular among clergymen and gentry in England, and when it came to the American colonies, it was also popular with the elite members of society, including merchants, ministers, professionals, and college students.

William Byrd records in his diary entry of 06 May 1709 playing Whist with “Colonel Ludwell, Nat Harrison, and Mr. Edwards”. Although women during this period did not often play cards, women from the upper classes did play Whist. Part of the reason for its popularity was its reputation as a game for intelligent, well-bred people. Whist parties eventually became common among the wealthy and well-educated people of New England and continue to this day.

Entertainments Played on a Game Board or Table

One can make a good argument that the frequency publication of new instructional texts devoted to specific recreational games is an indicator of their popularity. Based on this premise, Backgammon was one of the most popular parlor games of the British literate classes until the latter half of the 19th century.

In America, Backgammon tables were popular parlor accoutrements among the wealthy by the 1770s, and the lower sorts, at least the men, could indulge in such recreations at the ubiquitous taverns, inns, and coffeehouses. Alexander Macraby, writing home in 1768, singled out what he considered the distasteful and vile practice of New York's tavern life:

“They have a vile practice here, which is peculiar to the city (New York). I mean that of playing at back-gammon (a noise I detest) which is going forward at the public coffee-houses from morning till night, frequently a dozen tables at a time”.

Backgammon’s history is long, complicated, and incomplete. Both the Greeks and the Romans played versions of the game and gambled away significant sums of money on it. It was so popular that the excavators of Pompeii found a backgammon table carved in the courtyard of most of the villas. According to legend, the emperor Commodus turned the imperial palace into a grandiose gambling casino. Indeed, it is recorded that at one point he was losing so badly that he appropriated a large sum from the imperial treasury, ostensibly to finance an expedition to the African provinces, promptly went back to the backgammon tables, and lost every cent.

Caricature of man and woman playing backgammon - Georgian Era

Backgammon was popular in Britain where Backgammon tables spread from the upper classes throughout society. Innkeepers attracted customers by providing them with boards, men, and dice. In many counties, Backgammon tables were unregulated or untaxed if the wagers remained small.

English history and literature are full of references to tables and, later, backgammon. Chaucer alludes to the game in The Canterbury Tales, Spenser refers to it in The Faerie Queene, and Shakespeare in Love’s Labours Lost. Samuel Butler mentioned backgammon in his satirical epic poem Hudibras, which may be the first use of the word in English literature.

A historian writing over a century ago noted that at the commencement of the eighteenth-century, backgammon was a favorite amusement, and pursued at leisure times by most persons of opulence, and especially by the clergy. In fact, the game was so popular among his fellow clergymen that Dean Swift once advised a friend in the country, with tongue in check, to study the game “that he might be on friendly, that is playing terms with the rector.”

Though probably less popular than in Britain, Americans have played Backgammon since the seventeenth century. Thomas Jefferson played the game often - including during the three weeks before July 4, 1776, while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence. He kept a notebook of his expenses, and among the entries are these two:

Lost at backgammon 7/6.

Won at backgammon 7d/1/3.

Billiards evolved from a game played outside on a lawn like croquet. Play moved indoors to a wooden table with green cloth to simulate grass, and an edge placed around the table to keep the balls from falling to the floor. The earliest reference given in the Oxford Dictionary is from Spenser's Mother Hubbard, in 1591, but nothing is really known of it in England until the end of the sixteenth century. In these early years in England, it is thought that the balls were shoved with wooden sticks called "maces" and not struck. The first printed account of the game in English hitherto noted is that given by Charles Cotton in The Compleat Gamester, first published in 1674.

During the 18th century, the game of billiards became part of the lifestyle of many men. In England, the public played billiards regularly. This was particularly true in London, but later expanded across the countryside as billiards became a part of life in the inns and coffeehouses, as well as the occasional "chocolate" house. In fact, Charles Cotton remarks that “there being few Towns of note there in which hath not a publick Billiard-Table, neither are they wanting in many Noble and private Families in the Country”. Major Regency figures, George IV (the Prince Regent and later King) and the Duke of Wellington both owned tables and were known to be fond of the game.

A billiard room in 1770

Meanwhile in North America, there is a record of billiards as early as 1709 when William Byrd wrote in his diary of playing billiards at his home mornings, afternoons, and evenings. In addition, according to John Richard Alden, in his biography of George Washington, our first President was a billiard player, at least as a young man.

Chess history spans over 1500 years. The earliest predecessor of the game originated in India, before the 6th century AD, and spread from there to Persia. When the Arabs conquered Persia, the Muslim world took up chess, which then spread to Southern Europe. In Europe, chess evolved, during the 15th century, into its current form.

Chess was well established and popular, particularly among the upper classes and the educated during the Georgian period. The first London and Paris chess clubs formed in the 1770s and, as the 19th century progressed, chess organizations developed quickly. There were correspondence matches between cities, such as when the London Chess Club played against the Edinburgh Chess Club in 1824.

Benjamin Franklin playing at chess

Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s earliest documented enthusiasts of chess. It is not possible to determine exactly when Franklin learned to play chess; but his lifelong interest in games was recorded by him as early as his twentieth year in the “Journal of a Voyage; Journal of Occurrences in my Voyage to Philadelphia”:

Friday, July 29 (1726) … All this afternoon I spent agreeably enough at the draft board. It is a game I much delight in; but it requires a clear head, and undisturbed; and the persons playing, if they would play well, ought not much to regard the consequence of the game, for that diverts and makes the player.

Later, in 1750, Benjamin Franklin penned these words as an introduction to his famous essay "The Morals of Chess."

“Playing at Chess is the most ancient and the most universal game among men, for its original is beyond the memory of history."

Franklin's approach to the game was in distinct contrast to his predecessors, who seriously advocated all the subtle treacheries of the art of poor sportsmanship with the sole end of being victorious. To Franklin, however, the game of chess was not mere idle amusement but a sport reflective of life itself—"for life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain and competitors or adversaries to contend with"—which requires the utilization of all the finest mental and moral qualities of which man is capable.

The game, however, was not popular in the young United States, except among the wealthy. As a result, it was not until 1802 when the earliest known American chess book, “Chess Made Easy” by J. Humphreys was published.

Draughts (pronounced “drafts”), today known as Checkers, is one of the oldest games known to man. Its history dates to the very cradle of civilization, where remainders of the earliest form of the game were unearthed in an archeological dig in the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq. This version used a slightly different board, which was carbon dated at 3000 B.C. A similar game, using a 5x5 board, existed in ancient Egypt as far back as 1400 B.C.

In 1756, an English mathematician, William Payne, wrote a treatise on draughts. Now, with its own written rules, the game settled in England where the game steadily rose in popularity as the years went by. By the later years of the Georgian era, you could find the game in every tavern, coffee-house, and many private homes throughout England and America.

In Part 2 of this post we will look at Parlor Games as well as other ways that people of the Early Republic passed an evening with family and friends.

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