“I suppose people collect for different reasons: rarity, quality, ingenuity of design, sentimental value... ”
I have been collecting items connected to card play for many years and my various collections contain hundreds of pieces all of which have a part to play in the social history of card games. I have written about a number of these collections on wopc.co.uk over recent years.
I have frequently been asked (by anyone who doesn’t immediately glaze over when I talk about my hobby) which are your favourite items? Mostly this was probably due to people seeking to cut short any protracted attempt on my part to interest them in the history of games. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about which were my favourite collectables, and, if so, what criteria would I use to choose them? I thought let’s see if I can limit my choices to my favourite 20, perhaps 1% of the total, a task which has proved more difficult than I care to admit.
I am particularly attracted by quality. The workmanship on some of my items is extraordinary. Beautifully handcrafted wood and leather conjures lovely images of 19th century craftsmen and women expressing themselves with skills few would be able to exercise today. Ingenuity of design is also a big draw. When competing in a crowded market-place for custom, 19th century inventors produced some wonderful designs, most of which work today as well as they did when they were sold well over a century ago. I love items which individually or with others tell a story. I have always been fascinated by the evolution of whist through various stages to the modern game of contract bridge. Any collection of favourites must draw from this narrative.
Collectors are always on the lookout for the unusual. There are so many items which, despite their age, are commonplace because so many were produced in their heyday. So, it is nice to find something which is out of the ordinary. We also prize items in good condition. It is so good to find something which is perhaps 150 or 200 years old but which has been preserved in pristine fashion, looking as if it could have come straight from the original shop. However, just occasionally, an item may not be in great condition but is remarkable because it has survived the intervening years at all; rare survivors are much prized.
For me there are two other criteria which influenced my decision-making when selecting my twenty items. I prize items which are tactile, those which feel really good in the hands, and finally items which, for one reason or another, have sentimental value.
Most of my selection meet four of five of my eight criteria. My first choice, however, meets only one – sentiment.
Staying with the cribbage theme, my next choices are three boards associated with two world wars. The oldest is made of leather – black on the outside, yellow inside – with six metal pegs ingeniously contained in the black folding pouches inside.
My next choice is an equivalent from WW2.
My fourth choice also dates from WW2 but has a much more identifiable personal history.
My fifth selection is also a cribbage board, but with a difference. The “hedgehog Board” instead of banks of holes into which pegs are inserted has rows of raisable metal pegs.
Before the invention of the whist marker, there were various attempts to assist players to score their tricks. One of the great survivors is my next selection.
Various rather more robust card markers were designed and in common use, as the popular form of whist switched to the five-point rather than ten-point game. The most notable of these was the “Cavendish Whist Marker” from De La Rue endorsed by the primary whist guru of the day, Henry Jones who wrote under the pseudonym “Cavendish”. The basic design was patented in 1868. A lot of thick card examples in various colours have survived but my seventh selection is this rarer example made from thin layers of wood.
My next choice is the Camden Whist Marker which soon overtook the Cavendish in popularity and was to revolutionise game marker designs around the world for decades.
Goodall followed their design classic marker with another, even more tactile, design endorsed by Cavendish’s successor as the principle whist writer of the late 19th and early 20th century, Robert Frederick Foster. The “Foster Whist Marker” was made in a wide variety of woods, the best with ivory tabs, and was hugely successful hence the number which have survived to this day in perfect working order. I have selected the basic original to illustrate but might equal well have selected “Mudie’s Improved” version (which had round rather than square ivory inserts) or that retailed by Edward Klimpton, New York; all made by Goodalls for this huge and expanding market.
Goodall ingenuity is also evident in my tenth selection. This is a must for anyone who collects both cribbage and whist artifacts. This is “The Camden combined Cribbage & Whist Marker”. Ingenious, and clearly produced in the 19th century when cribbage was played routinely to 61 points rather than 121 which became more usual in the 20th century. Nice though.
As the market for whist markers expanded, so did the determination of manufacturers to outdo their rivals. My next choice is De la Rue’s response to Goodall. They devised and presented “The Klik Whist Marker”.
Continuing the theme of whist markers, I have selected one more, my thirteenth, both because it is unusual and a great survivor.
My final marker selection is an extraordinary piece of kit which somehow had to be designed and produced in America.
I have a large collection of whist boxed sets but I have selected one favourite. It is unusual in that most sets are full sized for normal card play whereas this one is not. It varies from the norm in a number of respects. It is a gorgeous box finished in what appears to be genuine snake-skin leather. It has a spring catch which, when pressed sideways, causes the inner section to pop up to reveal two packs of medium-sized playing cards and two Tom Thumb whist markers (measuring 5.75 x 3 cm). When the lid is depressed it snaps shut with a satisfying click. The cards, the markers and the booklet (clipped in the lid by a silk ribbon) confirm that it is from Goodall & Son. So much of true quality was from this great design and manufacturing house.
As has been well documented , the first attempt to introduce bidding into the well-established whist game occurred in the years between about 1897 and 1910. At the time, the new version of the game was called Bridge, but later was re-branded as Bridge-whist to avoid confusion with later versions. My selection of a boxed set from this era is another extraordinary item, quite unlike the myriad of wood, card and leather boxes rapidly produced in these years to capitalise on the new fad.
My seventeenth selection is a related item. It is a ceramic “Trump Indicator” showing the trick and slam scores for what became known as Bridge-whist which dates it in the decade or so around the turn of the 19th century. A brass nob in the centre allows for the rotation of a ceramic disc underneath to show which suit or no trumps was in play at the time.
It carries no indication of a maker. In very small print at the top is inscribed the word “protected” but with no indication of what is protected from what or whom! I love this partly because it should not have survived as long as it has in perfect condition.
Whist was clearly the main card game of choice in the second half of the 19th century, but there was a host of other games projected on to the market by enthusiastic manufacturers aware of the taste for something new. Bezique was one of these, “relaunched” in 1868, and my next selection is one of the earliest, if not THE earliest of the boxed sets to meet what they hoped would be a new craze. Sadly the cards are missing from my set, but the box, wooden markers and instruction booklet are as originally sold, albeit with signs of wear.
Piquet was another of the “new” games competing for attention in an increasingly crowded market place. My next selection is a piquet boxed set which looks as if it has just come from the shop which sold it in 1898 (the date of the rule booklet it contains).
However enthusiastic the card-playing public became for piquet, the enthusiasm clearly did not impact on the original owners of this particular set or it would show some signs of use and wear. An unsought birthday, Christmas or wedding present perhaps?! Their loss is our gain.
For my penultimate choice we need to cross the Atlantic for a game originating in Europe but popularised in America – pinochle. The name was originally binocle from the French word meaning "eyeglasses". The game was very popular in Germany and German immigrants took the game to America where it was later mispronounced and misspelled "pinochle." The game is normally played by two to four players using a 48-card deck. It is derived from the card game bezique; players score points by trick-taking and also by forming combinations of cards into melds.
This particular set comprises a black leather box with a drop-down front and a popper clip. It has one pack of cards underneath a removable tray of chips or counters for scoring and a canvas-covered booklet “Pinochle with Hints for Beginners” by the great R.F Foster dated 1908. I have never seen one before and do not expect to see another in such immaculate condition. I should perhaps admit at this point to a possible third criterion underpinning my collections if not all of my choices here. I do love well-made miniature items of which this is obviously one.
At this point I wish I had decided to select my favourite 40 items, but realise I have only one to go. There has been no place for so many cherished items but many of these I have written about elsewhere. So, as my final pick, I have chosen an object which is beautifully made, ingenious in design, and unusual in its conception. It also says so much about the era in which it was invented and produced. There were many card games designed for two people to play, but whist was the most popular of all the card games played socially throughout the 19th century. Not surprising, therefore, that there were a variety of attempts to make it possible for two people to play a version the game when the third and fourth player were not available. Goodall & Son were, not surprisingly at the forefront of such efforts with their well-known “Draw-Bridge” – “A game of bridge for two persons”.
However, my choice goes to Chad Valley’s “Double Dummy Bridge & Whist Board”.