Whist and Gaming Counters and Markers

All of the items in this article are taken from my own collection of whist and gaming counters/markers put together to demonstrate their evolution from the 18th Century to modern times.

Card games and various forms of whist have been around in Britain for hundreds of years. The earliest form of scoring was with the use of counters. My earliest examples dating from the 18th Century are ornate mother of pearl counters imported from the Far East in a wide variety of shapes. Crafted between 1720 and 1840, the best ones are highly decorated with patterns, scenes, animals and birds, coats of arms and the like, and justify very close inspection.

Above: 18th Century ornate mother of pearl counters imported from the Far East. These particular examples were crafted by Chinese artisans between 1720 and 1840, chiefly for trade with Great Britain, and were used in all the fashionable card games of the period for scoring. Click image to zoom.

From about 1840, whist became the game of choice for socialising and gambling, so production and importing of the delicate style of counter declined in favour of more hardy alternatives.

Above: bone markers and from the 1840s metal counters came more into fashion. By 1850 this delightfully inscribed “Keep Your Temper” token and “To Hanover” were commonplace.

Above: some brass tokens were elaborately designed in such a way as to distinguish them easily from the coins of the realm. This one, produced sometime after 1870, is inscribed with an early advert for J. Sainsbury!

I am still in search (at a reasonable price) of a set of four counters in a purpose-built container (sometimes in metal, frequently in ivory) with one, two, three and four dots used for “Hoyle’s Method” of scoring. Using these counters in appropriate combinations every score from one to ten can be shown ie. 3 + 4 = 7, 2+3+4 = 9 etc.

Even coins without dots 1 to 4 were frequently used in fours to reduce the number of counters deployed at any one time. Blank markers (or inscribed with “Keep Your Temper” or similar homilies) were arranged in two rows. Each coin on the top row indicated three points, each on the bottom, one point.

All of these tokens were capable of being used in a wide variety of gambling card games associated with the period. But as whist began to take over as by far the most popular social gambling card game, markers were designed specifically for this purpose. This ebony and ivory example is typical of markers produced for “long whist” (see below) from the early 1800s.

Above: Long Whist markers in the early-Victorian period became very finger pointy. These are in rosewood and ivory and a similar design in brass was fairly common. These look identical but on closer inspection they can be seen to work rather differently. On the first, the hand alone moves on a central pivot while on the second brass one the ring of numbers rotates around a hand fixed to the base. Both have similar markings on the back, indicating their purpose.

From 1842 to 1883 all new registered designs were required to carry this “kite” mark, confirming that they are registered and the date, in both cases above, is 31st January 1860 (click image to zoom).

By the middle of the 19th Century, however, the traditional “Long whist” method of scoring was rapidly being overtaken by a shorter version of the game. Long whist was played until one side or the other reached a score of ten points and the rubber was won by the first side to win two games i.e. 2 - 0 or 2 - 1; Short whist became more popular because it was played to a score of only five and was completed, for gambling purposes, more quickly.

In the late 1800s, card makers Goodall & Son produced one of their first card markers using a now familiar design (a). As can be seen from the lower circle, this example can be used for Long or Short Whist. The upper circle took account of doubling the stakes during play. The back is plain. Other manufacturers used the same basic design, this one in an early form of plastic (b).

From this time onwards, however, the competition between playing card and marker producers increased and the value of celebrity endorsement was in evidence for the first time. The name of the prominent whist guru “Cavendish” was used by De la Rue in promoting this revised version of the marker made from card and covered in “leatherette” (c).

The rules on the reverse are “arranged by Cavendish” (d). Cavendish was the nom de plume used by Henry Jones (1831-1899), who wrote several books on whist in the second half of the 19th century and who became very prominent in the story of the evolution of whist as a “scientific” game. The notes on the card refer readers to two of Cavendish’s own books, published in 1900, which helps to date the marker fairly precisely.

Whist markers manufactured by Chas Goodall & Son and De la Rue

Above: various Whist markers manufactured by Chas Goodall & Son and De la Rue - see text left) for details. Images from the collection of Tony Hall.

Competitors Chas Goodall & Sons were also in the market with a similar design, catering for both lengths of the game, but with rules “arranged by Capt. Crawley”. Chas Goodall & Sons (based in Camden Town) were at that time the largest producer of cards and card-playing materials in Britain and probably the world. Captain Crawley was another of the famous Whist players of his era and the author of several books on the subject.

Such markers could be purchased in pairs (e), or as part of a boxed set, with cards and “mini-books” containing the basic rules and methods of play.

As early as the 1860s, however, De la Rue tried a different approach and the link between the DLR company and Cavendish became even more established with the invention and promotion of the pressed-card slide marker, primarily directed at the dominant short whist market. As with earlier designs, each pair would have their own marker to be adjusted at the end of every hand. The slide markers at the top and right hand side are used to indicate points won; the sliders on the left, the number of games.

Once the move away from the rotating dial design had been made, De la Rue’s slider card was soon overtaken by their much larger competitors, Goodall & Son, with the development of a variety of wooden markers ingeniously designed with a series of “pop-up” tabs to be raised or lowered as the game progressed. The large tabs indicate points scored; the three smaller tabs, the number of games won. Then there was the “Pall Mall Whist Marker”...

Whist markers manufactured by De la Rue & Co. and Chas Goodall & Son Ltd

Above: Whist markers manufactured by De la Rue & Co. and Chas Goodall & Son Ltd. De La Rue and “Cavendish” were jointly awarded the patent for the new design in 1868 (left).  The Pall Mall in its most modest form (right).

Pall Mall Whist markers by Chas Goodall & Son

Above: Pall Mall Whist markers by Chas Goodall & Son. Each has the maker’s logo on either the front or the back, but not both. All were made in contrasting woods. Some were more elaborate than others but the basic design was the same.

“Camden” Whist Markers

My personal favourites, initially, were the appropriately named “Camden” Whist Markers. This design and sheer tactile quality of this genuine antique was irresistible ... and I now have more than a few!

Camden Whist markers

Above: “Camden” Whist Markers. Some are marked “Entered at Stationers Hall” (i.e. patented) like the one on the left, while the earlier version (right) does not. On some, the tabs were made of plastic, bone or ivory.

These standard size markers are 3.7 x 2 inches. Goodalls also produced a mini version (below).

Camden Whist markers
The Camden Tom Thumb Whist markers

Above: Goodalls also produced a mini version. This pair is in a red leather case and appropriately designated “The Camden Tom Thumb” (2¼ x 1¼ inches).

Some of the standard size versions were labelled with the name of the retailer, in this case “Pelham”, the Boots cash stationers. Interestingly with no reference to Goodall & son.

The “Pelham” Whist markers

Above: “Pelham” Whist markers.

Once this design was in the market place, there were many copiers in a wide range of different and more exotic materials to cater for the more wealthy players. I regret that I do not own any of the immaculately worked examples in gold and/or silver to illustrate, but I do have a pair of exquisite Japanese “Shibayama” markers. These are lacquered, painted and inlaid with mother of pearl, coral and a variety of stones.

Japanese “Shibayama” Whist markers

Above: pair of Japanese “Shibayama” Whist markers.

Last Updated December 22, 2021 at 07:02pm


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