• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!



Page history last edited by Andrew Archibald 10 years, 3 months ago



It would be wildly inaccurate to describe cards as new or novel objects in the eighteenth century. Although it is impossible to establish the absolute origins, Roger Tilley in his A History of Playing Cards suggests the earliest cards were from ancient China and India making their way gradually, through several mutations,  to Europe. Whatever the actual origins, Tilley presents irrefutable textual evidence from sermons in Basel that cards were present and being written about in Europe from the 1370s. The etymological information available in the Oxford English Dictionary points to the movement of cards through Europe from further east as the word is ‘an altered representative of French carte (14th cent. in Littré in sense ‘playing-card’)’ which in turn comes from ‘Italian carta , in same sense’ with the  first usage in English occurring around 1400: Chester Pl. ii. 83   ‘Usinge cardes, dice, and cupes smalle’. Roger Tilley claims that ‘before the fifteenth century was out the English were amongst the most devoted courtiers surrounding the cardboard royalty’(106) and goes on to chart legislative attempts to address excessive card playing and the varying popularity of different games throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Although the design of playing cards changed in England in this period by the dawn of the eighteenth-century most cards are recognisable as our modern, French influenced, court cards and suits; the large number of French card masters working abroad in the 16th and 17th centuries may well be one of the causes for the ubiquity of the French deck.



This collection of 18th Century cards although not yet double ended are recognisably the suits and characters of the modern deck



Despite this long history of card playing in England, a search with Google Books’ Ngram Viewer shows a sustained increase in usage throughout the eighteenth century which is separated from two earlier short periods of very high usage by over a century. A parallel search offers one possible explanation of this phenomenon, when searching within ‘English fiction’ we see an explosion of use in the eighteenth century, the writers engaged in the new works of fiction especially the emerging novel and its associated forms were clearly very keen on writing about card games, a trend which we see continuing into the 19th century.


By looking at literature in the eighteenth century which describes the playing of cards we can see two very distinct pathways of what card playing signifies and how it affects social interactions and the social trajectories of individuals.


In the polite society of the growing urban population cards become far more than the manipulated props of social interaction. The ability to play them becomes a signifier of class whilst the encounters between the players is simultaneously facilitated and shaped by the cards. For the figures, like Hugh Trevor and James Boswell, attempting to enter the elite in eighteenth century literature, cards are central to their social ascension and entrance into fashionable society which is linked to the older courtly tradition of card playinng but also part of an emerging society in which they play a more central role. For those already initiated they are the means of social interaction particularly between the sexes and become the figures acting out the encoded, often sexually charged and fraught, relationships between men and women: this is most clearly seen in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.


The second social sphere in which card games feature heavily in the eighteenth century writings is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Here we are faced with the inhabitants of Lowlife or Hugh’s father in Holcroft’s Hugh Trevor, these characters far from improving their social status by playing cards in polite company are figured as gambling away what little they have in a downward spiral of vice and familial destruction. One of the textual results of this sort of engagement with cards is a body of moralising literature warning against the dangers of cards. 

Beyond their use in games, cards also figure in the eighteenth-century as taxable commodities, which again affects a huge number of individuals who in turn produce texts to try and defend themselves and their livelihood.


Card playing in the beau monde


                                                          'The Beau Monde in St James’s Park' , Louis Phillippe Boitard, c .1749–50.                                             [1]


The opening sentence of Richard Seymour’s Preface to The Compleat Gamester (1734) sets up perfectly the elite social environment in the eighteenth century and its connection to card playing for analysis of how they affected social interactions.


                         Gaming is become so much the fashion amongst the Beau Monde, that he who, in Company, should appear ignorant of the games in vogue, would be reckoned low-bred, and hardly fit for conversation. (The Compleat Gamester 1734)


To start with, some of the key terms of the sentence demand attention. The ‘Beau Monde’ is a very eighteenth-century term for wealthy fashionable society, the first recorded English use in the OED is the second Canto of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock in 1712. The phrase is a direct adoption of the French for ‘fine world’ and points to the re-appropriation and affectation of French manners by many in English society in the period. Card playing is one of the most obvious ways in which this cultural exchange is displayed.  Jessica Portner claims, ‘Salons during the reign of Louis XV, between 1723 and 1774, were packed with a well-heeled set who loved card games… Wealthy Europeans outside the kingdom, who imitated French fashion and design, also adopted this addictive diversion…[which]was an indication of status, rank, wealth and class.’[1]

The focus here is on current fashions and the correct codified behaviour for association with the very highest within the social group. Hannah Grieg , in her book The Beau Monde describes  the emergence of a new social environment because of the London “season” surrounding the Parliament formed after the glorious revolution. In this newly concentrated society of extreme wealth and power an alternative way of establishing status, not through the traditional signifiers of land and country house ownership, emerges in the dogged adherence to constantly shifting fashions. Seymour’s observation makes it incredibly clear that one’s relationship with cards as objects predicates any sort of interchange with other people.


In the fashionable world of the card salon, the style and quality of every object and the execution of each action is highly significant and part of a codified system for establishing one’s social standing. In this society the length of Wigs , the cut and material of Gloves , a lady’s ability to manipulate Fans  and the decoration on Snuff Boxes  are all essential for establishing the social hierarchy and shaping interaction between people. In this social situation the very meeting of the people and how they interact is based around the cards, which affect the design of the room and are the focus of those present and the medium through which exchange occurs.


The impact of cards on furniture is undeniable as, following the French vogue, the eighteenth-century sees the rise of elaborate and ornate gaming tables designed for playing games but which are just as much indicators of wealth and status.


In a similar way to the Beds  of the period, the design of card tables goes far beyond utility and becomes  an ostentatious signification of wealth, class and particular aesthetic and cultural values; however, cards on the table and the activities surrounding them remain the apparent impetus for the development in design. Two illustrations show very clearly how the cards and the games played with them shape the arrangement of rooms and the social interactions of individuals in the eighteenth century. The first is the frontispiece to The Compleat Gamester from which the quotation above is taken. It could almost be used as a pictorial accompaniment to the third canto of The Rape of the lock as the entire scene and room is dominated by the card game between two men and a woman. The table is a specially designed, three person games table and all the social interactions occurring on the peripheries connect back to the main social engagement, the exchange of cards.

Frontispiece to The Compleat Gamester 1734


The second image is an Interior scene by Pierre-Louis Dumesnil. The painting is of a Parisian parlour in the mid 18th Century, although obviously not a depiction of the new society in London it does show clearly the lush enclave that the 'beau monde' set where attempting to emulate. The furnishings and clothing are all rich and opulent, the room is filled with gilt work on the picture frames and furniture, the gentleman standing by the table is wearing a powdered wig, embroidered coat and carrying an ornamental sword. The performance of wealth and status in the space is very apparent in the painting and at its heart is the game of cards.


        'Card Players in a Drawing Room' Pierre Louis Dumesnil the Younger.1752, Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.[2]



The battle of the sexes through cards in The Rape of the Lock


There is a great deal of almost fanatical writing that attempts to reconstruct the hands in the game of Ombre that forms the centrepiece of the third canto of The Rape of the Lock. Most of it claims to be an attempt to establish how accurate the description of Belinda as a ‘skilful Nymph’ really is. There is, however, thankfully a great deal that can be said about the significance of the cards in this section of the poem without recourse to some of the bizarre attempts to reconstruct the game; a personal favourite involves animations emulating an online poker game with the words of the poem appearing as the ‘chat box’ between opponents[1].


Throughout this canto, the abdication of agency by the characters to the cards allows a heated and competitive, charged interchange to occur between Belinda and the Baron which would have been impossible without the mediation of the cards. It is for this reason that Belinda ‘Burns to encounter two adventurous Knights’ and ‘At Ombre singly to decide their doom’. The agency offered to a woman to act independently or ‘singly’ in direct opposition to the more powerful men of her society through the cards is hugely important. When Belinda is given equal power she triumphs, it is only outside an equally weighted contest, when assisted by Clarissa that the Baron manages to triumph over Belinda.


The irony of the normal social hierarchy being broken down through extremely structured card play is called to our attention by Pope’s decision to highlight the strict ranking of the cards which juxtaposes with the inversion of the social hierarchy when Belinda conquers the two men. The ranking of the cards is exacerbated by a hierarchical addition of different sylphs ‘according to the rank they bore’ for they ‘Are, as when women, wondrous fond of place’ this is wonderfully ironic touch as it is exactly prescribed places and behaviours that Belinda is railing against in her desire to beat the Baron at cards.


The language of the canto is steeped in militaristic terms, the ‘combat on the velvet plain’ goes far beyond a simple card game but can only occur through this medium. The struggle between the sexes is brought to the forefront of our minds in the final trick with the interaction between the gendered court cards: the suppressed Queen is rescued by the king who has  ‘mourn'd his captive Queen’ and ‘springs to vengeance with an eager pace,’ to fall ‘like thunder on the prostrate Ace’ and yet is wielded by the woman whose lock of hair is about to be captured against her will.


[1] http://www.connotations.uni-tuebingen.de/silver01913.htm




The importance of cards for entering society in eighteenth-century literature


In Boswell’s London Journal 1762-3 and Holcroft’s Hugh Trevor we see enacted the power of cards over belonging to, and acceptance into, “society”. Both Boswell and Hugh are relative outsiders in the texts and we see them having to navigate the social mores surrounding card games in their attempts to establish belonging.  

For Hugh, his relationship with cards is quite complex, his father’s habit will be dealt with elsewhere but for him alone there is a conflict between learning the correct modes of behaviour for polite society and the morality of heavy gambling combined with his awareness that he needs to be careful with money because of his precarious economic position on the fringes of the social elite.  Upon his visit to the Enoch family, Hugh manages to engage successfully in the musical entertainments and yet at the end of the passage he states that ‘I came up to London ignorant of every point of good breeding.’(116) He comes to this conclusion simply because he does not understand fully the prescribed behaviour of the card table which does so much to shape the social interactions:

I…was asked for my half crown to put under the candlestick.I say aske; for…I could not have surmised that the six packs of half dirty cards were to be subscribed for by the company at half a crown a head.(116)


It seems like fairly unimportant to the modern reader that the uninitiated Hugh had to have this tradition explained to him but the concealment of the money under the candlestick points to the very particular unspoken understanding of those in society who actions, particularly surrounding cards are so codified and prescribed that he immediately would have stood out as one who does not belong. This unspoken collection of money  is yet another example of the small actions connected with cards foregrounds and highlights the status of people within society.

Boswell, meanwhile does not engage in any card games whilst in London because after having been relieved of a debt in Edinburgh he promised ‘Sheridan not to play for five years’(127).  He feels the social disadvantage this causes him acutely:


Indeed, as I do not play, I am at a disadvantage, as people get much easier acquainted when set round a card-table and mixing a little chat while the cards are dealt.(126)


Without the cards to act as the facilitators of social interactions, Boswell is at points left out on a limb; however, for a man of limited means, refraining from the cards does have certain advantages when it comes to establishing himself within society. For one thing he cannot lose money he does not have but Boswell sees the economic benefits of this as secondary to safeguarding his reputation. As he points out ‘it is more genteel to say you never paly than to refuse playing for whatever sums the company choose’ and as a non player he is valued ‘for the respect due to himself’ rather than ‘only for the respect due to his money’ (127).

The self-worth that Boswell holds on to despite not engaging directly with the cards is something that Hugh adopts late in the narrative. When being taunted by Belmont in the fifth volume he eventually to take him on at cards he throws the cards into the fire and proclaims, ‘You shall find, sir, that, whether I can or cannot master you, I can master myself.’(381)


This reaction from the men in both texts against cards , despite knowledge of their importance for being part of society is indicative of an awareness of the parallel trajectory card players of the eighteenth-century could take, which is explored below.




Cards as a threat to moral society


What are your pastimes? Cards and dice…will the four knaves give you a passport to heaven? No! ...You shall roast on the devil’s great grid iron, and be seasoned just to his tooth! (Hugh Trevor,90)


Accompanying the polite social interaction facilitated by cards there was perceived to be a growth in a more extreme gambling on cards throughout the century. Many groups decided to challenge these practices and the preacher in Hugh Trevor quoted above is the member of one such group, the Methodists. These groups attempted combat the entrenched evils of society and their effects can be seen in a large quantity of very moralising corrective or instructional writing produced in the period imploring people to turn away from bad habits.

The title pages of one such text  from 1756 is below:



In this text, instead of the religious tirade of Holcroft's character the author objects to the playing of cards because he sees it as an inordinate waste of time, an obstacle to industry and ultimately an 'unreasonable' engagement for intelligent people which will ultimately interfere with fulfilling man's duty to god. He does however concede that there is something 'entagling and bewitching'(5) about the 'black or red sports ranged together in different figures'(2).


These concerns are serious enough for the wealthy but for those less well off who were spending just as much time gambling on cards the results were often awful. The alternative vision of card playing in the eighteenth century could not be further from the plush interiors of the salon. The painting below is French, from the end of the century, painted by Hubert Robert in Paris, however the destitution of the players is comparable to some the players written about in English texts of the period.


Robert Tilley includes a shocking extract from William Home's Every day book in his History of Playing Cards, it describes an event in October 1735 in which 'a child of James and Elizabeth Leech... was played for at cards' against four shillings and was won by Thomas Ellison to whom the child was delivered. (Tilley 108)

In Lowlife or One half of the world knows not how the other half lives the stakes of the card games are not quite as high; however, an association between crime and the card players is established: the sailors are sitting waiting to cheat passengers out of the their money before returning to land (5). Searches in the Old Bailey database gave hundreds of results, interestingly however in the first few pages there was only one instance in which the cards were the object of the crime: a reported theft on the 15th October 1718 of a pack of cards worth 6d 3s. In the majority of cases the criminals are apprehended sitting playing cards or use them to lure in victims whilst they are pick-pocketed which is why they are mentioned in the Old Bailey reports.  http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17181015-26-off132&div=t17181015-26&terms=cards#highlight 



Taxing cards as a commodity 


As mentioned in the above section, theft of cards appears to have been very rare, the value of a single pack would not merit stealing them. The crown, however saw the card making business was large enough to produce considerable revenue if cards were treated as a taxable commodity. Taxation had been attempted in the past but in 1710 a considerable 6d tax was put on every pack, rising to 1s in 1756 and 1s 6d in 1789; remarkably the tax on playing cards was not actually abolished until the 1960s. Whilst taxation on Wigs eventually seriously affected their popularity, the increased availability of Paper in the period meant forgeries could be produced by those unable to pay an inflated price. The increases in duty did however affect the card makers who were extremely worried about their livelihood. The following  single sheet petitions outlining the workforces concerns were produced in 1711 and 1719.  






Primary Texts


Boswell, James. The London Journal. London: Yale University Press, 2004.

               Boswell's account of trying to establish himself in London, cards and card parties feature firly frequently but most interesting are his musings on his separation from the group because he is not playing but then the advantages of never playing for securing a good reputation for himself. 


Holcroft, Thomas. The Adventures of Hugh Trevor. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

               A weird mixture of attitudes towards and effects of cards as we move through the 'aventures'. His father's downward social mobility at the hands of cards then his desire to master the ettiquette surrounding them and final a turning away from Belmont's temptation so that he can maintain his new position in society.


Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock and other poems.  Princeton University,1906. Blackmask online. 2003 http://www.english.gsu.edu/~mbrown/Pope/7rplk.pdf PDF 

               Canto III revolves around the central game of ombre. Belinda's triumph over the Baron and the role cards play in that is very interesting. All societal norms are transgressed in a codified way in the game pre-figuring the Baron's crime a few lines later.


Seymour, Richard. The Compleat Gamester, Fifth Edition. London: printed for E Curll, Rose Street Covent Garde, 1734. (ECCO)

               The instructions for games very interesting, a training that goes beyond the rules of the game, the significance of the knowledge and how it affects engagement with others is central. Most interesting though is the preface and its insight into what the new elite society was like and its relationship to cards


Unknown. Lowlife or One half of the world knows not how the other half lives. London: John Lever, Little Moorgate, 1764. (ECCO)

               The verbal portrait showinig the ubiquity of cards through all echelons of English  society in the period.


"Philanthropos". A Plain and candid address to all lovers of the game at cards. London: 1756. (ECCO)

               Quite a moralizing piece warning against the dangers of cards, the show at the start of talking about 'reason' so much does make it very recognisably C18th 


Reasons humbly offered to the honourable House of Commons by the Company of Card Makers against the tax upon playing cards. 1711 (ECCO)

               The economic and political significance of cards made very obvious in this appeal for consideration to parliament.


Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org), October 1718, trial of Robert Edwards (t17181015-26).

               One of seemingly very few attempts to prosecute someone for stealing cards. Interesting in that is highlights the dichotomy between the social or cultural significance of cards and their actual material value.


Secondary Texts


Tilley, Roger. A History of Playing Cards. London: Studio Vista, 1973.


Grieg, Hannah. The Beau Monde: Fashionable society in Georgian London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 


Relevant Websites/Blogs 












[1]  http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/paris-gamblers-gaming-in-18th-century-france/#sthash.zBVWVZyV.dpuf





  1. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=1300142&objectId=3208236&partId=1
  2. http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/436230

Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.