Many finely-crafted card tables were made in the 1700s and 1800s. The social lives of prosperous families in America, Britain, and other parts of Europe depended on having a card table, or two, for friends to play at in the evening.
Before 1700, card-playing was popular with very rich people, and less so with people who were moderately wealthy. It stayed fashionable with the aristocracy in 18th century Europe. Wealthy gamblers sometimes lost huge sums of money in gaming houses or private mansions where a ‘banker’ oversaw games of chance like faro or basset.
During the 1700s and 1800s more people came to have more leisure time, and they furnished their homes to reflect this. Comfortably-off hosts in middle-sized houses organised card tables for their evening guests. People still played for money but the games, like whist or piquet, involved more skill and less betting. The players might enjoy conversation more than cards once a nice little group was gathered round the table. This often provides a useful scenario for dialogue in novels. Young women confide secrets over cards in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and older ladies whisper animatedly at Cranford card tables described by Elizabeth Gaskell.
Before it became fashionable to have special furniture crafted by cabinet-makers, cards were often played at tables covered in a floor-length cloth, as you can see in various paintings of elegant 17th century players. Artists also show poorer card players, usually men, gathered round a stool or barrel when they had time for card playing.
Decorative or simple?
Early 19th century Empire or Regency tables, and later Federal Era tables in the USA, generally had fold-over tops concealing a playing surface, which might be covered in green baize. Carved pedestal bases had legs that could swing out to support the square opened top. Mahogany was a popular choice, but walnut, maple, rosewood or satinwood were also used.
Ornamentation varied. Later card tables tended to have more elaborate flourishes than the relatively restrained pre-1800 designs. A semi-circular or demi-lune Georgian flip-top table might have simple tapered legs. Inlaid surface patterns were likely to be discreet geometric designs. Whether the top folded into a rectangle or semi-circle, a typical card table was about 30 inches high and 36 inches across: a good size for four people to chat as well as play. Some tables were made with recessed holders for coins or tokens. (See big picture below.)
In Victorian times social card playing was by no means only for the grandest section of society. A card table was almost essential for households aspiring to a middle-class way of life. An 1856 book* advising British people how to set up house on annual budgets of £100 upward assumed there would be a card table in the drawing room, even if it was only mahogany veneer on a softwood frame, with a simple round or square top.
By this time a particular style of simple oval or round table was known as a ‘loo table’. Loo, or lanterloo, was a popular game in the Victorian era, though its origins are older. Sometimes these tables had a tilting top (not folding in half), perhaps with inlaid veneer decoration, and so they could be kept upright by a wall.
There were always a few people who kept away from card playing for religious or moral reasons – but not always the ones you would expect. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch there’s a clergyman who plays cards well enough to pad out his modest income with regular winnings, though he attracts disapproval from some of his neighbours.
*JH Walsh, A Manual of Domestic Economy: suited to families spending from £100 to £1000, London 1856
More on American card tables influenced by cabinet-makers like Sheraton in Philadelphia Empire Furniture by Allison Boor