One of the most outstanding achievements of early American furniture design is a five-legged, serpentine-front New York card table made in the 1760s in rococo style. Around 30 of these finely constructed, skillfully carved tables produced in New York with the finest mahogany are known to survive.
When writing in Antiques magazine in 1962 about a splendid pair of card tables that George Washington presented to Judge John Berrien, the eminent New York antiques dealer Harold Sack declared that "this particular form of table was perhaps the only type of pre-Revolutionary New York furniture that surpassed in artistic merit and interest the contemporary forms of Philadelphia and New England."
On Saturday, Jan. 22, 2000, the Beekman family tables, a pair of the most sophisticated New York card tables ever offered on the marketplace, will be offered in the Sotheby's Americana sale with an estimate of $400,000-$600,000. The tables descended from James W. Beekman (1732-1807), successful New York dry goods merchant. (They were placed on long-term loan to the New-York Historical Society by the Beekman Family Association until recently.)
Beekman built his country seat Mountain Pleasant in 1763, far uptown, outside the city's limits on the East River near Turtle Bay, and it is believed he purchased these card tables around that time for his new residence. Mount Pleasant, originally surrounded by orchards and farm lands, was eventually enveloped by Manhattan's urban sprawl during the 19th century. In 1874 the house was finally demolished by James W. Beekman, namesake and grandson of the original inhabitant. The site on First Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets near the United Nations, is currently occupied by the Beekman Tower Hotel.
Like much 18th-century American furniture, New York five-legged card tables constitute a bold variant on English models. The English favored turret corners for serpentine-front tables, while innovative New York cabinetmakers decided to combine the sharp, square, projecting corners of one with the bold serpentine front of the other. The strength of the table's bold serpentine curves is especially obvious when the top is opened up to rest on the swing rail. The contrast between the exuberant curves of the sides and the strong squares at the corners gives the design its uniquely American impact.
These card tables have relatively shallow serpentine skirts with attached gadrooned moldings. The boldness of the serpentine curves on both front and sides is reinforced by the S-curve of the substantial cabriole legs. Rich carving of C-scrolls and acanthus leaves, rendered with more grace and fluidity than on other New York furniture forms, enriches the tables' knees. The legs terminate in powerful, squarish feet characteristic of the New York region. The fifth, swinging leg serves as a support when the card table is in use. Underneath there is a drawer for playing cards, counters or chips, and dice. The richly figured table tops, when opened, have a playing surface interrupted by oval dishes meant to hold counters and chips used in card games, and square corners reserved for candlesticks.
Card playing was firmly established as a social diversion in colonial America, although it was regarded with considerable skepticism by some conservatives in New England. Even though puritanical John Adams might scoff at those who "waste their bloom of life at the card and billiard table among rakes and fools," the custom was widespread in fashionable homes and taverns. And New York cabinetmakers satisfied the requirements of wealthy and demanding clients with custom-made card tables.
High-style card tables were originally owned only by relatively well-to-do people, and contemporary household inventories place them in several different locations in a house, although generally in a room of some elegance and formality. In 1797 Aaron Burr kept "2 Inlaid Card Tables" in the blue drawing room of his New York City house, Richmond Hill, but also had a pair in his upstairs hall. Thomas Jefferson's White House had a total of five mahogany card tables in 1809: a pair in the "Lady's Drawing-Room," and a single example in the "President's Sitting Room."
Card playing cut across economic, social and geographic boundaries to such an extent that it can be considered almost a universal form of recreation in early America. When Rebecca Franks of Philadelphia visited New York City in 1781, she wrote home to her sister that "few New York ladies know how to entertain company in their houses unless they introduce card tables." Anne Royall noted in her travels in the new Republic that the debtors confined in the Salem jail were happily singing and playing cards while serving their time.
The playing cards themselves were generally either of English or American manufacture, and differed little from those used today, except that the backs were plain. Imported English cards were used in colonial times, and were sold in book and stationery stores. About 1800, an English traveler noted that "an immense quantity of playing cards" was being made in Boston "on which they counterfeit the English figures with great exactness." An unusual deck of cards made by James Humphreys in Philadelphia about 1828 depicts American presidents as the kings, allegorical figures as the queens and Indians as the knaves.
Whist, loo, quadrille and faro were among the card games most frequently mentioned in contemporary references. Whist, a popular game in which success depended on skill as well as chance, was a forerunner of bridge and required four players, with partners sitting across from each other. Loo was a favorite among men and particularly women of the upper class, who would often lose large sums of money in this fast-paced, high-stakes game. Quadrille was probably played only by people with enough leisure time to master its complicated rules. Quicker gambling games such as faro (today's 21 or blackjack), dependent primarily on the arbitrary fall of the cards were especially popular in taverns, where gambling action was more important than the niceties of card playing.
Even though card playing was widespread, it was not universally accepted. Critics argued that it was a waste of time in a society where attention to business and hard work were highly valued. They also held that card playing, while perhaps not necessarily evil itself, could and often did lead the player down the road to ruin. As Thomas Sheraton cautioned in his Cabinet Dictionary in 1803, a card table was "a piece of furniture oftener used than to good purpose."
A strong moral undercurrent against gambling at cards and dice exists in American literature and legislation from this period. In 1792, for example, Virginia passed a law forbidding "the losing of more than 20 dollars at cards within four and 20 hours." When Lyman Beecher entered Yale in 1793, he found the college "in a most ungodly state … Wine and liquors were kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling, and licentiousness were common." Beecher narrowly escaped these temptations. By his own account he "was invited to play cards, once, in a classmate's room. I did so, and won. Next day I won again, then lost, and ended in debt. I saw immediately whereunto that would grow; obtained a leave of absence, went home for a week, till cured of the mania, and never touched a card afterward."