Saturday, 14 April 2012


I’ve been teaching The Girl card games, and was reminded how fundamental and commonplace cards were in our culture until the last few decades. For generations everyone played cards; men left the house to play poker with their mates, women played bridge with their neighbours, and workmen, sailors or train passengers played cards to pass the idle hours. 

A 1940 survey of residents in 24 American cities found that cards were Americans’ favourite pastime; 87 per cent of homes had a deck of cards, more than had radios or telephones. In his book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam notes that trends in card playing followed other signs of social involvement – steady growth in the first three decades of the century, a slump during the Great Depression, and then explosive growth in the years after World War II. 

Perhaps the most amazing statistic: a 1961 survey found that one of every five adults was part of a regular bridge foursome. Just bridge, regularly.

My grandparents grew up playing cards around the kitchen table, with siblings in the evening and with cousins at family gatherings. The friendly competition smoothed the rough edges of family gatherings. I still see this in the pubs here, where locals gather in the pub in the evenings to play 42, but even here they are elderly; the young men are staring at the television. 

Today card games have become a rare and curious event; I know few games, and have trouble finding anyone who plays cards to teach me more. The decline has been even more precipitous because most games require multiple players, so once the number of able and willing players in an area declines past a certain critical mass, the game becomes effectively extinct. 

Still, I want to pass on what I know to The Girl, in the same way I want to pass on rhymes and folk songs, because they were popular for a reason, and we might return to a culture where people find them useful.  

Let’s say more of us lose our jobs, or see more power outages, or have less ability to drive around, or have to move in together. Let’s say more of us are cooped up together, with people we don’t know well, and need to pass the time. It will be a situation earlier generations would have taken in stride with a pocket deck.

Photo: Poker Game, courtesy of Wikicommons. 


Andy Brown said...

A couple of days ago, in one of the first truly sunny days that we've had in a while, I saw that my son and the kid next door had set up a card table in the driveway and were playing at some card game. I don't know what it was but the slapped down cards seemed to call out the exact same cries of triumph and anguish and laughter as when they'd run each other into a wall in the auto-race video game they sometimes play. Still, the difference made all the difference and it warmed my Luddite heart.

Ronald Langereis said...

Apart from cards, in my youth, I also played round games with my parents and grandparents. One of the most popular in Holland was Ganzenbord, lit. Geese board, but you may call it Mother Goose or A Goose Game.
I made a new version for my own grandchildren and you'll find it here:
It's easy to copy, or to make your own (Irish?) version on a piece of cardboard. The rules are included.
Have fun.

Anonymous said...

I fondly recall playing canasta as a child with my grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-aunt at the beach. Once I pulled out a deck of cards on the train from London to edinborough and instantly made friends with three of my passengers. I don't recall what we played as a couple bottles of wine were also involved...

Brian Kaller said...

Andy, it warms my heart too. Thanks.

Ronald, thank you – I will look this over when I have time. You’re right, children’s games were once seen everywhere and have rapidly vanished with little observation or comment.

Anonymous, I’d love to learn canasta sometime. We get too few chances to have fun with strangers.

Florence said...

All my reltives played Canasta; I used to know how to play but it has been so long that I don't really remember. Another thing everyone played was dominoes and 42.

Mark Sullivan said...

My family were ferocious pinochle players. Hours would be spent playing, chatting, drinking ice tea, these were teetotal-ling Southerners after all, and snacking. Great memories. Us kids played Old Maid, and Fish.

Maya said...

I know several card games; as a child, visiting grandparents always meant hours upon hours of cards. My mom's people were Chicagoans & my dad's Iowans, but despite being only a day's drive apart, they played entirely different games.
It turns out there is such a thing as a virtual deck of cards, so if you ever want to learn some more card games, we can set up a time to play. Some are group games that aren't much fun with only 2 people, but I can at least show you the rules. There are also a couple that I absolutely adored playing with my dad as a kid that I can show you to teach the girl.

Brian Kaller said...

Florence, Mark, exactly.

Please do -- I'd love to learn.

mksinnett said...

Provides a fond memory of my blended family camping in summers long gone. We had a Dodge camper van and as one of the youngest, I slept in the cot in the pop-up roof. I remember watching my much older brothers play bridge with my parents by lantern light. I never learned the game, but the memory of them playing as I fell asleep is comforting--the world continuing steadily on even though I was far too tired to continue on with it.....thank you.