An example of a mahogany card or gaming table with one board top from the late 18th century. The table has stitch inlay on the edge of the leaves and cuffing on the tapered legs. The secondary woods are poplar and white pine. The table is believed to Salem, Massachusetts-made, circa 1790.
When you think of a card table, does your mind take you back to those cheaply made vinyl-covered wood metal contraptions with the folding legs that our mothers and grandmothers played bridge and pinochle on.
It wasn’t always like that. Card tables of the 18th and 19th centuries were elegant pieces of fine cabinetry. Like other fine period furniture, only the best woods were used and the tables were meant to be seen… not folded and stored in a closet.
Gambling and games were popular pastimes in 18th-century England, and to the wealthy and aristocracy, card tables were an important piece of furniture. So much so that several such tables could be found in a single home. Sometimes, depending on the size of the home, it would not be unheard of to find from six to 12 in the salon and drawing room alone. By the late 18th century, these card tables they were equally popular in America.
The designs have changed over the years, beginning during the Queen Anne age, then taking on Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles. American forms differed from the English versions in the type of foot, leg and style of decorative motifs. The Queen Anne and Chippendale tops were covered with cloth. Sheraton and Hepplewhite had folding tops so when open or closed, the top was finished.
This may look like an ordinary drop leaf table, but it has a unique mechanical feature. The table was originally designed for card or game playing. This card table has an inset leather top. When the leaves are down, it only measures 12 and a half inches wide. By raising both leaves at the same time, two legs are spring-loaded and automatically swing out to support the leaves. Circa 1880.
Since there were few books in Colonial America, and little in the way of entertainment, card games and gambling weren’t considered a vice or a serious addiction, but rather a life style. The card table played an important role in pre-revolutionary America. Women, as well as men, took part in game playing.
Because of their popularity card tables were often made in pairs, one with baize for card games and one without for tea or other purposes. Among the several basic styles were circular tripod, square and pedestal tables.
In America, New York card tables were made with five legs in the first quarter of the 19th century. Other examples were made in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Massachusetts.
Clues: There are many ways to tell not only English from American card tables, but who made them and where. It was the custom for these tables to be labeled with the maker’s name. They can also be attributed to a certain region by the woods, veneering and style of carving.
Some of the tops of the Hepplewhite style tables were decorated in the so-called “clover-leaf” pattern that consisted of five sections of circles of different sizes, giving a scalloped look. Duncan Phyfe, who is best known for his later lyre pedestal designs, also made this type when it was in fashion.
A 19th-century rosewood fold-over continental card table, standing on slender cabriole legs, with carvings to the toes. The table is fitted with carved center drawer, fitted with a lock and key. The open top is lined with brown baise.
The most common style used in Hepplewhite and Sheraton card tables was the square shape that folded into a rectangle. It had four legs and the front was veneered, often in contrasting woods such as satinwood. Inlays were used in the center, sometimes with patriotic motifs. Legs were straight or reeded.
Reproductions of the square Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles began to appear in the 1920s, with phony maker labels glued on. The tip-off was often when they stated that this was a numbered piece out of so many made. Another tip would be looking underneath for early saw marks and planing.
By 1810-15, the fashion was for the heavier Empire look often associated with Duncan Phyfe. They were on lyre or tripod bases, and often had gilt, animal paw metal feet. Bases were often heavily carved.
By the Victorian age—the mid 19th century—card tables continued to follow the fashions. Rococo revival called for rosewood. The folding tops were baize-lined.
In the early 20th century, the Art Nouveau style card table was being made by the Tobey Furniture company in Chicago.
A William IV Rosewood Card Table, circa 1825.
By the 1950s and ’60s, those folding vinyl, pressboard and metal contraptions were all the rage, trading style and sturdy structure for the convenience of being able to stick it in the closet when the night’s card party was done.
Still, 18th- and 19th-century card tables still turn up at auctions, shows and shops, so be on the lookout.
— by Anne Gilbert
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