Monday, July 02, 2012

what a (whist of a) bargain

We went to a yard sale in the neighborhood yesterday and picked up a few books. As we were on our way out when I saw a tray with some odds and ends and what looked like, frankly junk. But on closer inspection we saw a tiny silver salt cellar and this interesting little object:

photo

We took a few guesses as to what it might be. A timer? Some sort of toy, like a yo-yo? Something to wind thread on? The little hand spins, so I thought it might be some part of a game. I didn't really care. It reminded me of Dada and Surrealist objects and I just liked it, so I quickly handed over my dollar. Thanks to some internet sleuthing, we found out the answer shortly after we got home with our treasures, and it was a lot older than I originally thought.

It's an ivory whist marker or counter. Whist was a pretty popular card (gambling) game in the mid-19th century, which was eventually replaced by bridge. My little dollar knick-knack is actually a collectible. We had a little bit of our own Antique Road Show moment.

The game of whist is still played, mostly in England, but is nowhere near as popular as it used to be. Wikipedia had some fun little factoids that makes me want to get three other people together and give this little item a spin. Anyone game?
- It is strictly against the rules to comment on the cards in any way. One may not comment upon the hand one was dealt nor about one's good fortune or bad fortune. One may not signal to one's partner. 
- Apparently originating in the early 17th century, the now obsolete adjective "whist" and variant spelling "wist" (in which the word "wistful" has its roots), meant quiet, silent, and/or attentive. The adverb "wistly" is also defined as meaning intently. 
- It was the game of the servants' hall. Contemporary writers refer to it in a disparaging way, as being only fit for hunting men and country squires, and not for fine ladies or people of quality. Edmond Hoyle, of According to Hoyle fame, wrote an early popular and definitive textbook, A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist and ... the game continued to increase in public estimation. There is abundant evidence that in the middle of the 18th century whist was regularly played at the coffee houses of London and in fashionable society. 
- Edgar Allan Poe briefly mentioned whist in his tale The Murders in the Rue Morgue, alluding to the analytical mind needed to play. 
- Jules Verne uses whist playing to describe Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days: "... His only pastime was reading the papers and playing whist. He frequently won at this quiet game, so very appropriate to his nature ..." 
- William Henry Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, was famous for his enjoyment of whist, often entertaining guests with the game.

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