06. Sociable Bridge: A chronicle–from auction to contract bridge

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To quote the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Auction bridge . . .  became, from 1907 to 1928, the most universally popular card game theretofore known.” Bridge-whist was out; auction bridge became the “in” game to play.

As in the case of bridge-whist, the origins of auction bridge are somewhat hazy but I’ll go with The New York Times Bridge Book crediting its creation to “the brilliant idea of a few Brits in India.”  Adding the term auction tells us that they added bidding to bridge-whist. By 1904 auction had replaced bridge-whist in tournaments.

It took a few years more before the social players adopted the new game–by 1907 according to that quote from the Brittanica. Frederick Allen in his classic informal history of the 20s, Only Yesterday, declares: “The 20s will be remembered for auction bridge and crossword puzzles.”

There was a ground-breaking study done by two sociologists back then–Rhea and F.R. Dulles–who tracked the growth of card games since the 1890s in Muncie, Indiana for their book Middletown. They found just one mention of a card party over a three-month period in the local newspaper in 1890; 30 during the same period in 1923. They credit this growth of card-playing to changing social mores following WWI, post-war prosperity, and the 48-hour work week that allowed more time for leisure.

The Dulles’s emphasize also, that the newspaper figures did not reflect the true number of casual bridge players, who have never been countable because they leave no paper trail.

Bridge also benefitted, as whist and bridge-whist had before it, from its special status that somehow exempted it from criticism leveled at other more plebeian card games. Not that there weren’t those who thought all card-playing equally evil. That judge in Georgia mentioned in an earlier week was outraged by bridge-playing women who gambled at bridge-whist back in 1906. But generally, it was o.k., for instance, to have a bridge-lunch to fundraise for local churches when poker could never qualify.

Auction bridge, however, was about to be displaced by contract bridge.  No one in 1925, could have predicted that by the close of the decade, auction bridge would be well on its way to oblivion.

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