05. Sociable Bridge: A chronicle–from bridge-whist to auction bridge

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I know little about the era of bridge-whist except what I picked up from a few old newspapers of the early 20s. What strikes me is (1) the fad for bridge in the era of bridge-whist seems to be as a game of upper class society; (2) the catalyst for the fad came from England and (3)  bridge-whist ladies really gambled!

The origins of bridge-whist itself are somewhat hazy, as is the origin of the word bridge. George Copeland who wrote about bridge for the New York Times, said in a 30s article that the word bridge is an Anglicanization of the Russian word biritch. The first recorded instance of the word bridge in England is in 1886.

No matter how bridge-whist got its name, the Encyclopedia Britannica says that by 1896, leading expert players had shifted from whist to bridge-whist. And women social whist players began taking up bridge-whist soon thereafter.

An article in the New York Times of 1902 tells us that bridge-whist was approved of by both King Edward and Queen Alexandra,  and they gambled when  they played. The Queen, it says, paid her losses from a gold purse hung at her waist. At English country houses, the game was epidemic.  In England bridge was even approved of for fund-raising at church fairs and bazaars.

By 1904 there’s this headline in the New York Times: “Bridge, an American Mania . . . has spread to the four corners of our continent.” It continues that bridge has spread despite “the anathemas of the pulpit and the reproaches of the uninitiated.”

By 1905, the Times is begging its readers to stop gambling, play bridge instead “for the game’s sake.” They report cheating by some society matrons where stakes are high, and that one hostess always invited eight guests, sitting out herself with her daughter because invariably one or two ladies “will leave in a temper or . . . hysteria.” Having two extra players guaranteed the bridge game would go on!

A story in The Tatler in 1906, titled “Women Gamblers” opens with “Bridge is becoming a curse.”It goes on to describe a women who kept a record of her bridge games and claimed to have played 3000 rubbers–exhibiting no shame at all. When asked if she played every day, all day, she responded: “Oh, no, I hardly ever play before luncheon unless it’s a wet day in a country house.”

It was not uncommon for a hostess to invite someone to dinner, then withdraw the invitation when she finds out the guest does not play bridge! The hostess might say in way of explanation that Tuesday is entirely a bridge night and she must come some other night. “But the friend is never asked on that other night.”

As to gambling The Tatler tells of a jeweler in England who paid one society matron thousands of pounds for her jewelry in  order to pay off bridge debts, but who had them reproduced with fakes so that no one would know she had to sell the originals.

Another newspaper item  in 2006 from Georgia of all places, tells of a Judge Fite berating a jury for not indicting bridge-playing women when  they gamble. “You indict every Negro you hear of who shoots craps, or plays seven up, but these society women who play bridge and euchre for costly prices are never molested.” They were all the same to Judge Fite–nothing but gamblers.

The popularity of bridge-whist ended when expert players discovered an even more challenging game, auction bridge.

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