As card games were transformed over time from a
raffish pursuit to a respectable pastime, handsome
tables were created to play on.
Before the second half of the 17th century, card playing was seen as an
essentially disreputable activity and was largely confined to taverns.
Once the monarchy been restored in 1660, there was
a general reaction against the Puritanism
of earlier years and card games became a fashionable pursuit at the court of Charles II.
It was only at the end of the century that
cloth-covered tables intended specifically for card-playing began to be made.
The problem for the early cabinetmakers was to make a piece of furniture for a specific,
occasional use that would not be in the way the rest of the time.
As the cloth surface was unsuitable for anything else, the table top had to fold
up to protect it. The square top folded into an oblong, of a size suitable for pushing
against a wall, perhaps with the odd ornament placed on top.
One or two of the legs were hinged so they could be extended to support
the flap when the table was opened.
Early tables were made of walnut, but mahogany became the preferred wood in the
Georgian period, when a new system of supporting the opened top was developed.
A concertina-style frame allowed the back legs to be
pulled out to complete the decorative frieze around the table.
By the Regency, card tables were a fixture in the salons and drawing rooms of English society. Many of them were veneered in rosewood, a dark wood with a handsome grain.
Regency tables tended to be supported on a central column that ended in four
curving, splayed legs.
The disappearance of the legs was made possible by the invention of the swivel top at the end
of the 18th century.
This arrangement dispensed with the need to support an overhanging
flap, and proved so successful that Victorian cabinetmakers were still producing it well
into the 1880s.
One fashionable Regency card game, loo, had a table of its own. A large number of players
could participate, and loo was played
on a round, solid central table supported on a sturdy column.
Some early Victorian drawing rooms boasted a suite consisting of a
loo table and two matching card tables.
Between 1850 and 1880, two or four pillars tended to take the place of the central column, and walnut made a comeback as a base material.
Later in the century, designers gave up the search for new ways of supporting the basically unchanging table top, and began to reproduce mid and late Georgian pieces.
Though games have gone in and out of fashion over the years, green baize, a woollen cloth with a long nap to catch the cards as they are dealt, has always been seen as the proper surface for card playing.
CARD TABLE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Eighteenth-century card tables in walnut or
mahogany are expensive pieces of furniture. They were often made for wealthy families, and a
great deal of craftsmanship went into making and decorating them.
You are very unlikely to find one of them outside auction rooms
and specialist shops.
Most card tables that come onto the market today are of Victorian or Regency origin.
Card tables were very fashionable during the Regency and were often splendidly
decorated, but in Victorian times, they were seen as more peripheral pieces of furniture.
The frame and top on all but the best Victorian tables were left plain, as the
custom was to cover side tables with drapes and pile them high with ornaments.
Wood carvers took the opportunity to exercise their craft on the forest of turned pillars, cross-stretchers and finials that
gradually developed from the simple pedestal base of Regency furniture.
Many Victorian tables were made of various tropical hardwoods, all of which were loosely
described as 'mahogany', though they were generally of a quality greatly inferior to that of real
There was also a vogue for ebonized (artificially darkened) pine.
However, another trend revived the use of walnut in it, and Victorian card tables with a good finish are as much sought after today as the darker Regency ones.