Bridge: An American Craze

The card game, Bridge, probably derived from a Russian card game of the mid-18th century called Whist. Many iterations of the game have been played including the most popular, contract Bridge, created by Harold Vanderbilt in 1925. In the 1930s, the game reached the height of its fame in the United States with over 20 million participants, and this is the version still most played today. Bridge was so popular that national magazines like Harper’s Bazaar published opinions and etiquette for hosting what become known as Bridge Teas. New publications such as Bridge World were created to teach people not only how to play, but also how to win and helped to popularize the game.

4 Card-suit Dishes

4 Card-suit Dishes, unknown maker, United States, about 1890-1915. Gift of Gerald M. Eggert and Sally Coberly in memory of their parents, Molly Anne Hoover Coberly, Marion H. Coberly, Clara Ruth Victoria Ryden Eggert, and Arnold R. Eggert. 2012.4.96.

In a 1903 article titled, “The Tyranny of Bridge,” Electric Magazine of Foreign Literature predicted “[Bridge] will become a nuisance, as all fashions do just before they become unfashionable.” To put it bluntly, it went on to say, “The craze will pass.” But almost three decades later, Bridge was as popular as ever though still under the scrutiny of cultural critics.

[Cut glass catalog]

[Cut glass catalog]. New York : C. Dorflinger & Sons, [n.d., 1900-1915] 1 volume, page 168. CMGL 56772

Arguments for and against the game were widespread. In 1929 Forum magazine asked “Does Bridge Develop the Mind?” and the following year the North American Review printed a six page article by Ely Culberton (1891-1955), “Distinguished Bridge Expert, Editor of ‘Bridge World’”, which discussed the mental benefits for players, including learning to solve “an infinite variety of problems […] instantly” and “thinking clearly and logically.” These were not the only publications discussing Bridge; information on the game was published in over 1,000 newspapers. In fact, it was not until April of 2015 that the New York Times ended its bridge column which had run regularly since 1935.

The Corning collection has a set of four cut glass dishes (2012.4.96 A-D) gifted to us by Gerald M. Eggert and Sally Coberly reportedly used in the playing of a bridge game. The card suit is dated 1890-1915 and includes a dish in each of the four card suits: club, diamond, spade, and heart. Though the dishes are cut to represent each suit and imply use during a card game, it is still unclear to us exactly how the dishes would have been acquired and used.

”Dorflinger’s American Cut Glass” Advertisement published in 1893. Box 1, Folder Dorflinger. Jay and Micki Doros Collection. CMGL 137566

”Dorflinger’s American Cut Glass” Advertisement published in 1893. Box 1, Folder Dorflinger. Jay and Micki Doros Collection. CMGL 137566

An 1893 advertisement placed by Dorflinger is evidence that dishes were marketed and sold together as a “Card Prize Set.” Might the set have been won at a tournament of the game literally as a prize? Or were they simply objects that could have been given as gifts at any occasion during the “bridge craze” to hold refreshments during the game? If they did hold refreshments during the game, did they rest on the four corners on the card table or on the buffet table that sometimes accompanied a Bridge party?

Given the high price of cut glass during this time, it is safe to presume that these dishes were used for more formal games of Bridge that might have taken place for holidays or special occasions. These events would have called for a full buffet of food as opposed to the light candies, nuts, and tea usually served during a regular gathering for Bridge playing. Though the objects do pose several questions for us, they are also clues to American culture at the turn of the century.

UPDATE (May 23, 2016): As research never ends, it is often common to find more information on an object or subject just when you’ve put it down for a moment. While researching a different topic, I was led to Martha Louise Swan’s American Cut & Engraved Glass: The Brilliant Period in Historical Perspective, and came across a very similar set referred to as “Bridge set of ice cream saucers or bonbons …” It is helpful to discover that, at one time, these dishes might have been used as ice cream saucers very different from the kinds of bowls we use for the dessert today.

Bridge set of ice cream saucers or bonbons, cut in hobstar, cane, silver diamond, and fan.

Bridge set of ice cream saucers or bonbons, cut in hobstar, cane, silver diamond, and fan.

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