MethodologyClues to George MasonPublic SpacesDomestic SpacesInterpretive PeriodRecommended ObjectsArt BeverageFood ServiceFurnitureHeatingDecorationUtensilsFile NamesShort titlesCredits




Household furnishing related to recreational activities range from large objects such as musical instruments(2) to objects like board games to small items like decks of cards which could be tucked into a drawer. The inventory record is surprisingly silent on these items. There are several possible reasons for such omissions. The most obvious, is, of course, that they were simply not owned; however, the contextual record contradicts this hypothesis to some degree. It is also possible that some objects, such as musical instruments were considered the property of the musician, frequently a daughter, and did not pass through the probate process. A third likelihood lies in the probability that small items were stored in closets or storage furniture and therefore overlooked by those individuals taking the inventory.

Board Games

Board games, like backgammon, draughts [checkers], and chess, are a case in point. Merchants records and other types of accounts show that they were part of the Chesapeake landscape. The Annapolis firm of Wallace, Davidson & Johnson, in their invoice of March 1772 ordered “6 Baggamon tables sorted” and complained:

Mr. John North amongst his last Turnery put up a Lott of Men for one of his Best Baggamon Boards comprised of some old some new some thick some thin & the whole too Large for the table which has prevented the sale of it until we get new Men which he ought to send us by the first Opportunity for the future he must be very careful to adapt things better if he means to keep our Custom.(3)

There is also evidence that such games were part of daily life in 18th-century Virginia. Frances Baylor Hill recorded in her diary that she “play'd two games at drafts.”(4) Thomas Jefferson's account books show that he purchased chess sets on at least five occasions.(5) However, board games of any type occur in only 12% of Rural Elite Inventories (REI) with an average of 2.6 and a median of 1.

Fortunately, the record of George Mason's purchases does show that he was interested in such objects. Among the goods shipped to Mason in the De Neufville order of 1780 was “1 Chess board & set of men” costing the substantial sum of 6.(6)


Chess Board and Men: 1 set - Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research
Date: 1780

Playing Cards

Games of chance and skill played with cards were part of life in colonial America from the earliest years. Virginia and indeed the large Chesapeake region had a reputation for these types of activities. Philip Fithian, the New Jersey born tutor to the children of Virginian Robert Carter, noted with surprise in his journal of 1773, “I have heard that this Country is notorious for Gaming, however this be, I have not seen a Pack of cards, nor a Die, since I left home.” He later wrote to a friend considering coming to Virginia that card playing was among the skills expected of a gentleman.(7)

Playing cards were certainly among the goods imported and sold by regional merchants. Merchant Alexander Henderson ordered 12 gross of playing cards in 1763 and in 1773, the firm of John Norton & Sons were requested to send playing cards of the “Merry Andrew or Highlander” type, with an emphatic note that they were “not to be omitted.”(8) Individuals also ordered playing cards directly, sometimes with mixed results. Charles Carroll of Carrollton ordered “12 packs of best London playing cards” adding “the cards ordered in last years fall invoice were not sent and those charged to me in 1783 never came to hand.”(9)

Considering the contextual evidence, the statistical number of 8% ownership found in REI is clearly not complete. Rather one must assume that playing cards were either overlooked in furniture drawers or in such poor shape(10) that they were considered to have no value. Playing cards are among the goods recorded as being purchased by George Mason on at least two occasions. In 1776, he purchased 6 packs of cards from the Alexandria merchant firm of Jenifer & Hooe and four years later he received a dozen packs of cards as part of the shipment of goods sent by De Neufville & Son in 1780.(11) In reality, cards were probably among the items purchased by George Mason on a regular basis.


Playing Cards: 6-12 packs - Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research

decorative element

1. For a discussion of game playing in the Chesapeake Region see Ellen Donald, "Usual & Most Genteel Games, Game Playing in the Early Chesapeake," The 1990 Washington Antiques Show Catalogue, 96-100.

2. See Furniture-Recreation in this Report.

3. Order-Stationary, 20 March 1772, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson Order Book 1771-1774, Chancery Papers Exhibits 1773-1776, MSA no. 528-27, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland, 88.

4. “Dairy of Frances Baylor Hill, of Hillsborough, King and Queen County, Virginia, (1797),” ed. William K. Bottorff and Roy C. Flannagan, typescript, [Ohio University, n.d.], 12.

5. Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Part II (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1965), 73.

6. Invoice from John De Neufville & Sons, [between 22 July-28 August 1780] in Robert A. Rutland, ed., The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970) 2:664-675.

7. Philip Fithian, Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774, Hunter Dickinson Farish, ed. (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1968), 29, 161.

8. Charles Hamrick and Virginia Hamrick, transc. & ed., Virginia Merchants - Alexander Henderson Factor for John Glassford at his Colchester Store, His Letter Book of 1758-17565, (Athens, GA: Iberian Publishing Company, 1999), 194; “A Scheme of Goods to be sent out Early in Spring 1774 to John Hart & Comp'y . . . Nov 5th 1773,” PH-23, Folder 98, John Norton & Sons, Account & Letter Books, unpublished, Special Collections, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library.

9. To Wallace, Johnson & Muir, Nantes, 20 March 1783, Cards, Charles Carroll Letter-Book 1771-1833, Arents Tobacco Collection, No. S0767, Rare Book Collection, New York Public Library, (microfilm, Maryland Historical Society).

10. Eighteenth-century playing cards were printed on uncoated stiff paper. Frequent use would have rendered them too dog eared and pliable to be used, making them an item requiring frequent replacement.

11. Entry for January 12, 1776, Jenifer & Hooe Journal 1775-1776, Rare Book Collection, New York Public Library, (microfilm Lloyd House, Alexandria Public Library, Alexandria, VA.); Invoice July 22-August 28, 1780, Papers of George Mason, 2:664-675.

© Gunston Hall Plantation 2002