Linking your favorite traveling artists across the globe
Following the English Civil war there was a large increase in gambling in England. Following the restoration of the crown, royalists who had sought refuge overseas brought home with them many of the card and dice games they had learned while on the continent. Gambling continued to became an increasing problem in 18th and 19th century England. For the lower classes illegal gambling "hells" ran in the backrooms of pubs, coffeehouses and other businesses. For the wealthy, gambling and betting was one of the primary amusements in the exclusive social clubs such as Brook's, White's and Crockford's. Nobles lost entire estates betting on horses, cards, and dice.
In the American colonies, however, gambling as a business was slower to take hold in spite of some early attempts. In New York the first attempt (1732) to open a business devoted strictly to gambling was a failure. Historians have suggested that strict enforcement of gambling laws, the lack of a large, leisure class compared to Europe, and a relatively small total population meant that other early attempts to open gaming halls also met with little success. In addition, lotteries were legal in most colonies, and these may have provided competition that helped prevent the success of the gambling hells that were such a problem in London.
Of course, gambling did occur in the early colonies, but it remained more informal, consisting primarily of casual games in homes, and taverns. Journals of the colonists even mention women of the time gambling for small stakes with their husbands, or houseguests at cards games such as Whist, and Piquet. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his journals about his wife playing cards, and the small amounts she wagered. George Washington is recorded as having gambled at cards, as well as at Backgammon. Backgammon seems to have been just as popular for gambling among the Colonists as it has been in Europe since Roman times. In 1768 an Englishman wrote home to a friend:
"They have a vile practice here, which is peculiar to the city (New York). I mean that of playing at back-gammon (a noise I detest) which is going forward at the public coffee-houses from morning till night, frequently a dozen tables at a time."
One of the exceptions to the absence of more organized gambling was in the French colonies of the south. New Orleans was a gambling town from its earliest days, and most taverns and coffeehouses provided tables for public and private gambling. After the Louisiana Purchase (1803), New Orleans experienced a large boom as it increasingly became a starting point for goods and people moving up the Mississippi, and although the city authorities tried to restrict gambling, it continued to grow along with the population, and most of the famous American gamblers prior to the Civil War seem to have learned their trade in New Orleans. Game historians suggest that Louisiana was the first point of infection that popularized the European card game Faro, and then new American games of Poker, and Craps, to the rest of the growing new country, and laid the foundations for the 19th century gambling culture which has often been portrayed in stories and film by the infamous river boat gamblers, and card sharps of the wild west.
There was one form of organized gambling that was common. It is a little-known fact is that many aspects of early America were funded through legalized gambling in the form of lotteries. When the early colonies failed to turn profits for their British investors, they held lotteries in England to raise additional operating capital. As early as 1621, King James I approved a lottery to support Jamestown. One of the reasons for their popularity was the fact that the colonies only had 3 incorporated banks prior to 1790, thus lotteries provided an alternate means of financing for public and private enterprises. Several of the founding fathers are documented as involved with lotteries.
-Ben Franklin used one to buy cannons for the Revolutionary War.
-John Hancock ran a lottery to rebuild Faneuil Hall in Boston.
-George Washington held a lottery to pay for building the Mountain Road, which helped open expansion west from Virginia.
-Thomas Jefferson, in debt at the end of his life, used a lottery to liquidate some of his property.
Most early American lotteries were private enterprises, but honestly run. They became more common after the adoption of the Constitution, and before local governments had established effective means of taxation. Many colleges, schools and churches were erected with lottery proceeds. Many states also used lotteries to finance civic improvements such as courthouses, jails, hospitals, orphanages, and libraries. Even our revered universities of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia all received early funding through lotteries.
As of the 1820's scams involving lotteries were increasing in number, and a wave of reform began in the 1830s. Thus, by 1878 all states except Louisiana had passed bans on lotteries. In 1905 the Supreme Court reaffirmed the states' powers to control gambling, finally ending the Louisiana Lottery and for the next 60 years lotteries continued to be prohibited by constitutional provisions in most states of the Union.
But, alongside the lotteries there were also inexpensive "policy" games and private raffles. Some of these consisted of merchants who offered raffle tickets providing a chance at winning merchandise as prizes in the same way modern companies hold drawings as a way to promote themselves. Policy games originated in English lottery shops in the 1700's as a sideline game that could lure pennies from the poor people who could not afford the more expensive lottery tickets. By 1800 policy games were run alongside most American lotteries. Profits from these were not shared with the beneficiary of the legal lottery, but went to the ticket seller, and by 1819 they were seen as the most dishonest part of the lottery system. As lotteries were banned, policy games filled the gap left behind, and over time they have evolved into the illegal "numbers" rackets that continue to swindle the public today.
Although early Colonial America lacks the richer gambling traditions of London, the lotteries and casual gambling that are documented could be used as inspiration for educational skits for historical reenactors. Whether it's a staged brawl over a Backgammon game, or a merchant who agrees to be "arrested" for running a dishonest raffle or policy game, there's plenty of ideas which could be used to give the visiting public a taste of life in the past.
Asbury, Herbert. Sucker's Progress: An Informal History of Gambling in America. Dodd, Mead & Co Inc: NY, 1938.
Blythe, Henry. Hell & Hazard, or William Crockford versus the Gentlemen of England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson: London, 1969.
Sturtz, Linda L. "The ladies and the lottery: Elite women's gambling in eighteenth-century Virginia." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Spring, 1996.