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Whist: Rules for Women in the 1890s

A depiction of what people playing the card game Whist would have looked like around the turn of the century.

Whist, a precursor to the card game bridge, was taken seriously enough in Holbrook to have rules — specifically for women — printed in the local newspaper in the mid 1890s.

The author is not mentioned, but the article causes some wonder as to the motivation behind it. The piece goes far beyond stating rules of the game, veering into proper etiquette, strategy, how to be a “popular partner with the men” and even how to act if you are a woman merely observing the game.

Perhaps it was penned by a partner lashing out in frustration or maybe it is a tongue-in-cheek expose?

The Whist rules for Holbrook women, as printed in The Argus in April 1896:

1. Conversation during play is limited strictly to the weather, fashion, society, the drama, music, art, sports, the new woman, the last few tricks taken, and everything else that may tend to break the tiring monotony habitual to the new players. The success of the game depends on this.

2. Each player should, at once, throw out a hint as to the quality of her hand, her satisfaction or dissatisfaction with it, and her approval or disapproval of each play. This will make you a popular partner with the men.

3. A player should never wait to lead until the preceding trick is turned and quitted. Delays of this sort are always unnecessary and make the game slow.

4. Never fail, as the second trick is turned, to inquire what is trump. Repeat the inquiry at short intervals throughout the hand as this is the easiest way to fix it indelibly in your memory.

5. Frequently a card should be played in such a manner as to call particular attention to it. If you think your partner is not aware of it, touch your card and say, “now remember I played that!” He might have finished the game with the impression that it had played itself.

6. When you have played the highest in suit, and it is your partner’s play, never fail to remind him that it is your trick. He might think it belonged to your uncle in California.

7. When you are accused of revoking stoutly deny it. If it is proved against you, you can explain at length just how you came to do it. If you discover your own revoke, never fail to revoke a second time. In this way the first error will escape notice for a little longer. This will make all the men glad they are in the game.

8. If you are a bystander walk around the table and look over the hands of the players. Do not forget to call frequent attention to the game during the play of each hand. This will prevent your husband’s friends from feeling neglected.

Whist evolved in England and by 1742 was popular enough to have a book published about it.  It is played with four people, those on opposite sides of the table being partners.  After dealing the entire deck, the dealer’s last card is turned up to begin. The suit of this card is the ‘trump’ and will beat all other cards. The player on the left starts with a card, usually of a high rank of the same suit, followed by the remaining two players; the highest card of the suit wins the ‘trick’.  Six tricks make a book, and each trick of the book in one game counts one point. The partners who first score seven points win. Among the many strategic subtleties of the game is to remember which other cards have already been played.

Holbrook during this time was a rough-and-tumble rowdy town, known more for its brawls between Hashknife cowboys and anyone who would try to confront them rather than a genteel came of cards played in opulent parlors. In Holbrook, perhaps the game of Whist was played with sidearms at the ready.

— S.D. Olberding. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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