Commerce, Cassino, and Loo

No, that’s not the name of a new rock band.  Commerce, Cassino, and Loo are all popular card games from Jane Austen’s time.  In celebration of her birthday today, we Janeites in Connecticut gathered for tea to celebrate her and the role of card games in her life and works.  What a hoot!

As you’ve no doubt noticed, the names of the card games are most evocative, and Austen used the inherent characteristics of the games to say something about the characters who were attracted to each.  A metaphor in the cards.

First, she acknowledges that not everyone was a game player (all levels of interpretation meant).  There were two spheres.  No. not the Public and Private Spheres that divided men and women.  But those who sat down to play and the “outsiders” who did not.  Of course, those outsiders might prefer a dance or two in the Assembly Room, versus heading to the Card Room at any ball or social gathering.  They weren’t necessarily stick-in-the-muds.

The Card-room at Bath, by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), April 1837, Steel Engraving, Dickens’s Pickwick Papers

So there were those who played games, ahem, and those who didn’t.  Anne Elliott from Persuasion declines to play cards in Bath, although Captain Wentworth reminds her it wasn’t always so.  Ahem.  Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park enjoys Speculation, a game that can be played by many.  Ahem.

Mr. Woodhouse from Emma definitely prefers Pique, because it can be played by only 2.  Much less change of spreading germs that way, you know.  Pride and Prejudice‘s Lady Catherine de Bourgh dominates the old-fashioned game of Quadrille, while reckless Lydia adored Lottery Tickets, a game of pure chance requiring no thought or strategy whatsoever.  When Elizabeth and Wickham play with her, Lizzie gets all the facts about Darcy wrong.  See the significance of a card game?

Then there’s class.  Lizzie opts out of playing Loo at Netherfield, when suggested by snobby Mr. Hurst.  She says she prefers to read, which kicks off a stream of hilarious digs all around.  But the real reason she declines is she can’t afford the high stakes of their play.  Austen herself avoided playing Commerce, when she couldn’t afford the 3 pence stake.

Instead Austen preferred Speculation, a gambling game.  She even wrote a poem about it, but sadly it was no longer played by the end of the 1800s.  She also enjoyed the board game Cribbage and a card game called Brag.

Fun facts.  Card games were played all over Europe, of course, but the same games might have different rules.  After all, a deck of cards wasn’t static.  The English played with 52 cards, but the Italians used only 40 and Russians 30.  In Spain, games were played with 48 cards.  There were no 10s.

Women, who had no other means of support, might convert their homes into card houses for games of chance.  Typically, they played Faro, named for Pharaoh, a game of chance where, for a change, the player has the best odds, not the House.  In the Western U.S. Faro houses were wildly popular, although apparently, there wasn’t a single “honest bank,” meaning you just couldn’t win against the House.

Two-penny Whist by James Gillray

Several of the games were precursors to popular games now.  Commerce and Brag for poker.  And there was a version of blackjack, known as 21.  Quadrille was so complicated that it phased out in popularity, and whist took over, morphing over time into today’s bridge.  Whist means quick, silent, and attentive, sharing a root with ‘wistful.’  This game requires thought and strategy to be played well, a wistful pursuit.

Others are quirky.  Named for a lullaby Lanterloo, Loo, which I found to be a bit silly and overly simple, involves playing with ivory-carved fish as the chits or counting pieces.  Special Loo tables were designed with fishponds (troughs) on all four sides, for holding your fish as you win them.  Loo was the most popular card game in England and was also the easiest game for cheating.  Trollope writes of a club member who cheats and when found out, gets away with it because the others were too gentlemanly to call him out.  Poor manners.  So if you plan to slip a card up your sleeve or palm another, do it in an English club.  They’d rather be cheated than rude.

Here we are, trying to make sense of Commerce

Here we are, trying to make sense of Commerce


Maybe you want to learn more, or get at the rules of these games.  My favorite was Cassino, and the rules are so complicated, you will definitely need a book.  Check out Helpful Sports for Young Ladies, where you’ll also learn more about other past-times.  Perhaps you already enjoy the athleticism of the seesaw and swinging outdoors.  Great forms of exercise for any one!

The Regency line-up

The Regency line-up