Fish and Mischief in the Drawing Room

This week, we began to pull some small objects from collections storage in order to prepare them for display in the Drawing Room in the coming months. One of the big hits among the staff were the fish. Yes, the fish! As we have discussed several times, 18th century drawing rooms were often the scenes of an evening’s entertainment, and among those amusements were a variety of card and board games. And believe it or not, fish played an important role in several of them.

A set of ivory and mother-of-pearl fish, shown with their inlaid storage box, ca. 1750

We aren’t actually talking about small creatures that swim, but rather gaming pieces made of ivory or mother-of-pearl in the shape of small fish. The gaming pieces were most commonly used as something like our modern day poker chips – each fish was assigned a value, and players would place bets using their fish, or attempt to win the most points by collecting the most fish – it all depended on the game.

But why fish? Good question. As with many oddities of 18th century life, the answer is a bit murky, but it appears that when the game Quadrille came out of France in the mid-18th century, the betting pieces used in it were called fiche, which at the time was the French word for something like a peg or a dowel. Eventually, all betting pieces were referred to as fish, and then the betting pieces began to be made in the shape of fish.  Some of these pieces could be elaborately carved and even personalized, showing the monogram of the owner or their family crest. They were most commonly used in Quadrille, Ombre and Loo, and later, in Whist.

Mother-of-pearl fish showing detailed carving, ca. 1770

While we have no evidence showing that the Lewis family owned a set of gaming fish, we do know that they, like most of their colonial contemporaries, were avid game players. The most valuable piece of furniture in the Kenmore Drawing Room was most likely a mahogany gaming table, and according to the 1781 probate inventory, Fielding Lewis’s personal library contained a book referred to as “Hoyle Vol. 1″. Those of you who enjoy card games now in the 21st century might recognize the name. Edmond Hoyle published his first book on card game rules in London in the 1740′s, and continued to update and publish new editions right through the 1770′s. To this day, rule books published under the name Hoyle are considered the definitive word in card games. Obviously, Fielding and Betty Lewis felt it necessary to keep their own copy handy.

The sets of gaming fish currently in our collection will soon be on display in the Drawing Room, giving our visitors a glimpse of just one of the activities that would have taken place there on a daily basis.

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