Skip to main content

Chinese gaming counters

 Collection
Call Number: GEN MSS 757

Scope and Contents

This collection includes over three hundred discrete mother of pearl gaming counters handcrafted by artisans in China for use in scoring and bidding in card games in the West from circa 1700 to circa 1840. The collection also includes a nearly complete set of gaming counters and an accompanying lacquer box made for William Andrew Dyer of London, England, circa 1810. Most of the gaming counters bear a coat of arms, crest, or monogram of a family or individual. Many of the gaming counters also depict Chinese scenes and figures, or representations of flowers, animals, or insects.

Other gaming counters with identified or attributed provenance to families and individuals chiefly in Great Britain include Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, King of Great Britain; Captain Matthew Bookey of the East India Company ship Shaftesbury, and his wife, Ann Bookey; John Drummond and Susan Fane Drummond; Charles Elphinstone, the 10th Lord Elphinstone; Lewis Alexander Grant-Ogilvy, 5th Earl of Seafield; Thomas Hislop; William Maule, 1st Earl Panmure; Hildebrand Oakes 1st Baronet of the Oakes Baronetcy, of the Army, and the Oakes Baronets, of Hereford; John Joshua Proby, 1st Earl of Carysfort; John Roberts, a director of the East India Company between 1764 to 1808; John Stewart, 7th Earl of Galloway; and James Yorke, the Bishop of Ely from 1781 to 1808.

This finding aid uses specialized heraldic terminology. An excellent source defining this terminology is available in the “Glossary” and “Dictionary of Terms Used in Heraldry” sections in Bernard Burke, The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales; Comprising a Registry of Armorial Bearings from the Earliest to the Present Time (1842-1884).

Dates

  • circa 1700-circa 1840

Language

English

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Chinese Gaming Counters Collection is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased from W. D. Neal on the Mary Flagler Cary Fund, 2007.

Arrangement

Organized into two series: I. Gaming Counters with Identified or Attributed Provenance, circa 1700-1840. II. Gaming Counters with Unidentified Provenance, circa 1700-1840.

Extent

0.83 Linear Feet (2 boxes)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL

http://hdl.handle.net/10079/fa/beinecke.gamingcounters

Overview

This collection includes over three hundred discrete mother of pearl gaming counters handcrafted by artisans in China for use in scoring and bidding in card games in the West, circa 1700-circa 1840. The collection also includes a nearly complete set of gaming counters and an accompanying lacquer box made for William Andrew Dyer of London, England, circa 1810. Most of the gaming counters bear a coat of arms, crest, or monogram of a family or individual. Many of the gaming counters also depict Chinese scenes and figures, or representations of flowers, animals, or insects.

About Chinese Gaming Counters

Mother of pearl gaming counters were handcrafted by artisans in China from circa 1700 to circa 1840, for use in scoring and bidding in card games in the Western world. They were chiefly created for trade with Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, with other European countries and the United States. The gaming counters were fashioned from the nacre of large oyster shells, which imparted a metallic silvery sheen and a flat even finish to each counter. They range in shape, usually circles and parallelograms, as well as in size, usually from 26 millimeters to 35 millimeters in length and width. The gaming counters are usually inscribed with a coat of arms, crest, or monogram of a family or individual, as well as other visual decoration.

The production of mother of pearl gaming counters coincided with increased trade between the Western world and China. At that time, Western society had a fashion for playing card games, including Ombre, Quadrille and Pope Joan, which required counters for scoring. The trade in mother of pearl gaming counters continued until around 1840, when whist, which requires a different scoring method, became the most popular card game in the Western world. The production of counters gradually ceased around 1840.

Overall, gaming counters are divided into two categories: bespoke (made-to-order) counters, with the coat of arms, crest, or monogram of a family or individual; and ready-made counters. Around 1760, it became fashionable for counters to have monograms even without a crest or coat. Many of the bespoke sets accompanied orders for armorial porcelain services. Ready-made counters were also available with blank roundels for later inscription in the Western world or with non-specific heraldic representations.

Sets of counters during the first decades of the eighteenth century did not have fixed combinations of shapes or sizes to comprise a complete suite. Some of the earliest counter sets, from circa 1720 to circa 1760, include fish-shaped counters, while double fishes were produced from circa 1720 to 1730. By 1750, most sets included 140 counters in three shapes: round (20 counters), short-oblong rectangle (40 counters), and long-oblong rectangle (80 counters). Between 1785 and 1810, sets also included oval and shuttle shapes. Complete sets of gaming counters were often housed in lacquered boxes, which contained several smaller boxes, some to house gaming counters and others to hold decks of cards. Many boxes also had trays painted with court cards.

Decorative elements, borders, and edges on gaming counters can be used to date them. What follows are brief timelines for each. For further information about mother of pearl gaming counters, see Bill Neal, Chinese Mother of Pearl Gaming Counters ([Great Britain]: Chezbill, 2007).

Timeline of Decorative Elements

circa 1735: Camellia flower on versos.

circa 1740-1750: River scenes with small boats, buildings, and occasionally figures on versos. Many depict the hongs (foreign business markets) on the Pearl River in Canton.

circa 1740-1770: A simplified floral design or "sketchy flower" on versos.

circa 1750-1760: Card suits on rectos or versos.

circa 1750-1780: Depictions of "billing birds," which portray two birds touching or clasping each other's bills.

circa 1760: Floral or star designs on versos.

circa 1760-1790: Diapering patterns, also known as damask, on versos.

circa 1770-1810: Detailed flowers on versos.

circa 1790-1840: Scenes of Chinese life, which may depict scenes from traditional folk tales or poetry.

circa 1800-1840: Depictions of pagodas.

circa 1820-1840: Deep carved designs, which add depth and texture to counters.

Timeline of Border Decorations

1700-1760: Single line borders following the outline of the counter.

circa 1760-1840: "Point-in-point" borders or coils pattern borders.

circa 1770-1840: Swags or laurel borders, as well as the empty reserves (cartouches) style.

circa 1780-1840: "Queen Charlotte" border, which incorporates elongated reserves and flowers, as well as the key-fret border, which consists of repeating rectangular spirals.

circa 1790-1830: "Drilled" borders consisting of a series of concave indentations.

circa 1800-1830: "Geometric" borders, which consist of two or more concentric bands of regular geometric shapes, or the "vine and moth" or "vine and fruit" borders, which consist of a leaf scroll that follows the circumference of the counter, which is then interspersed with representations of fruit or moths.

circa 1820-1840: Drilled and fretted borders became popular in around 1820, although examples exist from as early as 1760.

Timeline of Edge Decorations

circa 1750: Elaborate Chinese-style of scroll edges.

circa 1750-1770: Wavy edges.

circa 1760: Simplified Chinese-style of scroll edges.

.

Processing Information

The descriptions for individual gaming counters derive chiefly from a list provided by the dealer, which the processing archivist compared to sources for gaming counters, heraldic descriptions, and Chinese handicraft.

Sources consulted in the processing of this collection include:

Bernard Burke, The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales; Comprising a Registry of Armorial Bearings from the Earliest to the Present Time (London: Harrison, 1878).

David Sanctuary Howard, Chinese Armorial Porcelain (London: Faber and Faber, 1974).

David Sanctuary Howard, Chinese Armorial Porcelain II (Chippenham: Heirloom & Howard Ltd, 2003).

Bill Neal, Chinese Mother of Pearl Gaming Counters ([Great Britain]: Chezbill, 2007).
Title
Guide to the Chinese Gaming Counters Collection
Author
by Matthew Daniel Mason
Date
December 2010
Language of description
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

Contact:
P. O. Box 208330
New Haven CT 06520-8330 US
(203) 432-2977