Card Sharps and Bucket Shops

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Card Sharps and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America  
cover
Author(s) Ann Fabian
Publisher Routledge
Publication date 1999-03-19
Pages 264
ISBN 0415923573

Fabian argues that gambling underwent significant changes in the expansion and diversification of the market economy in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. She describes the earlier forms of gambling as "reciprocal" and "recreational," since the bets were small, contained with a local group, and circulated winnings within one community of gamblers. In the broader world of the market revolution, these patterns broke down and bets emerged between strangers, like any other transactions. Into this scene came professional gamblers, "card sharps," confidence men skilled enough to sweep yokels and bushy-tailed up-and-comers into trouble. A voluminous literature about young clerks being seduced by wily city charlatans emerged at this time — an interesting parallel to the dime novel tales of "seduction" focused on women that Denning discusses in his work "Mechanic Accents."

Like the routine binge drinking described by Rorabaugh in the same period, gambling was especially popular among the loosest elements of society - sailors, migrant workers, soldiers, day laborers, and so on. On the frontier, at the edges, the moral bounds of society were fragmented enough to allow freewheeling behavior (sex, drink, chance) but also impersonal enough to make gambling far riskier than it had been in the enclosed communities of earlier times. Into the irrational exuberance of the hard living 1810s and 20s the nascent middle class brought reform, charged with evangelical fervor for both god and mammon, i.e. capital. Gambling represented everything the new order they sought to create despised — a reckless embrace of (frittering away scarce wages on chance) rather than building a bulwark (savings' banks) against that uncertainty that pervaded everywhere; an abdication of responsibility, ceding control to fate when the new Americans were supposed to take charge of circumstances and remake the world. And games of chance were associated with the lower orders of factory workers, servants, etc., who, squished together in new working class districts of cities, became an unsightly weight on the minds of the middle class.

Fabian implies that producerism developed as a variant of republicanism especially suited to liberal, capitalist economic progress at midcentury. This discourse emphasized hard work, thrift, saving and diligent, incremental progress, all of which contradicted the big wins envisioned by both gambling and speculative investment. (One wonders how this ideology coexisted with the flourishing speculation in land throughout the entire nineteenth century. High-risk, big-return, labor-unintensive investment was no invention of the second industrial revolution, Jay Gould or the 1880s.) In any case, Fabian says that the worldview of sobriety and savings that characterized bourgeois life from the 1820s/30s collided head-on with economic life in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when commodities jockeys on the Chicago Board of Trade reaped enormous profits trading on the ephemeral prices of grain futures. These men hit it big by guessing at and manipulating prices, while the people who worked steadily producing the grain fell impoverished.