A brief history of Solitaire, Patience, and other card games for one

Alone needn't mean lonely

On Friday, Microsoft is kicking off a worldwide Solitaire tournament in celebration of the 25th anniversary of everyone's favorite time-waster. Of course, Solitaire has been around for a lot longer than 25 years. Before it was a game you played on your computer, Solitaire was, and is, a game you play with cards.

You're probably already familiar with the basic premise: You set up cards face down in a certain shape and flip them to build foundations in sequential order. For example, in Klondike, the objective is to uncover four aces and build sequential foundations from those cards.

The exact origin of Solitaire isn't all that clear. The earliest printed reference of the world solitaire the game appeared in 1746, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). However, this probably refers to peg solitaire, a board game played with marbles and pegs.

Solitaire the card game more likely came about toward the end of the 18th century, perhaps "in the Baltic region of Europe and possibly as a form of fortune-telling." The theory is that the popularity of the game rose with the popularity of cartomancy, or divination by cards, as well as tarot card reading. Moreover, in Scandinavian countries, the game is apparently known as cabale, which is related to cabal, a "mystical interpretation of the Old Testament." Cabal gives us Kabbalah, that mystical (and trendy) form of Judaism.

The game of Patience originated in the U.K. around the same time as Solitaire, or slightly afterward. The OED has the earliest mention in 1801. It's borrowed French: "I should be obliged to fetch the cards for you to play 'Grande Patience'" — giving some credence to the theory that the game originated in France. The first mention in English is from 1822 in a letter from a Countess Granville ("We were occupied all yesterday evening with conjuring tricks and patiences of every kind").

While there might have been some difference between Solitaire and Patience at first, they now seem interchangeable. Even back in 1874, the first book about the pastime refers to "games of solitaire or patience," with no distinction between the two.

As for their simultaneous rise in popularity in different parts of the world, urbanization might have had something to do with it. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the late 18th century, transformed rural societies in Europe and the U.S. into those that were industrial and urban. The farm became less central and families less tight knit. Unmarried adult children left to work in factories and other city industries, and, one can imagine, were left with more alone time than they were used to. At the same time, the rich became even richer, and leisure time increased.

This might help to explain why both Patience and Solitaire developed into so many forms, even before the 20th century. The more people played the games, the more quickly they became bored and needed variety — although it's unclear where some of the names come from. Some are obviously named for the shape of the set-up, such as the clock, the flower-garden, the herring-bone, and the spider. But why "grand" names are favored — like the Empress of India, the Shah, the Grand Duchess, and the Queen of Italy — isn’t so evident.

Still other varieties seem to be named for stock characters. There's Muggins, which might refer to a variety of easily fooled characters (all named Muggins for some reason) in 18th and 19th-century comic writing. Muggins also means "fool" or "simpleton." It's what players shout to the loser in a children's game of the same name.

There's also Miss Milligan and Mrs. Mop, which was invented by British stamp collector Charles Jewell and named for Mrs. Mopp, a character in the 1940s BBC radio show I.T.M.A, or It's That Man Again.

Demon might be named for the number of cards in the reserve, an unlucky 13. (Racing demon, by the way, is when several people play demon at once and competitively.) Klondike, which has been around since at least 1902, might be named for the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s, perhaps with the idea of luck or winnings.

Klondike is also known as Canfield, named for Richard Albert Canfield, who at one time was "the best known and wealthiest individual gambler in the world." He ran several gambling houses, including, most famously, the Old Saratoga Club in Saratoga Springs, New York. Eventually he retired to New York City, where he was a "manufacturer of patented bottle stoppers," and unfortunately died at 50 of a skull fracture after slipping and striking his chin on some subway steps.

Another famous (and tragic) figure connected with Patience is Napoleon, who is said to have a weakness for the game. Not surprising what with the multiple forms named for him, including Napoleon's Square, Napoleon at St. Helena, and double Napoleon. A 1970 Glasgow Herald article suggests that double Napoleon may have been invented "to while away the weary hours on St. Helena," the island of Napoleon's exile.

Playing Solitaire, FreeCell, or (this blogger's personal addiction) Shanghai Solitaire to while away long weary (work) hours? That sounds familiar.


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