Amusement was not on the required roster of life’s essentials for the tenement dwellers of New York City during the depression years of 1929-’39. The word amusement was then applied narrowly, describing parks in such shady enclaves as Coney Island. During a time when limitless access to diversions was but an electronic dream, self-generated family entertainment emerged as a vital element in ensuring domestic tranquility (“The family that plays together, stays together.”).
Imagine now a typical urban family in the America of 1935. The father has a job that pays the rent and food expenses, but little else. The mother labors much of the day in managing her household chores. And their two boys, ages 12 and 15 years, keep the household less than serene, certainly animated and occasionally contentious. At nightfall, this family of four has completed supper, and they now face a handful of unassigned hours before bedtime. The father may have his evening newspaper, the mother – her eternal knitting, but the two boys – beyond some nominal homework – have only their adolescent exuberance to contend with.
The middle-class urban apartment (more often called a flat) of 1935 had the usual amenities of the era, including radio, clock, wall calendar and artificial illumination but no television and certainly no handheld electronic devices for communication or amusement. It then became a joint family responsibility to bring some form of intramural entertainment to its members, something that would be neither costly nor boisterous and yet manage to hold the attention span of two marginally civilized youths and two fatigued adults.
In a society bereft of television and other electronic miracles, what did the adults of the 1930s do to lessen the rigors and ennui of their lives? Need remains the greatest stimulus to creative activity, and the era of the 1930s witnessed many inexpensive ways of lessening family boredom. Board games simulating the competitive real estate market, games patterned on sports competition or seeking a hidden treasure or even undergoing the perils of warfare became widely popular and occupied the early evenings of families not accustomed to more scholarly activities.
Card playing for personal entertainment has, of course, been operative since the 12th century, particularly in China. But it has now moved from the oriental smoke-filled gambling parlors to the modest living rooms of the American middle class. In the minds of most first-generation Jewish immigrants to New York, gambling was merely another name for avarice and deceit. Games, such as contract bridge – a direct descendant of a 13th century English pastime called whist – and the sundry rummies, however, downplayed wagering and emphasized intellectual prowess instead. This revised attitude of a more gracious form of competition thus brought the parents and children to the same table.
But what table? The American household of the 1930s did not have an abundance of furniture of the flat-topped variety. There were the dining room and kitchen tables, generally rectangular but in such constant, utilitarian use as to make them ill-suited for card or board games. And so a new industry evolved to satisfy this expanding need.
Ideally, what characteristics should this piece of furniture provide? Certainly, it should be inexpensive, roomy enough to seat four people, and with an unadorned surface expansive enough to allow adequate space for a board game or a spread of playing cards. And space, too, for the inevitable ashtrays, and tea cups. Its surface should be smooth, thus allowing cards to slide and be of a neutral, dark color, preferably brown. And finally, it should be light in weight, readily foldable and capable of being stored beneath a bed or behind a sofa. And so the bridge-table was born. Its advantages and purposes were many, stretching from a surface to bring the family together in a shared experience. It also served to do nightly homework, to pay bills and even to calculate one’s income tax.
In the 19th century, the hallowed family bed was an inherited treasure that became the family’s symbol of continuity and domestic peace. For those who survived the Decade of Depression in the 20th century, perhaps the bridge table – that utilitarian piece of minimalist furniture, shorn of any attempts at aesthetic embellishment – might have served as a bridge between generations.
STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D. (email@example.com) is dean of medicine emeritus at Brown University.