Placing Bets


PlaceholderA great many shadowy financial transactions occurred in gambling dens, beer halls, and oyster saloons. In the Colonial period gambling was legal in southern states and New York. It was outlawed by all states during the Revolution, and then allowed again in the South in the 1790s. By the 1810s and 1820s, legislation shifted from outlawing activities thought to facilitate gambling to outlawing the act of betting itself, thus appeasing vocal reformers while merely reducing the number of prosecutions – because catching people in the act was extremely difficult. These new laws enabled politicians simultaneously to deflect criticism for allowing “dens of vice” and to recruit backers in these same places.

A cultural as well as economic issue, gambling was, for many, considered an “idle vice,” circumventing the Protestant work ethic by rewarding people for doing nothing productive. But others wanted the freedom to do as they pleased with their money, and gambling offered the seduction of risk-taking and a dash of luck, plus the promise of great rewards. Different forms of gaming tended to be popular in different regions of the country; southerners preferred animal sports such as horse-racing and cock-fighting, while people living in western frontier towns and along major rivers most often engaged in card-playing. Denizens of the urban Northeast engaged in all these activities, in addition to the world of high finance, itself a form of speculation.

Above right: Thomas Crehore. Playing cards. [Dorchester, Mass., ca. 1820].