[All the Bubbles.] Set of playing cards satirizing speculation schemes following the South Sea Bubble.[London: Thomas Bowles, 1720] Stock Code: 139896
Playing games with speculative maniaA remarkable set of playing cards, mocking the collapse of the South Sea Company and the many similar companies which rose and fell with it, satirizing the schemes and false promises of the companies, and speculative mania more generally. The spectacular rise of South Sea stock led to a variety of new companies and mini-bubbles seeking to offer the same immediate returns. The South Sea Company filed suits against many of its smaller competitors, and several of the companies had already burst prior to the collapse of the Company, but with the collapse any faith that remained in the smaller entities was also destroyed. Many people were ruined and public opinion turned firmly against the companies, and against the men who had promoted them with promises of great riches.
It is in this spirit of bitterness that the playing cards were produced, exposing, "in a delightfully fascination way the human weaknesses of those who found themselves involved in the South Sea Bubble" (Whiting, pp. 165-6). They were first advertised for sale in the 20 October 1720 issue of the Post Boy newspaper. Such cards were taxed (hence the duty stamp) and were not cheap - 3s. 6d. in the Post Boy advertisement - and seem to have been generally aimed at the wealthier sections of society, those most likely to have indulged in one of the many bubbles. Each card depicts a financial or business scheme captioned with rhyming verse, the schemes including investments in uncharted colonies, bizarre inventions, risky trade schemes, suspicious legal practices, and far-fetched business ideas. As Whiting has shown, most of the cards can be linked to a specific business venture founded in the previous couple of years. In the aftermath of the South Sea collapse, the captions are particularly unkind to those who invested vast sums in far flung regions they had no knowledge of - "come all ye saints that would for little buy, great tracts of land, and care not where they lye" - and to rich men jumping on the latest scheme - "you that are blest with wealth, by your creator, and want to drown your money in Thames water". Some of the schemes highlighted as ludicrous business ventures now seem more reasonable, including life insurance as the six of spades, then seen as a form of gambling. Of additional interest is Puckle's gun on the eight of spades, among the earliest attempts at a machine gun, patented in 1718.
Whiting also features a second set of South Sea playing cards, sold by Carrington Bowles and advertised two months after the present set, in the Weekly Packet (pp. 164-73). They are similar in layout and subject matter, though they do not have the title banners of the Thomas Bowles set.
52 individual cards (each 95 x 63 mm), in the usual format of 4 suits of 13 cards, of which 26 are printed in red and 26 in black, each with miniature standard card in upper left corner, blank versos, remains of duty stamp to corner of the ace of clubs. Housed in a modern brown speckled calf box.
Without the title card, as often, but all the playing cards themselves present. Lightly finger-soiled, red cards somewhat faded, a few tiny chips, discreet repair to Jack of spades, yet still otherwise in very good condition, handled from use, but in good shape without loss.
British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, Catalogue of political and personal satires, vol. II, nos. 1620, 1621, 1625, and 1629; William Andrew Chatto, Facts and Speculations on the Origin and History of Playing Cards, 1848, p. 169; Sylvia Mann, C
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