When considering the cultural impact of card games, most would first turn their attention to any number of games designed for many players. Poker, blackjack, bridge—all of these of course have left a huge mark on our society in many ways. However, many tend to neglect the cultural impact of solo card games like solitaire.
Today, we’re going to look at how solitaire has influenced all levels of culture over the centuries.
The ultimate, earliest origin of solitaire as we know it today is not known. Playing cards themselves are much older; most agree they were invented around the 9th сentury in China during the Tang dynasty. Solitaire card games, or patience as they were first called, are not mentioned in any written source until 1765. At first, patience card games appeared in literature around the time of the codification of cartomantic layouts.
Cartomancy is the art of divination using some form of a deck of cards. This had been done with tarot decks in Europe since around the middle of the 15th сentury, though they were also used to play games. It’s thought, then, that the earliest patience games were related to the use of cartomancy, and that whether you won a game of solitaire said something about your future.
These earliest mentions of patience card games are mostly German. By the early 19th сentury, the games had become very popular in France, which is where they really took off. Even Napoleon himself famously played patience during his final exile to St. Helena. Indeed, the modern popularity of the games can certainly be attributed in no small part to the early interest of the French. By the end of this сentury the games had taken off in Britain and the United States, which is where one might say the games’ futures were fully cemented.
The earliest rulebooks are a good demonstration of just how popular these games became. It is generally agreed that the first English language book of patience games was the Illustrated Games of Patience, published in 1870 by Lady Adelaide Cadogan. She, however, lists in her own bibliography a book titled Patience by Perseverance, apparently published in 1860,though this book does not survive to us. American rulebooks were first published in 1869, and one of the most enduring was Dick’s Games of Patience of 1883.
Most of these early rulebooks feature many variations of what we call solitaire. Klondike, the classic modern form, is featured, though is usually referred to as Canfield. Early sources tended to refer to versions with the definite article—The Clock, The House of the Hill, for example. The games fell into three basic categories, as they do today: the most common games focused on building sequences, like Klondike, but you also had pairing solitaire games, and totalling solitaire games.
It’s worth noting that the simple fact of playing these games by yourself is perhaps the most important aspect of them, and such games had been played all over the world for many years prior to the advent of patience card games.
Throughout the 20th сentury solitaire gained in popularity and became staple card games that you would see throughout the world. Their popularity today is due in no small part to the decision to include various solitaire games with the Windows operating systems of the 1990s, which further revived interest in the games.
Games of virtually any kind are always an illuminating look into the daily lives of those who played them. Solitaire cannot only be understood through where it came from and how it was played, but by the social environment which made its popularity inevitable.
The earliest playing cards would naturally have been a luxury. Being hand painted, they would have taken time and skill to create. However, long before the advent of solitaire games, it had become possible to produce playing cards on a larger scale using a printing press. By the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries, true mass production was possible.
So, by the time that solitaire games were first being played, playing cards were available to most people, at least in some way. They might not have owned their own deck, but could access one somewhere. Social clubs would keep decks of cards on hand which anyone could come in and learn to play solitaire with, a tradition which still endures today.
The point being that while we might tend to think access to cards and rulebooks in the earliest days of solitaire would be exclusively limited to the upper echelons of society, this is not the case. That said, solitaire card games were certainly associated with people who did not have a great deal of responsibilities on their time. People whose wealth and status meant that they could spend most of their time in free leisure, for whom solitaire card games were a great way to pass the time.
Like many other similar activities, solitaire games also made a great social activity for people to get together and play at the same time over tea. While it may sound strange given the games were meant to be played alone, playing together presented a chance to share tips and strategies and just chat away while playing the game. This in turn made it generally more acceptable to play individual games as a group, rather than getting together to play group games such as bowls or competitive card games.
So, solitaire card games are and have been embedded in a far more complex social picture than we might at first imagine. Games and the free time associated with being able to play them, as well as owning playing cards or having access to somewhere to learn the rules in the first place, are mostly the arena of the more well-off portions of society. Solitaire, however, was by no means exclusive to the rich even in its earliest days.
Solitaire has always had a place in art and literature to some extent. One of the most celebrated novelists of the 19th сentury, Dostoyevsky, famously depicted solitaire in his 1866 novel The Gambler. This is one of the oldest depictions we have, and places the game in the original context in which it became popular.
Solitaire also plainly held an important place in art over the course of the 20th сentury. Numerous paintings from the first half of the сentury depict the game, such as Georges Braque’s abstract “La Patience”, or so called “American scene painter” Raphael Soyer’s “Solitaire” depicting a young woman playing solitaire to pass the time as her lover sleeps.
Already, it was well established that waiting was almost synonymous with playing patience. That informed very deeply the way it continued to be depicted with the advent of cinema.
By the time “pop culture” in a form we can really recognise came into being, then, solitaire card games were already deeply cemented in society. As a result, we can see the influence and importance of solitaire in many different examples in popular culture. The impact is often plain to see simply in the way that solitaire games are referenced in popular culture in a way that simply expects the audience to understand what they are—they are not front and centre all that often.
In the classic spy thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, the communist sleeper agent is instructed to play solitaire—when the Queen of Diamonds is revealed, this is his trigger to turn him to their purposes. Solitaire’s important to the spy genre didn’t stop there—James Bond himself plays solitaire to pass the time while awaits a target in his very first on screen appearance, in 1962’s Dr No. Plainly, there was an attitude that this was a gentleman’s game.
There are many instances like this where, while solitaire is depicted on screen, not much verbal attention is given to it. It was expected that viewers would understand what they were seeing. In itself, depicting solitaire became a great cinematic device as it could show any number of things about a character without having to state something outright. In Jaws (1978), Hooper can be seen playing solitaire on the deck of the ship as they await the shark. This tells us a lot about his character without having to say a word—he is calm and collected in the face of mortal peril. More than that, given Hooper is meant to be a very intelligent man—and this also is depicted by his playing solitaire.
In the modern world, the way solitaire is depicted on screen is quite a bit different from how it once was. To understand the relevance of solitaire in modern culture, we can turn to these examples to illustrate how the game has changed in people’s minds.
Solitaire in the modern day is just as relevant as it ever was, though admittedly perceptions of it have shifted somewhat. Earlier, it was mentioned that the decision to include various solitaire games with Windows operating systems in the 1990s was a move which made an impact no one could quite have predicted. According to Microsoft’s figures, around 35 million people still regularly play their solitaire games.
On one level, this decision simply made the games much more popular and widespread, and meant that you could play the games without a deck of cards or even necessarily knowledge of the rules.
It became an incredibly popular form of entertainment which it still remains today. Few could have expected the enduring popularity that the games would have, especially in today’s age where there are virtually infinite forms of entertainment that are so much more readily accessible than they ever were. In all this, simple, quiet, meditative card games like solitaire remain one of the most popular ways to relax. While it can feel as though the world around us is endlessly speeding up, solitaire remains a popular retreat from this. Accessing it online is so easy, and computers, smart phones, and tablets so widespread, that playing it is easier than ever.
But there is another side to the modern perceptions of solitaire, as can still be seen in some forms of pop culture. Because solitaire was on most computers used in offices in the 1990s and early 2000s, the perception was that many would spend time “slacking” off work and just playing solitaire. Thus, it gained a reputation for being something you do as a distraction when you are supposed to be working. A rather humorous example of this can be seen in The Lego Movie (2014), of all things, where a robot who is supposed to be busy can be seen playing solitaire on his computer.
Of course, this attitude is mostly played for laughs, but nonetheless it does reveal a certain shift in perceptions of the game. Whereas in the past it was exclusively something depicted to show a character’s patience, will, and determination, now it can sometimes be seen as a more idle and time-wasting pursuit.
Again, this really is not the overall way that the game is seen today. In a way, you might almost say that this element of solitaire is detached from the game itself. There’s the game of solitaire, and there’s the idle time-wasting which might happen to involve playing solitaire. But at the same time, computer games like this were always separated in people’s perceptions from more typical video games that you might play on home consoles.
Take, for instance, the other forms of solitaire games which were made possible more or less entirely by computers: Mahjong solitaire, for instance. Mahjong had been a game played in China for centuries, though normally with four players—the convenience of computer programs made a single player version possible. So, it goes beyond even the card game—solitaire games have become a genre unto themselves.
All in all, then, solitaire has made a far greater impact, both culturally and historically, than many people tend to give it credit for. Whether it’s just a simple way that you relax, or it’s how you use up your free time at work, virtually everyone is aware on some level of what solitaire is. It can be used for many purposes as an artistic device in film without any concern that viewers won’t know what it is trying to get across—and there is perhaps no better indicator of its impact than this.
In retrospect, the profound cultural and historical impact of solitaire extends far beyond its surface simplicity. From its role in personal relaxation to its portrayal in various forms of media, solitaire’s universality has left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness. Its ability to connect with people from all walks of life speaks volumes about its enduring significance and timeless allure.