History of Things: What a card game tablecloth can tell

History of Things: What a card game tablecloth can tell
Embroidered green baize tablecloth. Early 20th century. From the collection of the Museum of Moscow
Find out more about a short-lived friendship, a tablecloth cut in half and early 20th-century card players.

This new article from the History of Things series is dedicated to a card game tablecloth. The embroidered green baize tablecloth arrived in the Museum of Moscow seven years ago, donated by a family who lived in the famous Niernsee House in Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Pereulok. The house designed by Ernst Richard Nirnsee was built in 1912–1913 and has a ceramic mural depicting swans created by Alexander Golovin. Niernsee House was the tallest residential building in Moscow until 1931 when the title passed to the House on the Embankment.

The tablecloth features card game scenes and playing cards embroidered in silk. Playing cards was one of the favourite pastimes of Muscovites, especially men, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They often played for money and the green baize was good for chalking the score on. This is probably one of the roots of the Russian phrase “to rub points in” which means to cheat because some players managed to tamper with their records when they were losing.

Embroidered green baize tablecloth. Early 20th century. From the collection of the Museum of Moscow

The cloth was brought to the museum torn in half and this is connected with a story in which human destinies are intertwined with the history of the whole country.

One young man who lived in the Niernsee House had a very good friend. Like many other young men of that time they liked playing cards. At one point, they received a valuable gift from a relative or neighbour – the card game tablecloth. Then they used it whenever they played cards.

In 1917, one of the friends decided to leave Russia, which was engulfed by revolution. The young men cut the tablecloth in half and each took one of the parts in memory of their enjoyable evenings. They separated forever. One stayed in Moscow, the other left for France where he disappeared, without a trace. Nobody knows where the other half of the cloth is, if it has survived. This story was told by a granddaughter of one of those friends when she brought the tablecloth to the museum.

Currently, the cloth is on display at the Evening Moscow exhibition in the Museum of Moscow. The show explores how Moscow residents spent their spare time, before the existence of the internet or television.