Comments on bibliographies and their relationship to card-game rule-booklets, with special attention to Frederic Jessel

About 106 years ago there appeared Frederic Jessel’s A Bibliography of Works in English on Playing Cards and Gaming (Longmans, London, 1905).  Shortly after it was published, a review appeared in the New York Times praising it in extremely mild terms while at the same time finding, as the reviewer perceived, serious fault with it.

I view that as the “thanks” that Jessel received for producing a bibliography of which I am aware of no parallel for works on playing-cards before 1905.  (The purpose of this post is not to analyze the review, but it is plain to me that the review was very far off-base.)

Unlike the review, Jessel’s bibliography has withstood the test of time, and it would be difficult for a bibliography to surpass it for the period covered.  Indeed, any detailed study of the little playing-card-sized rule booklets of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century must of necessity begin with Frederic Jessel’s great work.

Jessel was a dedicated collector of books on playing cards and card games.  He was also a bibliographer who took exceeding pains to make his book as accurate as possible.  Even a superficial examination of the book will prove that to an experienced collector, for Jessel’s bibliography bears the stamp of authority, and it is copiously annotated with information that only a devoted collector would think to include.

Trevor H. Hall, in his Old Conjuring Books, says, “[. . .] Jessel is clearly worth a respected place on the reference shelf of the student of old conjuring books.”

My point here is not that Jessel’s book is a good conjuring bibliography.  My point is simply that it is a good bibliography for the topic it covered, and I think we can extrapolate from Hall’s comments that, indeed, it is such.

Hall mentions that Jessel “[. . .] included thirty-five important (and mainly rare) conjuring items containing card tricks, described in more professional detail than in the earlier check-lists” compiled by certain others.

Edgar Heyl, in his Cues for Collectors, on the other hand, was not quite as sanguine about Jessel’s book.  Of course, Heyl was looking at the book primarily as a conjuring bibliographer would.  For him, the book had too-few conjuring books included.  He also believed that, regarding conjuring books, Jessel added little to the information that was already available.

Anyone who is familiar with bibliographies will quickly recognize that Jessel’s book was the product of a great deal of knowledge and care.  In the card-game rule-booklet sphere as a whole, Jessel is the only person–as far as I know–to look at the entire realm of such booklets from a bibliographical perspective.  (He was not able to cover everything in that work, because of the fact that the booklets continued to appear after he concluded his preparation of his bibliography.)

Jessel was an apt person to prepare the bibliography, because he was an avid collector of works on playing cards, and he was able to base his bibliography in large part upon books in his own collection (which is now housed at the Bodleian Library). He also was a meticulous worker, and although his bibliography is not perfect, it exhibits a high level of accuracy.  Also, one can discern from the book that Jessel was thoughtful and humane, and the book is nothing like a dry enumeration of book descriptions.  So, there are many factors that go into making Jessel’s book a unique work of scholarship, and collectors are fortunate that Jessel took such an interest in the topic.

–Tom Sawyer

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