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Card Sharps and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America.

Card Sharps and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America, by Ann Fabian. New York, Routledge, 1999. xiii, 250 pp. $28.99 Cdn (paper).

Here is a question for the moral theorist in our age of dot-com instant millionaires and Wall Street gone berserk: How do you critique gambling in a capitalist society hooked on the ultimate crap game, the stock market? This question -- which is at the core of Ann Fabian's Card Sharps and Bucket Shops -- is reason enough to justify reprinting a book first published in 1990. Not that the answer Fabian offers is simple. Her book is suggestive rather than definitive. Indeed, its subtitle -- "Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America" -- is somewhat misleading. It is actually about the idea of gambling or, more precisely, the social implications of anti-gambling crusades in nineteenth-century America.

To get at the book's argument, one must begin with how it ends. The final chapter concerns populist protests against the market system as it had evolved by the late nineteenth century, specifically against that speculation in futures represented by short selling. By concluding with the producers' critique of speculators, the book would itself seem to be on an anti-gambling crusade. But the plot thickens as Fabian shows how the speculators successfully diverted criticism from speculation per se to certain kinds of speculation -- the so-called bucket shops, where gambling on commodity futures occurred as bets made outside the stock market proper. "By waging war on the bucket shops," she writes, "the members of the Board of Trade made the devil the gambler who counterfeited speculation and not the speculator who counterfeited crops" (p. 188). The bucket shops could be isolated, excoriated, then eliminated, thereby deflecting the producers' criticisms of speculators and redirecting them to pit producer against consumer. This had the effect of a pre-emptive strike, wrecking in advance any producer/consumer alliance detrimental to the interests of speculators, who successfully recast themselves as producers, too, of a fungible, if not exactly tangible, commodity.

Fabian's conclusion leans on, rather than derives from, the discussion of gambling that precedes it. This discussion consists of a series of case studies of reformed gamblers, their cautionary tales, and the dream books that served African-American policy players as a rebuttal to "the rational calculations of middle-class life" (p. 140). No one of them actually establishes Fabian's argument, though their juxtaposition does advance it. The degree of abstraction, already high in the meanings teased from the individual case studies, increases exponentially when the reader is left to accept conclusions inherent not in the case studies, but in the author's arrangement of them. In that sense, her method reflects her argument. Gambling as social metaphor constitutes a reality for Fabian, in the same way the stock market came to define the production of speculators as real, just like the grain or cotton grown by farmers.

Do not read Card Sharps and Bucket Shops looking for a systematic, anecdotal/narrative history of gambling practices in nineteenth-century America. Indeed, all the voices Fabian has assembled talking against gambling as a social menace leave in this study a void -- gambling's lure, its attraction -- and room for some specific gambling tales that might give more accessible entry to her analysis. The engaging personal note sounded in the preface suggests she could craft them if she cared to:
 Years ago, my older brother tried to convince me that whenever he and his
 friends played penny-ante poker, a police raid was in the offing. You know,
 my brother would say, in Gardena poker is legal. Here, in Pasadena, it
 isn't. So with images from The Untouchables running in my head, I stood
 guard, a gullible but vigilant six-year old, ready to warn the
 twelve-year-old boys before the lawmen broke down the door and carted them
 off. I'm sure my brother just wanted to get rid of a pesty little sister,
 but he was right about Gardena (p. vii).

As the saying goes, that would be another book. With stock market speculation on its way to becoming a home-based sport (which, as the bucket shops were said to do, principally attracts those who are "looking for entertainment and excitement" [p. 191] -- and a killing!), the book Fabian has written serves as a timely reminder of how gambling on the markets came to be respectable in an earlier age that was given to condemning and sometimes criminalizing the recreational gambling enjoyed by the masses.
Brian W. Dippie
University of Victoria, B.C.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Dippie, Brian W.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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