A Comprehensive History of Solitaire

By Neal - 03/18/2021

One-player card games are called by some form of the word ‘solitaire’ in some countries (US, Spain, Italy, etc), ‘patience‘ in others (UK, France, etc) or ‘kabale’ in others (Scandinavia, eastern Europe), but both ‘solitaire’ and ‘patience’ are increasingly common worldwide.

The oldest of these, ‘kabale,’ implying something secret or occultic, suggests that the idea of laying out cards in a pattern or ‘tableau’ had its origins in fortune-telling (cartomancy), which became popular in the mid-1700s in Europe. Possibly its original purpose was light-heartedly to divine the success of an undertaking or a vow. If the game ‘succeeds’ or ‘comes out’, the answer is favorable, otherwise not. In France card solitaire is still called ‘réussite’, meaning ‘success’.

In a German games book of 1798 ‘patiencespiel’ appears as a contest between two players, while bystanders and presumably the players themselves wager on the outcome. Single and double-deck versions are described, and seem to be much like one later recorded in English books as Grandfather's Patience. Some references suggest either Sweden or Russia as the place of origin.

Books of solitaire games first appeared in the early 1800s in Russia and Sweden, and soon after in France and the UK. Most seem to have been written by women. A Livre des patiences par Mme de F**** (possibly the Marquise de Fortia), for example, was into its third edition by 1842 and was soon translated into English. Many of the games described have titles commemorating the Emperor Napoleon, such as Napoleon at St Helena, Napoleon’s Square, etc, probably based on the entirely mistaken assumption that Napoleon amused himself by playing solitaire in exile, for which there is no evidence. In fact he most often played games called Pique and Whist.

A Livre des patiences par Mme de F****

Dickens portrays a character playing patience in Great Expectations. This was published in 1861, the year in which Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, who was himself a keen player, died. The first American collection was Patience: A series of thirty games with cards, by Ednah Cheney (1870). Around that time, a British Noble women named Lady Adelaide Cadogan published Illustrated Games of Patience. The last decades of that century were the heyday of patience games, the largest collections being compiled by the prolific Mary Whitmore Jones.

Games of Patience

From then on solitaire games settled down into a fairly nondescript existence. From popular literature, print media and movies it soon becomes clear that most people with any interest in card games knew only two or three of the most popular types, such as Klondike and Spider, and whichever one they played they called solitaire without being aware that any others existed. Such further collections that appeared in print were largely rehashes of classic titles, with little or no acknowledgement given to previous authors or inventors. Nothing of any value appeared until 1950 when Albert Morehead and Geoffrey Mott-Smith published their Complete Book of Patience. These authors had clearly studied all the literature, tidied up conflicting rules, and for the first time ever decided to classify games and arrange them in some sort of logical progression. Thus, if you found that you liked a particular game you could then explore others of similar type, and ignore the ones that failed to appeal to you. Throughout most of its history solitaire has been regarded as a pastime for invalids rather than the physically active, and for women rather than men, though it must have been much played by prisoners-of-war who were fortunate enough to have some recreational time on their hands.

All that began to change in 1990 with the advent of Microsoft’s first digital solitaire collection, originally intended to teach people how to use a computer mouse. This same phenomenon caused FreeCell and Spider to both rise in popularity among the general population, as they appeared as free games in later editions of Windows. According to a news item released in May 2020 over half-a-billion players in the past decade alone have played the game. It is now a global phenomenon.

Note that many games from the late 1800s have you start by arranging the cards in a pretty but complicated pattern taking up a lot of space. These gradually went out of fashion over the last 160 years as tables got smaller and players wanted to spend more time playing than dealing. They could be easily reproduced on a desktop monitor but would not be suitable for play on the small screen of a cellphone. In any case, strictly symmetrical, straight up-and-down layouts are more in keeping with the digital zeitgeist.

Windows Solitaire

Now that you know the history of solitaire, try play solitaire online!

Citations and further reading:

  1. Das neue Königliche L’Hombre-Spiel, 1798.
  2. A collection of the card layouts usually known as Grand-patiences, 1826.
  3. Mary Whitmore Jones, Games of Patience for One or More Players, 1890 - 1910.
  4. Albert Hodges Morehead and Geoffrey Mott-Smith, The Complete Book of Patience, 1971.
  5. David Parlet, Solitaire: Aces Up and 399 Other Card Games, 1978.
  6. Check out Michael Keller's comprehensive bibliography on solitaire resources