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Cantonese counter set circa 1830

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Towards the  end of production of gaming counters in Canton, there were several innovations intended to boost demand for counters: at the top end really intricate designs were conceived for very expensive and beautiful counters; at the bottom end cheap sets were produced to attract new customers who were not rolling in money. The set described in this article is one such set.

This box was produced in around 1840; it has a patterned silk exterior, glass lid and blue silk interior. It has eleven 'wells' to hold the counters, which are small and made of very thin, low-grade mother-of-pearl with very hastily applied decoration. This set clearly moves away from the traditional content of 140 counters: I suspect that there were originally 180 counters in this set, in the normal three shapes of round, 'square' and long-oblong. The set has a certain appeal - probably aimed at the middle-class, family market, it looks as though it could have been produced much more recently. The patterned silk looks very similar to that used on modern Chinese tourist items - purses and cases for instance. And it is an interesting reflection of its time - when card play was an important and popular recreational activity enjoyed by all levels of society.

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