Loaded Dice

Currently on view in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library is a small but fascinating exhibition of dice, from the Smith Collection of Mathematical  Instruments. They date from the Roman era to the early 20th century. David Eugene Smith (1860-1944) was a professor of mathematics at Teachers College, Columbia University. He used these dice in his lectures, to show the “development of one of the oldest numbers games known.” Smith’s collection of mathematical instruments, manuscripts, and books is in the RBML, and was the subject of an exhibition in 2002-2003.

I was particularly excited by this exhibition, not only because of my personal interest in the history of gambling, but because (believe it or not) of something in the John Jay Papers.

In 1794, John Jay, then serving as Chief Supreme Court Justice, was appointed by Washington to serve as Envoy Extraordinary to negotiate a treaty concerning the general commerce between the said United States and the British Empire, and also to address certain unexecuted or ignored aspects of the 1783 Peace Treaty.  His eldest son, Peter Augustus, then 18, accompanied his father. He had just graduated from Columbia College, and his mother, Sarah, thought the London trip would be a grand opportunity for him. His father had misgivings, but eventually agreed. During their residence in London, Peter kept a diary in four notebooks, in which he recorded the sights and people they encountered. Among the people he met were the artist Benjamin West, philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Prime Minister William Pitt the younger, and manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood. He attended the theater, seeing Mrs. Siddons perform numerous times, grand balls and assemblies, and visited galleries, libraries, and museums. It was at the British Museum that he encountered a pair of loaded dice.


Monday 23rd. June [1794] I breakfasted this morning with Mr. Paradise, who was so obliging as afterwards to attend me to the British Museum– This edifice is a fine one, & it contains such numbers & variety that in one morning, it is impossible to gain much more than a knoledge of their disposition . . . We saw in another room a number of Roman dice, some of which appear to have been loaded, many Play & Lottery Tickets consisting principally of figures cut from ivory

Peter Augustus’s diaries, located in the John Jay Papers collection at RBML, were probably kept both to hone Peter’s observatory and writing skills, serve as a souvenir, and to share with his family and friends back home. They provide a unique window on Jay’s negotiation, as they list where and with whom the father and son visited. The Jay collection also contains many letters, both official and private, from the mission, as well as Jay’s letter book and account book.

(However, it’s not clear if any of the dice in the exhibition are loaded.)

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