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A Brief History of Playing Cards

From David Kininmonth

March 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the Swan districts bridge club, so we were all set to celebrate with Anniversary dinner, displays setting out our history, but sadly Covid-19 cancelled all that - but enough of our woes.

One of our members Lorna Shead has a collection of some 350 decks of cards, which she offered to us to set up a display. Arrangements were made for the display to be set up in the foyer of the Midland Library. This has taken place and looks quite good, reflecting different types of card decks and different uses or cards,

The Swan districts Bridge Club mounted at display of playing cards in the Midland Library as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. One member Lorna Shead has a collection of over 300 packs of playing cards, which she loaned the club for the display. This collection covered cards produced for many different purposes. To give proper emphasis on the different decks, it was necessary to research the development and use of playing cards. The display reflects the various uses and playing card types, but there are many stories that cannot be fitted into an area 2 metres wide, and 1 high and deep. This article reflects some of the background to different components of the display.

Playing cards are typically palm-sized for convenient handling, and usually are sold together in a set as a deck of cards or pack of cards.

We have all handled playing cards and know them as piece of specially prepared card stock, heavy paper, thin cardboard, plastic-coated paper, cotton-paper blend, or thin plastic that is marked with distinguishing motifs.

Often the front (face) and back of each card has a finish to make handling easier. Sharp corners wear out more quickly, and could possibly reveal the card's value, so they were replaced with rounded corners. Before the mid-19th century, British, American, and French players preferred blank backs. The need to hide wear and tear and to discourage writing on the back led cards to have designs, pictures, photos, or advertising on the reverse

They are most commonly used for playing card games, and are also used

  • to perform magic tricks
  • for cardistry
  • in card throwing, and for building card houses
  • and card dragons.
  • Some types of cards such as tarot cards are also used for divination

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A face-up deck of cards in dealers grip

Playing cards are available in a wide variety of styles, as decks may be custom-produced for

  • casinos ,ABF, BAWA and
  • magicians (sometimes in the form of trick decks)
  • fortune telling
  • made as promotional items
  • intended as souvenirs,
  • artistic works,
  • educational tools,
  • branded accessories.

Decks of cards or even single cards are also collected as a hobby or for monetary value.[ Different types of card decks can be found in different areas of the world-while the standard 52-card deck is known and used internationally, other types of cards such as Japanese hanafuda and Italian playing cards are well-known in their locales.

Individual playing cards are often collected, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the world record collection of 8,520 different Jokers belonging to Tony De Santis of Italy.

Cards may also be produced for trading card sets or collectible card games, which can comprise hundreds if not thousands of unique cards.

Playing cards were first invented in China during the Tang dynasty.

868: Chinese writer Su E describes Princess Tong Cheng playing the "leaf game" with her husband's family, the Wei Clan. This makes the Tang Dynasty the earliest official mention of playing cards in world history.

1005: Ouyang Xiu, another Chinese writer, associates the rising popularity of playing cards with the production of sheets of paper instead of the traditional scrolls.

The popularization of woodblock printing during the Tang dynasty made the written word available to greater audiences. As a result of the much wider distribution and circulation of reading materials, the general populace were for the first time able to purchase affordable copies of texts, which correspondingly led to greater literacy.

1300s: Playing cards come to Europe-which we know because in 1367, an official ordinance mentions them being banned in Bern, Switzerland.

1377: A Paris ordinance on gaming mentions playing cards, meaning they were so widespread that the city had to make rules to keep players in check.

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1400s: Familiar suits start appearing on playing cards across the world-hearts, bells, leaves, acorns, swords, batons, cups, coins.

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1418: Professional card makers in Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg start using woodcuts to mass-produce decks.

1430-50: The Master of Playing Cards arrives in Germany. Nobody knows who this guy actually is, but it seems that, unlike other card producers of the day, he trained as an artist as opposed to an engraver, making him unique in the business. His playing cards were far more artistically sound than his predecessors.

1480: France begins producing decks with suits of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. The clubs are probably a modified acorn design, while the spade is a stylized leaf.

Late 1400s: By the end of the century, European court cards switch from current royalty to historical or classic figures.

1500s: Rouen, France, becomes England's primary provider of playing cards, while a Parisian design swept France. It's the Parisian design we're most familiar with today.

1790s: Before the French revolution, the king was always the highest card in a suit; the Ace begins its journey to the top.

The Ace of Spades (also known as the Spadille and Death Card) is traditionally the highest and most valued card in the deck of playing cards in English-speaking countries. The actual value of the card varies from game to game. The fanciful design and manufacturer's logo commonly displayed on the ace of spades began under the reign of James I of England, who passed a law requiring an insignia on that card as proof of payment of a tax on local manufacture of cards.

Up until the 1960s, decks of playing cards printed and sold in the in many countries, were liable for taxable duty and the ace of spades carried an indication of the name of the printer and the fact that taxation had been paid on the cards.
The Ace of spades now carries the makers name and/or logo.

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1867: Russell, Morgan, & Co is founded in Cincinnati, Ohio as a company that prints theatrical and circus posters, labels, and playing cards.

1870s: The Joker makes its first appearance as the third and highest trump (the best bower) in the game of Euchre. Some believe the name "joker" is actually derived from the word "juker," another name for Euchre.

1885: The first Bicycle« Brand cards are produced by Russell, Morgan, and Co in New York.

1894: Russell, Morgan, & Co. becomes The United States Playing Card Company, acquiring the Standard Playing Card Company (Chicago), Perfection Card Company (New York), and New York Consolidated Card Company (also New York).

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1939: Leo Mayer discovers a Mameluke deck (cards made in Mamluk Egypt) in Istanbul dating from the 12th or 13th century.

MAMLUK pack, hand-drawn and hand-painted, are a beautiful example of the important and often overlooked cultural, technical and artistic influence which Islam has bestowed upon the Western world, evident in the many artistic, architectural and archŠological treasures displaying their characteristic geometric construction. In this case we are looking at the ancestor of our humble playing card. The underlying design is very simple but the surface has been ornamented. The border of some cards is in the shape of a horseshoe arch as seen in Islamic doorways, windows, friezes and gravestone decorations.

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The suits are coins, cups, swords and polo-sticks and there are 13 cards per suit: the numbers 1 to 10 plus 3 court cards, the King, the Lieutenant and the Second Lieutenant. The ranks of the court cards are given in the blue inscription areas at the bottom of the cards. In European packs the court cards are of course represented pictorially.

The calligraphic texts along the tops of the cards consist of rhyming aphorisms which are often very enchanting, sometimes strange, but always interesting: "With the sword of happiness I shall redeem a beloved who will afterwards take my life" - "O thou who hast possessions, remain happy and thou shalt have a pleasant life."

1942: The United States Playing Card Company begins producing Bicycle Spotter Decks to help soldiers identify tanks, ships, and aircraft from other countries. They also produced decks for POWs that pulled apart to reveal maps when moistened.

1966: During the Vietnam war, two lieutenants write The United States Playing Card Company to request decks containing nothing but Ace of Spades cards. The cards frightened the highly superstitious Viet Cong, who believed Spades predicted death.


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The French 52-card deck which preserves the number of cards in the original Mamluk deck has been adopted internationally, because of the simplicity of the pips design.

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French playing-cards are known and used all over the world - everywhere where Bridge and Poker are played. In England, the same pack is used for other games such as Whist, Cribbage, Rummy, Nap and so on.

But in other European countries games such as Skat, Jass, Mus, Scopa, and Tarock are played, using cards of totally different face-designs many of them with roots far older than English cards. The history of these national and regional patterns has only recently become the concern of students and collectors.

As many travellers to more southerly parts of Europe can tell, the familiar suits of Hearts Spades Diamonds and Clubs give way to quite different sets of symbols: Hearts Leaves Bells (round hawkbells) and Acorns in Germany; Shields 'Roses' Bells and Acorns in Switzerland; Coins Cups Swords and Clubs (cudgels) in Spain and Mediterranean Italy; Coins Cups Swords and Batons in Adriatic Italy. In the latter region, in particular, local packs of cards have a decidedly archaic look about them - which reflects the designs of some of the earliest cards made in Europe.

Drawing each by hand made card production a painstaking task, not to mention utterly unaffordable for anyone outside the aristocracy. The introduction of wood cuts in the middle ages made cards cheaper to produce.

Instead of today's iconic four suits, the Germanic cards of the late middle ages had five suits. That is, flowers, deer, birds, beasts, and wild men and the pips on each card were actually the animals in the suit.

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Three of hounds

Today the typical northern German pack has 32 cards ranking from 7, 8, 9, 10, Under Knave, Over Knave, King and "Ace" for a total of 32 cards.

Spanish Suited Decks

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The Spanish mainly use a 48-card decks have nine ranks of pip cards (1-9) and three ranks of face cards (10-12). Since the mid-20th century, they have usually been sold with two jokers), for a total of 50 cards. Stripped decks have 40 cards, lacking ranks 8 and 9 and jokers.

The popularity of the stripped deck is due to game of Ombre, which became a craze throughout Europe during the 17th century.

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Italian-Suited Decks

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Playing cards arrived from Mamluk, Egypt during the 1370s. As polo was an obscure sport, Italians changed them into batons. Italy was a collection of small states so each region developed its own variations.

All Italian suited decks have three face cards per suit: the fante (Knave), cavallo (Knight), and re (King), unless it is a tarocchi deck in which case a donna or regina (Queen) is inserted between the cavallo and re.

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Other Card Decks

Decks of cards have been produced to celebrate special events, occasions, and purposes. The events may be celebrations of weddings.

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Double packs (2x52 plus jokers) and triple packs (3x52 plus jokers) with the same back designs are sold for Canasta and Samba. These decks may contain point values marked on the cards. Casinos produce specially printed cards, so that cards cannot be manipulated or substituted.

Educational Cards

Often playing cards are developed for educational purposes, as well as entertainment.

Snitch Cards

Police departments local governments, state prison systems and even private organizations have created decks of cards that feature photos and names of cold case victims, missing or wanted persons on each card. These decks are provided in the hope that someone might provide a new lead. Among inmates, they are called "snitch cards".

A single card from an Australian deck of cold case playing cards - the two of spades with information about missing person Tony Jones.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US Defence Intelligence Agency developed a set of cards to help troops identify the most wanted members of President Saddam Hussein's government.

Tarot Cards

Like common playing cards, the tarot has four suits which vary by country. Each suit has 14 cards, ten pip cards numbering from one) to ten and four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave).

In addition, the tarot has a separate 21-card trump suit and a single card known as the Fool.

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Tarot cards are still used throughout much of Europe to play conventional card games without occult associations.

In the late 18th century, some tarot packs began to be used as a trend for divination via tarot card reading and cartomancy leading to custom packs developed for such occult purposes.


Many people collect cards to reflect memories of places visited.

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Decks reflecting locations visited

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Contributors should note that the right to modify submitted material is retained by the Editors.