The Early History of Playing Cards

The origin of playing cards is obscure, but it is almost certain that they began in China after the invention of paper. Ancient Chinese "money cards" have four "suits": coins (or cash), strings of coins (which may have been misinterpreted as sticks from crude drawings), myriads of strings, and tens of myriads. These were represented by ideograms, with numerals of 2-9 in the first three suits and numerals 1-9 in the "tens of myriads". Wilkinson suggests in The Chinese origin of playing cards that the first cards may have been actual paper currency which were both the tools of gaming and the stakes being played for. The designs on modern Mahjong tiles and dominoes likely evolved from those earliest playing cards. The Chinese word p'ai is used to describe both paper cards and gaming tiles.

The time and manner of the introduction of cards into Europe are matters of dispute. The 38th canon of the council of Worcester (1240) is often quoted as evidence of cards having been known in England in the middle of the 13th century; but the games de rege et regina there mentioned are now thought to more likely have been chess. If cards were generally known in Europe as early as 1278, it is very remarkable that Petrarch, in his dialogue that treats gaming, never once mentions them. Boccaccio, Chaucer and other writers of that time specifically refer to various games, but there is not a single passage in their works that can be fairly construed to refer to cards. Passages have been quoted from various works, of or relative to this period, but modern research leads to the supposition that the word rendered cards has often been mistranslated or interpolated.

It is likely that the ancestors of modern cards arrived in Europe from the Mamelukes of Egypt in the late 1300s, by which time they had already assumed a form very close to those in use today. In particular, the Mameluke deck contained 52 cards comprising four "suits": polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten "spot" cards (cards identified by the number of suit symbols or "pips" they show) and three "court" cards named malik (King), na'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy King), and thani na'ib (Second or Under-Deputy). The Mameluke court cards showed abstract designs not depicting persons (at least not in any surviving specimens) though they did bear the names of military officers. A complete pack of Mameluke playing cards was discovered by L.A. Mayer in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum, Istanbul, in 1939; this particular complete pack was not made before 1400, but the complete deck allowed matching to a private fragment dated to the twelfth or thirteenth century. There is some evidence to suggest that this deck may have evolved from an earlier 48-card deck that had only two court cards per suit, and some further evidence to suggest that earlier Chinese cards brought to Europe may have travelled to Persia, which then influenced the Mameluke and other Egyptian cards of the time before their reappearance in Europe.

It is not known whether these cards influenced the design of the Indian cards used for the game of Ganjifa, or whether the Indian cards may have influenced these. Regardless, the Indian cards have many distinctive features: they are round, generally hand painted with intricate designs, and comprise more than four suits (often as many as twelve).

The Spread of Playing Card Across Europe and Early Design Changes

In the late 1300s, the use of playing cards spread rapidly across Europe. The first widely accepted references to cards are in 1371 in Spain, in 1377 in Switzerland, and, in 1380, they are referenced in many locations including Florence, Paris, and Barcelona. A Paris ordinance dated 1369 does not mention cards; its 1377 update includes cards. In the account-books of Johanna, duchess of Brabant, and her husband, Wenceslaus of Luxemburg, there is an entry dated May 14, 1379 as follows: "Given to Monsieur and Madame four peters, two forms, value eight and a half moutons, wherewith to buy a pack of cards". An early mention of a distinct series of playing cards is the entry of Charles or Charbot Poupart, treasurer of the household of Charles VI of France, in his book of accounts for 1392 or 1393, which records payment for the painting of three sets or packs of cards, which were evidently already well known.

It is clear that the earliest cards were executed by hand, like those designed for Charles VI. However, this was quite expensive, so other means were needed to mass-produce them. It is possible that the art of wood engraving, which led to the art of printing, developed because of the demand for implements of play. If the assumption is true that the cards of that period were printed from wood blocks, the early card makers or cardpainters of Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg, from about 1418 to 1450, were most likely also wood engravers.

Many early woodcuts were colored using a stencil, so it would seem that the art of depicting and coloring figures by means of stencil plates was well known when wood engraving was first introduced. No playing cards engraved on wood exist whose creation can be confirmed as early 1423 (the earliest-dated wood engraving generally accepted). However, in this period professional card makers were established in Germany, so it is probable that wood engraving was employed to produce cuts for sacred subjects before it was applied to cards, and that there were hand-painted and stencilled cards before there were wood engravings of saints. The German Brief maler or card-painter probably progressed into the wood engraver; but there is no proof that the earliest wood engravers were the card-makers.

The Europeans experimented with the structure of playing cards, particularly in the 1400s. Europeans changed the court cards to represent European royalty and attendants, originally "king", "chevalier", and "knave" (or "servant"). Queens were introduced in a number of different ways. In an early surviving German pack (dated in the 1440s), Queens replace Kings in two of the suits as the highest card. Throughout the 1400s, 56-card decks containing a King, Queen, Knight, and Valet were common. Suits also varied; many makers saw no need to have a standard set of names for the suits, so early decks often had different suit names (though typically 4 suits). The cards manufactured by German printers used the suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns still present in Eastern and Southeastern German decks today used for Skat and other games. Later Italian and Spanish cards of the 15th century used swords, batons, cups, and coins. It is likely that the Tarot deck was invented in Italy at that time, though it is often mistakenly believed to have been imported into Europe by Gypsies. While originally (and still in some places, notably Europe) used for the game of Tarocchi, the Tarot deck today is more often used for cartomancy and other occult practices. This probably came about in the 1780s, when occult philosophers mistakenly associated the symbols on Tarot cards with Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The four suits ( hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs) now used in most of the world originated in France, approximately in 1480. These suits have generally prevailed because decks using them could be made more cheaply; the former suits were all drawings which had to be reproduced by woodcuts, but the French suits could be made by stencil. The trèfle, so named for its resemblance to the trefoil leaf, was probably copied from the acorn; the pique similarly from the leaf of the German suits, while its name derived from the sword of the Italian suits. It is not derived from its resemblance to a pike head, as commonly supposed. In England the French suits were used, and are named hearts, clubs (corresponding to trèfle, the French symbol being joined to the Italian name, bastoni), spades (corresponding to the French pique, but having the Italian name, spade=sword) and diamonds. This confusion of names and symbols is accounted for by Chatto thus:

"If cards were actually known in Italy and Spain in the latter part of the 14th century, it is not unlikely that the game was introduced into this country by some of the English soldiers who had served under Hawkwood and other free captains in the wars of Italy and Spain. However this may be, it seems certain that the earliest cards commonly used in this country were of the same kind, with respect to the marks of the suits, as those used in Italy and Spain."

Court cards have likewise undergone some changes in design and name. Early court cards were elaborate full-length figures; the French in particular often gave them the names of particular heroes and heroines from history and fable. A prolific manufacturing center in the 1500s was Rouen, which originated many of the basic design elements of court cards still present in modern decks. It is likely that the Rouennais cards were popular imports in England, establishing their design as standard there, though other designs became more popular in Europe (particularly in France, where the Parisian design became standard). Rouen courts are traditionally named as follows: the kings of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs are David, Alexander, Caesar, and Charles (Charlemagne), respectively. The knaves (or "jacks"; French "valet") are Hector (prince of Troy), La Hire (comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc), Ogier (a knight of Charlemagne), and Judas Maccabeus (who led the Jewish rebellion against the Syrians). The queens are Pallas (warrior goddess; equivalent to the Greek Athena or Roman Minerva), Rachel (biblical mother of Joseph), Argine (the origin of which is obscure; it is an anagram of regina, which is Latin for queen), and Judith (from Book of Judith). Parisian tradition uses the same names, but assigns them to different suits: the kings of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs are David, Charles, Caesar, and Alexander; the queens are Pallas, Judith, Rachel, and Argine; the knaves are Ogier, La Hire, Hector, and Judas Maccabee. Oddly, the Parisian names have become more common in modern use, even with cards of Rouennais design.

Later Design Changes

In early games the kings were always the highest card in their suit. However, as early as the late 1400s special significance began to be placed on the nominally lowest card, now called the Ace, so that it sometimes became the highest card and the Two, or Deuce, the lowest. This concept may have been hastened in the late 1700s by the French Revolution, where games began being played "ace high" as a symbol of lower classes rising in power above the royalty. The term "Ace" itself comes from a dicing term in Anglo-Norman language, which is itself derived from the Latin as (the smallest unit of coinage). Another dicing term, trey (3), sometimes shows up in playing card games.

Corner and edge indices appeared in the mid-1800s, which enabled people to hold their cards close together in a fan with one hand (instead of the two hands previously used). Before this time, the lowest court card in an English deck was officially termed the Knave, but its abbreviation ("Kn") was too similar to the King ("K"). However, from the 1600s on the Knave had often been termed the Jack, a term borrowed from the game All Fours where the Knave of trumps is termed the Jack. All Fours was considered a low-class game, so the use of the term Jack at one time was considered vulgar. The use of indices changed the formal name of the lowest court card to Jack.

This was followed by the innovation of reversible court cards. Reversible court cards meant that players would not be tempted to make upside-down court cards right side up. Before this, other players could often get a hint of what other players' hands contained by watching them reverse their cards. This innovation required abandoning some of the design elements of the earlier full-length courts.

The joker is an American innovation. Created for the Alsatian game of Euchre, it spread to Europe from America along with the spread of Poker (although its use in poker has largely faded). Although the joker card often bears the image of a fool, which is one of the images of the Tarot deck, it is not believed that there is any relation. In contemporary decks, one of the two jokers is often more colorful or more intricately detailed than the other, though this feature is not used in most card games. The two jokers are often differentiated as "Big" and "Little," or more commonly, "Red" and "Black." In many card games the jokers are not used. Unlike face cards, the design of jokers varies widely. Many manufacturers use them to carry trademark designs.

Anglo-American Playing Cards

The primary deck of fifty-two playing cards in use today, called Anglo-American playing cards, includes thirteen ranks of each of the four English suits, spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs, with reversible Rouennais court cards. Each suit includes an ace, depicting a single symbol of its suit; a king, queen, and jack, each depicted with a symbol of its suit; and ranks two through ten, with each card depicting that many symbols (pips) of its suit. Two (sometimes one or four) Jokers, often distinguishable with one being more colorful than the other, are included in commercial decks but many games require one or both to be removed before play. Modern playing cards carry index labels on opposite corners (rarely, all four corners) to facilitate identifying the cards when they overlap.

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. Until August 4, 1960, decks of playing cards printed and sold in the United Kingdom 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 packs were also sealed with a government duty wrapper.

Though specific design elements of the court cards are rarely used in game play, a few are notable. The jack of spades and jack of hearts are drawn in profile, while the rest of the courts are shown in full face (the exception being the King of Diamonds), leading to the former being called the "one-eyed" jacks. When deciding which cards are to be made wild in some games, the phrase, "acey, deucey, one-eyed jack," is sometimes used, which means that aces, twos, and the one-eyed jacks are all wild. The king of hearts is shown with a broadsword behind his head, leading to the nickname "suicide king". The King of Diamonds is armed with an ax while the other three kings are armed with swords. The king of Diamonds is sometimes referred to as "the man with the ax" because of this. The Ace of Spades, unique in its large, ornate spade, is sometimes said to be the death card, and in some games is used as a trump card. The Queen of Hearts is believed to be a representation of Elizabeth of York - the Queen consort of King Henry VII of England.

The most common sizes for playing cards are poker size (2½in × 3½in, approx. 63mm × 88mm) and bridge size (2¼in × 3½in, approx. 56mm × 87mm), the latter being more suitable for games such as bridge in which a large number of cards must be held concealed in a player's hand. Other sizes are also available, such as a smaller size (usually 1⅜in × 2⅝in, approx. 44mm × 66mm) for solitaire and larger ones for card tricks.

Some decks include additional design elements. Casino blackjack decks may include markings intended for a machine to check the ranks of cards. Many casino decks and solitaire decks have four indices instead of the usual two. Many decks have large indices, largely for use in stud poker games, where being able to read cards from a distance is a benefit and hand sizes are small. Some decks use four colors for the suits in order to make it easier to tell them apart. The colors used in such decks are black (spades ♠), red (hearts ), blue (diamonds ) and green (clubs ).

When giving the full written name of a specific card, the rank is given first followed by the suit, e.g., "Ace of Spades". Shorthand notation may list the rank first "A♠" (as is typical when discussing poker) or list the suit first (as is typical in listing several cards in bridge) "♠AKQ". Tens may be either abbreviated to T or written as 10.

German and Austrian Playing Cards

German and Austrian suits may have different appearances. For instance, many German decks have yellow or orange diamonds and green spades. Many southern Germans and Austrians prefer decks with hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns (for hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs), as mentioned above.

Italian Playing Cards

Italian playing cards most commonly consist of a deck of 40 cards. Hundreds of different designs are in use in different parts of the country (about one per province). The suits are coins (sometimes suns or sunbursts), swords, cups and clubs (sometimes batons), and each suit contains an ace (or one), numbers two through seven, and three face cards. The face cards are:

  • King - a man standing, wearing a crown
  • Knight - a man sitting on a horse
  • Jack - a younger man standing, without a crown

Unlike Anglo-American cards, Italian cards do not have any numbers (or letters) identifying their value. The cards' value is determined by identifying the face card or counting the number of suit characters.

Spanish Playing Cards

The traditional Spanish deck (referred to as abaraja española)is organized into four palos (or suits). Like traditional tarot cards these consist of bastos (clubs), oros ("golds" or coins), espadas (swords) and copas (cups). Unlike in the standard Anglo-American deck, there is no card 10, so each suit has only twelve cards. The three face cards in each suit are as follows: el rey (the king), el caballo (the horse or horseman) and la sota (the jack, knave, or page.) Many Spanish games involve forty-card decks, with the 8s and 9s removed. This deck is used not only in Spain but in other countries where Spain maintained an influence, (eg. Philippines, Puerto Rico).

Japanese Playing Cards

The standard 54-card deck is also commonly known as a poker deck or - in Japan - a Trump deck, to differentiate it from "dedicated" card games such as UNO or Froop!, or other dynamic card decks like Hanafuda.

Article text based on the Wikipedia, licensed under the GFDL. See "Playing card" at Wikipedia.org.

See also: Playing Cards History

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Last Update: February 25th, 2014