A Brief History of Playing Cards
Playing Cards have existed for millennia and around them hundreds of games and conventions have been devised. It is upon their fall, their suits and their ranks that fortunes have been dashed and players been daunted. The standard deck comprises 52 cards, in four suits each of thirteen ranks. In the Royal Household are Kings, Queens and Jacks, and another fellow who plays a cameo in games here and there known as the Joker.
The English pattern itself derives from a 15th century design that originated in Rouen, France. One might not think twice as to why it is these characters who have come to contritely inhabit the ranks of the deck. Their place in playing cards was by no means a journey of certainty, and it was not without the possibility of other contenders.
But it was these Kings, Queens and Knights, this English household, dressed in their 16th century period garb that underwrites the standard of the Anglo-American playing card. Their history begins way back in the murky dimness when many patterns were emerging in regions, and when many different Royal Households contended for eminence.
Playing Cards are believed to have arrived in Europe around the 1350’s. One of the earliest historical references comes in 1379 (Giovanni de Covelluzzo, City of Viterbo) and not surprisingly it is the form of a prohibition forbidding the use of cards on Sunday or the Sabbath. By that time, however, playing-cards were well and truly vested in European culture and were as well known in Switzerland and Germany as they were along the Mediterranean coast. How they got there, no one really knows.
The earliest archaeological documentation of playing cards comes from 12th century China. This oldest of tangible artefacts is described as a paper money card. Apparently the deck was arranged in four suits of coins, more coins, strings of coins and myriads of strings of coins, with numerical values 1-9. The cards are thought to have been accepted as a kind of paper currency. In games like these, they were not only used as the instruments of gaming, but the very bets you laid.
Even further back than this, it is known that playing cards existed in Persia and throughout the Arabian Peninsula as early as the 8th century. While it seems plausible enough to expect that Gypsies or merchants arriving from these places may have been responsible for introducing them to European culture, the threads are difficult to weave, and any exemplary forms completely unknown.
More likely that playing cards arrived in Europe from Egypt, crossing the Mediterranean some time in the 14th century. In Egypt there was a class of military servants who used a 52-card deck that looks almost identical to some of the earliest Italian decks. The 52 cards were divided into four suits of Swords, Sticks, Cups and Coins. Numbers 1-10 were represented as pips arranged on the card, exactly as they are on playing cards today, and the three royal titles were Malik (King), Na’ib Malik (Deputy King) and Thani Na’ib (Under Deputy), though none were represented in human form, but rather as geometric patterns.
By the late 14th century playing cards were in widespread use right across Europe and card-making shops were emerging everywhere. It was in Germany that the giant leap forward took place in printing, and wood blocks were churning out cards by the 100s. The earliest examples of European design displayed the ‘Latin Suits’ of Swords, Batons, Cups and Coins. The Germans and the Swiss were producing more elegant forms as Hearts, Bells, Leaves and Acorns (1475) and by the 1480s the French had turned to producing Hearts, Clubs, Spades and Diamonds.
Although the first playing cards to arrive in England were Latin suited, by the 1590’s the most common cards in circulation were those of French origin.
It was the Europeans who began to give the Court cards their faces, and as they did so their characters turned to more familiar titles like “King”, “Chevalier” and “Valet”. While all this was going on, there was also some conjecture about the optimum number of cards to be playing with. Some decks had as few as 48, others as many as 56. In some the Royal Household was extended to four by including Queens, in others, Queens replaced Kings altogether. In France’s high world of Fashion, the Valet was even given some plaits in his hair.
By the late 15th century, most card players had agreed that the standard deck played best with 52 cards. In Germany, that meant the end for Queens, and in Spain they had never really been invited into the Household in the first place. In France, however, just enough elegance balanced with sophistication and the Queens were spared gallows of disregard. It was from here they found passage to England, flanked either side by King and Knave, to take residence in the Royal Household there.
Design elements took a number of forms. In France, for example, there were some nine distinctive regional patterns, and much experimentation and variation was going on across Europe. It was in the city of Agen, France, around 1745 that fledgling reversible court cards first broke press. Up until then, picture cards were drawn in full length with head, legs, and torso and included many design elements such as weapons and horses. Naturally, the new reversible design eliminated some of these, but since you didn’t have to turn your picture cards right way up every time you were dealt them upside down, everybody liked the idea. Ironically, the French authorities prohibited production of these new cards, while everywhere else they were eagerly embraced. As early as the 1800s, even some decks being produced in America had this design feature.
The rise of the Ace to pre-eminence had it beginnings in the 14th century. In early games the Kings were always the highest card but by the late 14th century special significance began to be placed on the lowest card, the One or “Ace” as we have come to know it. The practice was only further popularized in the republican fervor of the French Revolution (1789-1799) where many more games began to be played ‘Ace high’. There was even the suggestion of doing away with the Royal family altogether and instead of Kings, Queens and Knights have Liberties, Equalities and Fraternities, but that idea just never caught on.
The Ace of Spades is regarded as the insignia card of the deck. Traditionally it is used to display the manufacturers logo or brand name as a testament to quality and a mark of identification. The practice began in 17th century England when, under the reign of King James 1st, a duty was imposed on local playing card manufacturers. The Ace of Spades carried the insignia of the printing house, so they could be identified, and a stamp as proof of tax paid. The duty was abolished in the 1960’s but the practice of inscribing the brand insignia on the Ace of Spades remains.
By the late 19th century all the elements we commonly attributable to the modern English playing card were either firmly in place or coming into widespread use. The Kings, Queens and Knaves were firmly installed in the court, the suits of Hearts, Spades, Clubs and Diamonds were being turned out of factories in England and the New World. Corner side indices appeared in diametric corners and the reversible court card was all but the norm. These small improvements may seem minor, but they had taken hundreds of years to refine. All the innovations which had grown and evolved out of the refinement of European manufacturing practices from the late 14th century, had by now coalesced into this single elegant package – the standard playing card.
Meanwhile, over in the New World, all the semblances were gradually falling into place for the first industrial scale production and widespread diffusion of playing cards. Playing cards entered American through the colonies and with countless immigrants who arrived on her shores. With the growth in population and the relentless push westward, their use was only becoming more and more widespread in the bars and saloons staggered across the frontier. America was building an enviable industrial base and large-scale manufacture was, for the first time in history, a feasible undertaking.
Not surprisingly, as it was some 400 years earlier in Germany, playing card manufacture had provided the impetus for technical development in printing. Around 1834 it was card masters like Cohen and De La Rue who had mastered the four-colour impression in just one pass – a technological achievement that still remains essential to the manufacturing process today. By the mid 1830’s playing cards were being churned out of factories in London and New York by the hundreds of thousands. Andrew Dougherty opened his workshop in Brooklyn in the 1840's, Samuel Hart was manufacturing out Philadelphia, and by 1867 Russell and Morgan had formed their partnership in Cincinnati. It was only a few years after that before old friends like John M. Lawrence and John J. Levy would come together to form the New York Consolidated Card Company.
As printers all across America geared up for the first mechanized production of playing cards, a new dilemma emerged. For years the three Court cards had been called King, Queen and Knave. This meant that their respective abbreviations appeared in the corner side indices as “K”, “Q” and “Kn” – this latter an abbreviation frequently confused with “K”.
In order to make the Knave more immediately distinguishable from his Lordship, it was decided that the noble foot servant take on a title he had earned in an old English card game called “All Fours”. In this game the Knave played the “Jack of Trumps” and for 1 point he was spared the gallows and for three points he was hung. Although vulgar by Victorian standards, the name “Jack” stuck and it was under these auspices that our newest and youngest member of the Royal Family was ushered into the court.
It was only now for the Joker to appear. In the mid 19th century a particular variation of Euchre, which required an extra trump or Bower, became widely played in America. The name “Joker” is thought to have derived from a corruption of the German word “bauer” or “boer”, which was the name given to the Jack of Trumps in this variation of the game. Widely credited to Samuel Hart* (1865) the “Imperial Trump” or “Best Bower” eventually came to find roles in a number of popular games including Poker. As Poker spread across America and then eventually to Europe, the Joker quietly crept with it where he was ushered into the court in an incarnation more consistent with the Royal Household of which he was now a member. It was the Europeans that loosely began to portray him the form of the “Court Jester” or “Fool”.
The Joker presents us with a kind of irony. Imbued with special powers as “Imperial Trump” or “Wild Card” he is the card that resolves all problems and wins all tricks. The card that can be any card. He is, in many cases the invincible Wizard of the Deck. Yet despite this compelling and enviable role, the Joker lacks any real definitive characteristics that would suggest he is the best at anything. No consistent or standard forms have ever really been assigned to him and he remains, almost like an outsider, as an undefined and unexplored character of the Anglo-American Deck.
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