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Thomas De La Rue
Playing Cards, History, England 19th Century

Thomas de la Rue is an important figure in English card making history whose innovations lead to the introduction of mechanized colour printing to the production of playing cards.

Thomas De La Rue was born in Guernsey in 1793. He started his professional life at the age of 10 when he was apprenticed to his brother in-law, a master printer.

In 1818 De La Rue moved to London with his family and set up shop as a paper manufacturer. He tried his hand at a number of enterprises including the production of straw hats, and the proprietorship of a newspaper. But nothing would bring him good fortune and financial success as would colour printing and playing cards.

His first feat of ingenuity was to introduce letter-press-printing into playing card production for which he was granted a patent in 1831. This meant that he could print four colours simultaneously, and in perfect alignment. It also meant that Thomas could churn out colour playing cards, in great numbers, mechanically and cheaply. And he did so from 1832 onwards.

Traditionalists may have erred in reluctance at the artistic retreat, but the technical advance opened other possibilities, not the least of which, was card back designs.

The new colour printing process was so effective that it covered any flaws or inconsistencies in the paper. Up till then, playing cards were often just white on the backs, with just the paper to disguise their identity. It meant that any flaws or marks on the paper would make the card easy to identify from the back. A large colour image over the plain back surface would cover any of those flaws and disguise any marks. Therefore, you really didn’t have to be so picky, and you could use cheaper paper, which was good for card makers and good for players.

It also meant that attractive card back designs could be printed with standard, mechanical precision. And that was perfect!

De La Rue was not a man to rest on his laurels, but searched for first class artists to design the backs of his cards. This pursuit would put him in acquaintance with Owen Jones, an artist who would end up designing card backs for various card masters of the 19th century including Lewis I. Cohen, an eminent American card maker of the time.

This was a period when development and innovation were coming from the production process, and focus turned to the finished, inked paper product, rather than the style or adornment of the Royal Household. Now card makers looked to the mechanization and refinement of the production process and the texture and rigidity of the paper product that came out of it.

De La Rue was by no means alone in his achievements in colour printing, and within 5 years a number of similar machines had been invented. Across the Atlantic, in America, Lewis I. Cohen, whose business consolidations would eventually end up becoming the New York Consolidated Card Co., had been working away at the same project and registered a very similar invention in 1835. This led eventually to another story about the widespread diffusion of playing cards.

What eminent card makers like De La Rue and Lewis Cohen were doing, was refining the production process. In effect, they were making a better paper product, and making it more efficiently.

The results of these innovations were bringing quality playing cards to the market, in large quantities at affordable prices. By the 1870s, De La Rue was selling 100,000 decks a year, which gives you an idea of how many were in circulation. Interesting, the cards they were producing by this time came out as standard; double-ended, rounded corners, smooth satin finishes, and corner side indices.

It was these innovations in the 19th century, which really came together to cut out and finalize some of the basic properties of the modern playing card.



L I N K S

Thomas de La Rue - World of Playing Cards
Owen Jones - World of Playing Cards

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