Posted on
Wednesday 19th April 2023

The standard pack of playing cards will be a familiar sight to nearly everyone, from children playing Snap or carefully stacking them up to build a house of cards, to people playing any number of card-based games such as Poker, Solitaire, and Bridge, to the regulars in casinos sat at the Blackjack tables.


The modern deck consists of 52 cards, with four suits in red and black, and two Jokers, but it has taken hundreds of years and a journey across the world to reach this point. The cards we all know today contain elements that were produced and shaped by a wide variety of cultures and countries, so let’s take a look at the fascinating past of playing cards!


The East


Our journey back into the history of playing cards begins in the East. There is still much debate among scholars as to the true origin of playing cards, as even the best theories rely more on speculation than proof, but the common consensus is that the earliest form of playing cards that appeared in Europe were imported from somewhere in Asia.


It has been guessed that the cards, suits, and icons used in playing cards have links that go back to the 12th century, and further back to China, India, Korea, Persia, and Egypt.


Some scholars have suggested that playing cards were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty around the 9th century, and there is some evidence that there were drinking games that involved cards from around this time, with the icons on cards representing coins. This would mean that playing cards originated around the same time as tile games such as Dominoes or Mahjong, circa 1000 AD.


It has been suggested that the playing cards travelled across Asia to Europe via Egypt during the Mamluk period in Northern India, as the decks from that era featured goblets or cups, gold coins, swords, and polo sticks, which represented the main interests of the Mamluk aristocracy. These bear parallels to the more common four suits found in Italian playing cards from the 14th century.


While it may not be certain that playing cards first originated in the East, the modern decks of cards certainly found their origins in Europe.


Italy, Spain, and Germany


A Latin manuscript written by a German monk named Johannes from 1377 mentions the appearance of playing cards, as well as a number of games that could be played with them, and by 1400 playing cards and card and dice games were mentioned in various religious sermons as examples of denounced gambling activities.


This was the first time that a deck of 52 cards was shown to exist, and these first European cards featured swords, clubs, cups and coins, which most likely had their origin in Italy, by way of the Mamluk icons found on Egyptian playing cards. These Italian suits can still be found in Italian and Spanish cards today and are known as the Latin Suits.


In the late 14th century, the court cards first made an appearance and typically included a mounted King, a seated Queen, and a Knave, which could represent a royal servant or a prince, and was later referred to as a Jack, to avoid any confusion with the King.


Spanish cards developed slightly differently, with a King, Knight, and a Knave - the Queen being absent. Spanish cards also omitted the 10 cards, and the Spanish game of Ombre also omitted the 8s and 9s, resulting in a 40-card deck.


The first Italian playing cards were hand-painted and considered to be luxury items, and used by the user classes. But as card games became more popular, and methods to produce them cheaply became more widespread, playing cards became more widely available.


Playing cards eventually spread west throughout Europe, where Germany began to establish itself as a card-manufacturing nation, and introduced new suits to replace the Italian ones - acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells.


The German cards also omitted the Queen from Italian decks, and the court cards consisted of a King and two Knaves - the obermann (upper) and untermann (under), while the two replaced the Ace as the highest card, creating a 48-card deck.


The Germans developed wood-cutting and engraving techniques that meant printers were able to mass-produce the cards, giving the nation a dominant role in the ever-growing playing card trade, even exporting them back to Italy and Spain, where the modern decks first originated!


France and England


It was in France that the four suits we commonly use today were developed - coeurs (hearts), piques (spades), carreaux (diamonds), and trefles (clubs). The French also preferred the use of a King, Queen, and Knave as the court cards.


However, it was also the French who decided to divide the four suits into two red and two black, and more simplified and clearer symbols. Playing cards could be mass-produced even easier with stencils, faster and easier than the traditional German wood-cutting and engraving process.


Together with the development of the printing press, the Germans lost their dominance in the playing card trade, and the French decks spread throughout Europe, with the designs we all know today.


This now more recognisable deck of 52 cards first made its way across the English Channel via Belgium, as card makers shifted operations to Belgium to avoid the heavy taxation in France. While the cards maintained the French design, it was the English who popularised the use of names hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs, which is the common terminology today.


It was the English who developed the Ace of Spades, as the Government passed an Act that meant cards could not leave the factory until there was proof that the necessary tax on playing cards had been paid. This would have initially involved stamping the Ace of Spades, as it is the top card in a deck.


However, to prevent tax evasion, in 1828 it was decided that the Ace of Spades would have to be purchased from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties, specially printed along with the manufacturer's name and the amount of duty paid. This led to the Ace of Spades gaining elaborate designs with the manufacturer’s name.


By 1862, manufacturers were permitted to print their own Ace of Spades, but the practice of an ornate Ace card with the manufacturer’s name became common practice, and can still be seen on today’s Ace of Spades.


The double-ended court cards were also a British invention, from around 1860, and meant that there was no need to turn the cards, thus avoiding revealing to an opponent that a hand included court cards!


The United States


For a long time, Americans relied upon imported cards from England to meet the demand, but US manufacturers, such as Lewis I Cohen, began producing decks of cards in 1832.


By 1871, Cohen’s manufacturing company became known as the New York Consolidated Card Company and introduced adding card values to the corners of a card, making it easier to recognise Poker hands by slightly fanning the cards. While this was not so well received at the time, it is hard to imagine cards without this feature today!


It was US playing card manufacturers that also first introduced the Joker cards, which were initially called The Best Bower, and originated from the trick-taking game of Euchre, and may even be the origin of the word Joker.


The Future Of Playing Cards?


The history of playing cards is a long and fascinating one, with many mysteries yet unsolved. But what about the future of the humble playing card? Who knows what might happen, whether the shape and designs will evolve further, or we’ve reached the peak of playing card design.


But the next time you handle a pack of cards at home or get dealt a hand in a game of Blackjack at Coral Island Casino, you now know more about the long journey of the cards we know and love!

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