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                   The International Playing-Card Society

   This is a brief history of playing cards during the past 600 years.
   The illustrations show many of the striking variations used in other
   countries, and for various card games, both now and in past times.
   This information is based on a leaflet prepared by John Berry to
   provide background for the Exhibition 'The World of Playing Cards' at
   the Guildhall Library, London, from September 1995 to March 1996.
Other lands - other cards

   English 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.
Enigmatic origins-from East to West

   The earliest authentic references to playing-cards
   in Europe date from 1377, but, despite their long history, it is only
   in recent decades that clues about their origins have begun to be
   understood. Cards must have been invented in China, where paper was
   invented. Even today some of the packs used in China have suits of
   coins and strings of coins - which Mah Jong players know as circles
   and bamboos (i.e. sticks). Cards entered Europe from the Islamic
   empire, where cups and swords were added as suit-symbols, as well as
   (non-figurative) court cards. It was in Europe that these were
   replaced by representations of courtly human beings: kings and their
   attendants - knights (on horseback) and foot-servants. To this day,
   packs of Italian playing-cards do not have queens - nor do packs in
   Spain, Germany and Switzerland (among others). There is evidence that
   Islamic cards also entered Spain, but it now seems likely that the
   modern cards which we call Spanish originated in France, ousting the
   early Arab-influenced designs.
Variations on the original theme

   In Germany and Switzerland, the two lower court
   cards are both on foot, representing an 'upper' and a 'lower' rank-as
   stated in the 1377 description of playing-cards. Switzerland also
   preserves another feature of early German cards. The tens are
   represented by a banner, showing just one suit-symbol-though many old
   German banners show ten symbols. In these countries also, the 52-card
   pack was shortened to 48 cards by dropping the Aces. The deuce, or
   Daus, was then promoted to being the top card, and nowadays often
   carries the letter A as if it were an ace. The pack was then shortened
   even further. German single-figure packs habitually carried delightful
   vignettes of genre scenes at the base of the numeral cards-usually
   lost when packs became double-ended.
   How all these variations on the basic idea came about is not fully
   understood. One plausible theory is that some of them arose from
   midunderstandings due to language differences, which resulted in
   something like visual puns.
   Alongside the evolution of these traditional designs, in most
   countries there have also been persistent efforts to publish more
   fanciful cards, either as artistic essays, or with some purpose other
   than simple card-playing: for example, instruction, propaganda, or
   even amusement. Following a French initiative, England in the late
   17th and early 18th century produced a range of very idiosyncratic
   packs of cards of this type.
   But other countries, such as Germany and Austria, became the chief
   19th-century producers of packs of fanciful cards meant for use in
   card games in polite society.
Tarot - a diversion

   The study of the development of playing-cards has further been
   bedevilled by overmuch attention to tarot packs. To the best of our
   knowledge, the first packs of cards in Europe comprised 52 cards in
   four Italian-type suits each with three court cards (king, knight, and
   foot-servant), and were used for games of skill involving
   trick-taking, as well as for gambling games, which were often
   prohibited. Very soon, the idea of adding extra cards to act as
   permanent trumps came into being, and the tarot pack was born. At the
   same time a queen was interpolated between the king and the knight, so
   that, with the extra 22 non-suited cards, a pack of 78 cards was
   created. Such packs have continued to be used for their original
   purpose right through to the present day.
   In the course of their long life, many variations have been tried: the
   pack has been extended to 97 cards for Minchiate by adding more
   trumps; shortened to 63 cards by dropping low-value numeral cards;
   converted to using French suit-signs; shortened to 54 and 42 cards by
   dropping numerals; but always with the object of playing trick-taking
   games. Many of these variants are still in use for just that purpose.
Cartomancy and the occult

   It is the choice of subjects for the trump cards which has been the
   focus for so much attention by scholars and (alas) occultists. Though
   it has to be confessed that playing-card historians still do not know
   the explanation, enough is known to discredit wild theories which
   continue to find their way into print. For instance, the tarot pack
   was known before the arrival of the gypsies in Europe-which nullifies
   the connection with Egypt first dreamed up in 1781, and which forms
   the foundation for a mass of later occult speculation. The use of
   ordinary packs of playing-cards for cartomancy does not date from much
   earlier than this and, in fact, the attribution of cartomantic
   meanings to the suit-cards of the tarot pack dates from 1783. But
   occultists and cartomanciers prefer to ignore these truths.
Tarot gets a new look

   With the conversion of the tarot pack to the French suit-system, the
   trump cards, with their no longer understood imagery, were replaced by
   other sequences of pictures: animals, mythological subjects, genre
   scenes. The value of each trump card was now indicated by a large
   numeral (the forerunner of corner-indices), so that the pictures had
   no function other than decoration. However, a few sets of pictures
   found favour with card players, and gradually the range of such tarot
   packs narrowed down.
The playing-card picture-gallery

   The use of pictures on tarot trumps was eventually copied in a modern
   development of the older idea of 'pictured' cards. (Indeed, a couple
   of tarot packs actually started life as normal packs of cards with
   pictures instead of pips on the numeral cards.) The success of this
   idea was dependent on the introduction of corner-indices-an American
   innovation which was surprisingly late in being introduced in view of
   much earlier experiments in that field. In America, around the turn of
   the century it was exploited in order to turn photographs of scenery
   into souvenir packs intended to promote the joys of rail travel. And
   such packs were further distinguished by colourful pictorial designs
   on the backs of the cards-which have lately become collected for their
   own sake. Many modern packs of cards use a similar format to carry 52
   different pictures of all kind of subjects: animals and birds, views,
   works of art, cartoons, pin-ups, trains, planes, etc.
Artists transform the pack

   The 19th century also saw the development of a vast industry in cards
   which were meant to appeal to the public simply by being attractive-or
   topical-with courts drawn from literary, historical or contemporary
   figures. The fashion may have started as an offshoot of the
   19th-century phenomenon known nowadays as transformation cards. The
   chief idea was to take the numeral cards of an ordinary pack and to
   make designs in which the shapes of the pips were an essential

   The resulting cards were, of course, totally unusable for
   play when they had no corner-indices, and indeed the publishers of
   early packs recommended that the blank backs should be used as
   visiting cards (a very important item in high society). Nevertheless,
   almost from the beginning, court cards were also provided so as to
   complete the pack. In Europe these were drawn from literary sources,
   though in England a more humorous approach prevailed. It is probable
   that such ideas helped to propel a tendency for playing-cards to keep
   up with current fashions and trends. Even the more run-of-the-mill
   continental cards tended to have elegantly clad and fashionably
   coiffured ladies instead of crowned queens.
England follows suit-reluctantly

   The fashion was very slow to catch on in England. Despite a few
   experiments, mostly not very attractive, it was only with the use of
   chromolithography towards the end of the century that artistic packs
   became viable. But English card-players had a reputation for
   conservatism anyway-witness their great reluctance to change from
   single-figure court cards to double-ended ones-and even then the
   numeral cards were slow to follow suit. The usefulness of
   corner-indices seems to have been appreciated more quickly, however.
   English card-players also clung to the traditional, but
   frankly ugly, designs of their court cards, which had remained
   virtually unchanged since before 1700. Prior to that era, we have
   scanty information about the designs of everyday cards, since few of
   them have survived. An English educational pack of 'Memory cards' of
   c.1605 includes copies of elegant court cards made in Rouen, where
   cards of a particular design were made especially for export to
   England. Study of these cards goes far to explain peculiar features of
   later English-made versions. The crudity of these copies was due to
   inept English block-cutters trying, with home-made products, to
   compensate for the effect of the 1628 ban on importation of foreign
   cards. In fact, the accidental stylisation has proved to be a
   functional factor of stabilising influence in ensuring the durability
   of these designs. Most modern English-style cards still betray signs
   of their ancestry.

The Worshipful Company

   It was on 22nd October 1628 that Charles I granted the
   charter to the Company of the Mistery of Makers of Playing Cards of
   the City of London, and from 1st December that year all future
   importation of playing cards was forbidden. In return, a duty on
   playing-cards was demanded, and the subsequent history of attempts to
   extract that duty makes an unedifying and contradictory story, as any
   student of such matters knows. The Livery Company still exists, and,
   despite the almost total cessation of production of playing-cards in
   Britain, flourishes. In 1994 it achieved its highest ambition in the
   City of London, when a former Master of the Company, Alderman
   Christopher Walford, became Lord Mayor. Towards the end of his term of
   office, he opened an exhibition of playing-cards in the Print Room at
   Guildhall Library, which houses a collection of historic playing-cards
   belonging to the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards, the
   nucleus of which was donated by the 'Father of the Company' Mr Henry
   Druitt Phillips, in 1907.
   The Guildhall Library has recently been delighted to accept on deposit
   a second important collection of playing-cards, owned by John
   Waddington PLC. This acquisition complements the previous collection
   in many instances in a very useful way, and considerably enhances the
   range of material available for study.
Oriental playing-cards

   This synopsis has dealt mainly with European cards though the Chinese
   origins have been mentioned briefly. China was, for many decades,
   rejected as the origin of playing-cards because its traditional cards
   are so unlike Western ones. The connection with coins, and strings /
   bamboos / batons, however, cannot be ignored. Other Chinese
   playing-cards (which they themselves regard as gambling cards) use
   systems rooted in dominoes and Chinese chess- and Rummy-type games
   which were not known in Europe until relatively recently.
   Indigenous Japanese games rely on principles of 'matching' (involving
   a highly literary version of Snap) or on games involving cards which
   ultimately stem from European models -heavily disguised to evade
   prohibitions on gambling. 

   In parts of India, games are played with packs of circular
   cards with eight, ten or more suits, whose designs reflect either the
   departmental structure of an Indian rajah's court or the incarnations
   of Vishnu (or other more complex systems), and are played something
   like Whist with no trumps but with extra complications. Earlier this
   century, it was claimed that there was a connection between the
   four-suited European pack and the four-handed game of chess played in
   India, but this theory has now been discredited in the light of the
   connection with the Islamic world. 
    This page is maintained by John McLeod (
    Last updated 4th October 1997


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