Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thursday Thirteen #5 - The History of Playing Cards

We had some friends over this past Saturday night to play cards and hang out and chat, something I've always liked to do! I've grown up playing card games but never really thought too much about where playing cards came from. So here's a little bit of history on them, by far not everything, but probably more than you ever really wanted to know! ;)

1. Theories on the origination of playing cards varies, but many believe that they began in China in the 10th century AD, with paper domino cards.

2. It is likely that the precursor 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 that 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), nā'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy King), and thānī nā'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.

3. Europeans began mass production in the 14th century with the invention of woodcuts. Before this time most were probably hand painted and something only the very rich could afford.

4. The Master of the Playing Cards was the first major master in the history of printmaking. He was a German (or conceivably Swiss) engraver, and probably also a painter, active in southwestern Germany from the 1430s to the 1450s, who has been called "the first personality in the history of engraving."[1] Various attempts to identify him have not been generally accepted, so he remains known only through his 106 engravings, which include the set of playing cards in five suits from which he takes his name. Most of the set survives in unique impressions, most of which are in the print rooms at Dresden and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

5. From the 1400s to around the 19th century, people experimented with the look of their cards. In the Renaissance, when art was popular, artists began to paint the backs of the cards with pictures, whereas they were previously blank. This idea of putting pictures on the back of cards came from Tarot cards.

6. France gave us the suits of spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts, and the use of simple shapes and flat colors helped facilitate manufacture. French cards soon flooded the market and were exported in all directions.

7. In the 1500’s the court cards of the Parisian deck were named after historical/mythical figures: the king of hearts represented Charlemagne, the king of Diamonds was Julius Caesar, the king of clubs was Alexander the Great and the king of spades was King David from the Bible, along with many others (even Lancelot perhaps as the Knave (Jack) of Clubs!)

8. Americans began making their own cards around 1800, and made these refinements: double-headed court cards (to avoid the nuisance of turning the figure upright), varnished surfaces (for durability and smoothness in shuffling), indexes (the identifying marks placed in the cards’ borders or corners), and rounded corners (which avoid the wear that card players inflict on square corners).

9. The Joker card began around 1870 (also in America) as the highest card in the game Eucre. As the game was sometimes called Juker, the card evolved into the Joker, and by 1880 was depicting clownish, impish or jester-like characters.

10. Popular legend holds that the composition of a deck of cards has religious, metaphysical, or astronomical significance: typical numerological elements of the explanation are that the four suits represent the four seasons, the 13 cards per suit are the 13 phases of the lunar cycle, black and red are for day and night, the 52 cards of the deck (joker excluded) symbolizes the number of weeks in a year, and finally, if the value of each card is added up — and 1 is added, which is generally explained away as being for a single joker — the result is 365, the number of days in a year. If the other joker is also added, that makes 366 days, the amount of days in a leap year. The context for these stories is sometimes given to suggest that the interpretation is a joke, generally being the purported explanation given by someone caught with a deck of cards in order to suggest that their intended purpose was not gambling

11. The Ace of Spades served a famous purpose in the war in Vietnam. In February, 1966, two lieutenants of Company "C," Second Battalion, 35th Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, wrote The United States Playing Card Company and requested decks containing nothing but the "Bicycle" Ace of Spades. The cards were useful in psychological warfare. The Viet Cong were very superstitious and highly frightened by this Ace. The French previously had occupied Indo-China, and in French fortunetelling with cards, the Spades predicted death and suffering. The Viet Cong even regarded lady liberty as a goddess of death. USPC shipped thousands of the requested decks gratis to our troops in Vietnam. These decks were housed in plain white tuckcases, inscribed "Bicycle Secret Weapon." The cards were deliberately scattered in the jungle and in hostile villages during raids. The very sight of the "Bicycle" Ace was said to cause many Viet Cong to flee. (At least that’s one popular opinion, another article I read said they did more for troop morale than they actually frightened the enemy!)

12. Different countries use different suits than what we commonly see, in Italy the suits are batons, swords, cups and coins, and in Central Europe some countries use hearts, bells, leaves and acorns. There are also decks with different numbers of cards than 52, depending on the game.

13. The popular card game Solitaire makes it earliest appearance in writing in about 1783 where it is described in a German book of games. It is widely believed, but not true, that Napoleon played solitaire during his exile. In the 1980s, personal computers made solitaire more popular than ever. Since players don't need to shuffle and deal the cards for each and every hand, game play has become more enjoyable. In addition, the ability to start a new game with only the click of a mouse has brought forward the addictive quality of these games. There are more than 100 distinctly individual solitaire games, with that number reaching more than 1,000 when you consider minor variations.

Disclaimer: This Thursday Thirteen on playing cards was merely to satisfy my own curiosity and is in no way claiming to be correct in all statements! In fact, I pretty much copied straight from the following sources, which may or may not be the way of it! But it all sounds good and plausible, huh? ;) Thanks for stopping by!

Wikipedia on Playing Cards
Library/Thinkquest History of Playing Cards
US Playing Card - A brief History
Newts Cards - Ace of Spades
US Playing Card - History
Just Solitaire


  1. Those Egyptians thought of everything. The idea of paper dominoes is new to me.

    We love cards and all the crazy imagery. Thanks for sharing the scoop.

  2. I didn't know much of this at all. What an entertaining history lesson on cards. Have a great TT. :)

  3. Thank you for all that. Fascinating! I knew the Kings were named for real monarchs but I didn't know who.

  4. Aces and Eights are "Dead Man's Hand"

    Wild Bill Hickock was holding them when he was murdered.

    The Pink Flamingo

  5. Anonymous8:53 PM

    Heh, my entire blog's based on trading cards.... except for this T13...
    Lost Hemisphere's 13th T13: Reality through a very special pair of eyes

  6. True or not, it makes for really great reading. If my head weren't throbbing so badly, I might even be inspired by this.

    btw, Mitchell's Ears is one of my favorites, too.

  7. Very interesting history. Thanks for sharing.
    Happy T13!

  8. Wow, very cool. What a great list.

  9. Very interesting. Happy TT.

  10. My brother and my son are walking encyclopedias and thrive on stuff like this. I'll pass along to my brother!

  11. Hey, that's fascinating. Some of the most interesting things in our world are the things we take for granted - like playing cards. Thanks for sharing this!

    Happy TT!

  12. I love that I learn so much from the TT. Til I read the disclaimer and now I wonder if what I read was true. I'm going with it.

  13. I didn't know even half of this.

  14. Thank you for the visits everyone! I promise to get around to all of yours soon, we just ended up with severe weather tonight and on top of that I've got a nasty headache curtailing my usual online activities! Happy Thursday, and I'll catch up with you all!


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