postheadericon A Brief History of the Playing Card

“Given to Monsieur and Madame four peters, two forms, value eight and a half moutons, where with to buy a pack of cards” – so reads an entry dated May 14, 1379 in the account books of Joanna, Duchess of Brabant. It takes a while to familiarize a novice’s awkward fingers with what must be one of the most popular and widely known (through film and fiction if not through real life) modern online and high-tech casino games. And in the giddy atmosphere of first live games one may never realize that the glossy polygons – an as yet unruly freak-show of royal Siamese twins – have not in fact always been as they seem to have always been since forever, since you first saw a dog-eared pack on your grandma’s table.

Central Asia seems to be where the first playing cards originated from. A 10th or 11th century record of paper dominoes is the first known reference to cards. It is printed to represent all of the 21 combinations of a pair of dice, used in other games in China. Artifacts from the 9th century China are the earliest found. The first use of straight writing paper instead of paper rolls is associated by scholars with the first straight-sheet paper cards and the earliest book printing.

Egyptian Mamelukes most likely introduced playing cards in quite modern form to the Europeans in the late 14th century. There were 52 cards in the typical Mameluke deck, four suits (polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups) and three court cards with, rather than persons, depicted abstracted design. At the time, only wealthy Europeans could afford the cards which were hand-made. Woodcuts (used to decorate fabrics) were then applied to paper in a new technique which was introduced around 1400 and mass production followed suit. There are records of professional card makers dating back to the period between 1418 and 1450. Card production is now one of the most flourishing world-wide industries.

In the 15th century playing cards the number and style of suits varied: some decks had five suits, the standard suits in Germany were hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. In Southern Germany these suits are still used today for a distinctive set of card games. Besides the more standard deck, from my childhood, I remember the German suits which because of their relative pictorial richness I preferred them. Especially the golden nut and greenish cupules of the acorn suit. A gift perhaps imported from German relatives into Asia, Kazakhstan.

In the early games if the “kings” were the highest card, by the 14th century the “ace” (from the Latin word meaning lowest unit of currency) began to acquire the ability to turn highest card, with the “two” being lowest. During the French Revolution this was a popular mode when the lower classes rising above royalty was vital. Likewise a revolutionary would prefer to play cards with the innovative design of Liberties, Equalities, and Fraternities rather than ones with kings and queens. With Napoleon coming to power the classic design returned.

In the 19th century a reversible double image in court cards was introduced. Although the earliest designs were America, a French card maker of the late 18th century is attributed the invention. The French government prohibited the idea. To prevent players from reversing their court cards during a session was the purpose, as this would reveal their hands to the opponents even the non-observant ones.

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