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Home > History of Playing Cards

History of Playing Cards

The long history of the playing cards, which keep men stuck at a table for the mere sake of risk.

Playing card games aside, with the card pack the gypsy foretells the future, the magician carries on his show, the educator teaches, the psychologist applies tests. There is the 40-card deck, in which the value of the joker is higher than the one of the queen; and there is the 52-card deck, which is the most common one. Statistics state that three quarters of mankind use some kind of playing card packs for some purpose. But, how did it all begin?

Well, make your bets.

In order to know where the deck of cards was created, pick a card: the Chinese emperor, the Egyptian pharaoh, the Arabian sheik or the Indian maharaja. Now, to know how the playing cards deck reached Europe, pick another card from these three others: the Saracen warrior, the Crusaders or the Gypsy wanderer. Very well! So, whatever cards you picked, you must know that you were right, because the deck of cards has come up from different forms, at different times and cultures. And it also reached Europe through different hands. It might have beem invented in China, to please one of the emperor Sehun-Ho's girlfriends, according to old Chinese texts. But there is no unanimity about that. The English author T. F. Carter, in his book "The Invention of Printing in China", published in 1925, refers to playing card games as being played in the year 969 to foretell the future.

If, on the one hand, there is no consensus about those dates, on the other hand there is little doubt about the religious or divinatory past of playing cards. The old Indian deck, for instance, had ten suits, each of them representing one of the ten incarnations of the entity Vishnu. This connection with the supernatural is also clear when we analyze some historical data. Catherine P. Hargrave, in her "History of Card Games", published in 1930, states that in the fourteenth century, the Saracen soldiers introduced a card game in Italy, named "naib"- which means "witchcraft" in Hebrew - and which could also be the origin of the world "naipe" (suit) in Portuguese and Spanish.

Whether its origins are religious or not, when the deck of cards reached Europe between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, the pleasure of playing cards was already in place. The bets made on dice games (made of stone or bones) were know in many countries. The deck would come to add up to the previous games, conquering aficionados, certainly because of its enchantment which is still the same in our time, together with the almost infinite number of possible mathematical combinations found in a single deck of cards, in a pocket size case.

From the East, either from China or India, the decks of cards reached Europe numbered and divided into suits. We know that there were 56 cards with four figures: the king, the queen, the knight and the servant. The other cards were numbered from one to ten and the suits were already four, as we have in current decks, inspired by the four Chinese suits, instead of the ten Indian ones.

Then, the first deck of cards produced in Europe was manufactured in Italy: the Tarot. They were (and still are) 22 cards, of which 21 are numbered with Roman numbers, which represent natural forces, vices and virtues of mankind. The 22nd card, "il matto" ('the crazy one", in Italian), represented freedom, did not have a number and originated the current joker. Between 1300 and 1400, adding the 56 cards of the Asian deck to the 22 of the Tarot deck, the Europeans started to play with a 78-card decks, very popular at that time, called Tarocchi in Italy, Tarau in France and Tarok in Germany.

During its first years, the deck was a pastime for few people: the figures were hand drawn and painted, which made it extremely expensive. However, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the xylographs started to reduce its production costs, after realizing that their largest market was concentrated in the printing and trading of decks, which were becoming ever more popular. The suits were standardized into clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades in France, Italy and Spain, except in Germany: there the suits were leaves, hearts, bells and acorns. Then came up the Spanish and the Italian decks, both with 40 cards, which are used today in Brazil to play truco or escopa. There also came up the German decks, with 36 or 32 cards (from 7 to the ACE, including the figures), which is the same deck used to play poker in Brazil, as opposed to the whole deck used in the United States.

Due to its own mystical origins, it would only be natural that the deck were involved in a lot of superstition - superstition, for instance, which makes a player who lost a game using brand new cards demand to go back to the game using the old ones. Another concern of the players was about security; in order to prevent frauds or "thefts", the manufacturers did not dare to change much the back of the cards.

Maybe this kind of feeling has prevented a bigger evolution in the design of playing cards decks. Afraid of shunning their suspicious customers with too many innovations, card manufacturers remained extremely conservative in their pictures of kings, queens and jokers. However, in this century we observed a boom of national heroes, naked women, attempts to include a modern design, historical and movie characters and even some experiments of high artistic quality were included in the decks. A deck branded Europa, manufactured in Spain in this decade, thoroughly recovers the apparel worn in the Renaissance days, and it comes with a leaflet written by the master of the Superior School of Fine Arts in Madrid, Professor Teodoro Miciano, explaining the clothes (different from each of the twelve figures) and its details. In the former Soviet Union, they tried to substitute the jokers, queens and kings for heroes of the 1917 Revolution, unsuccessfully.

Anyway, the deck has become an excellent business even for governments. In Spain and France, for instance, the manufacturing was once a state monopoly. The tentacles of the State have even influenced the design of the decks themselves - England, which up to 1828 charged half a crown of tax (a lot of money at that time) per deck sold, demanded that the seal proving the payment of the tax be stamped in the ACE of spades; this generated a tradition in which, although the tax no longer exists, the ace of spades receives the brand of the manufacturer or any other stamp which differentiates it from all the other cards. Today, the deck is considered much more a family entertainment than a betting tool - from bridge to rouba-monte, from rummy to truco.

The history of playing cards

The first cards in England

It is quite possible that playing cards were brought to England in the second half of the 15th century by merchants and sailors from Italy, Spain and the Netherlands who carried out their trade in the English ports. This belief is supported by the fact that there are no records of the arrival of playing cards in Great Britain dating from earlier years.

Since then, people began to import playing cards and soon their use was widely spread, even after such imports were prohibited. People kept on playing cards notwithstanding, including royalty, whose fancy garments are shown on the cards after the first half of the 16th century.

It is estimated that 500 thousand decks were sold in England during the first half of the 17th century, even after card playing and dicing were prohibited by Henry VIII as a consequence of having become a source of conflict among soldiers while playing.

In the 18th century, British government levied taxes upon playing cards for the first time.

The Game of Ombre

The Spanish game of Ombre was one of the first games to introduce bidding, through which one player becomes the declarer, trying to make a contract, with the other players cooperating to prevent him from doing so. Card games such as the Tresillo (or voltarete, as it is called in Portugal), the Tarot, the Skat, Boston, and Bridge have their current bidding derived from the Ombre game.

In the game of bridge, an interesting circumstance occurs: two partnerships of 2 players each try to get for themselves the best contract (4-player game). Once this is accomplished, one of the winning partnership players “dies” and the remaining player – the declarer – plays against the opposing partnership to prevent it from making the contract (a 3-player game).

Another example of the popularity and influence of the ombre game across English culture and tradition is the names of the black suits on the English cards: spades and clubs, which derive from Spanish cards (espadas and bastos, respectively) and have no relationship whatsoever with the pictures on the pertinent cards – arrows and three-leaf clovers.

The Production of Playing Cards

The first playing cards were hand-made, as evidenced in many decks in specific museums around the world. Because such cards were thoroughly hand-made, they were regarded as valuable and sensitive goods. Notwithstanding the laws prohibiting card playing all over Europe, card games were quickly adopted by all social classes, which led to the need of an increased playing card production to meet the booming demand.

In order to mass-produce playing cards, the colors were directly applied on the cards regardless of the drawing limits. This led to the use of stencils, which was invented in the early 15th century, and these were engraved or cut patterns. Each card had a stencil for the basic drawing and other for its several colors, which were applied by means of paintbrushes especially designed for this type of work.

At a later stage, printing techniques are first applied by means of woodcuts and then applying stencils on such printed paper for later coloring.

"Woodcut" is a method of printing or engraving upon wood in which an image is carved into the surface of a piece of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed. The final image, called engraving, is the outcome of the wood engraving.

Originally it was used to stamp fabric, but it quickly spread across the West after the invention of paper by the Chinese.

The idea of employing movable types (that is, separate characters) to print came with the printing of texts, as it was possible to rearrange and reuse such types to print other pages instead of performing a unique engraving for each individual page. This is how the Press was invented. Such operations originally consisted of manually pressing a previously damp sheet of paper, and later screw presses were employed.

Subsequently the colors were applied to the playing cards; such work required the craftsmen to use stencils (engraved or cut patterns) and dies to print their names or the manufacturer brand, on the deck cases.

Lithography is another printing process based on the on the mutual repulsion of oil and water, that is, greasy substances and water do not mingle. The drawing is made on a stone (lithography stone) or on a metal plate (usually a zinc plate) with an oil-based medium. Next, the surface of the stone or plate untouched by grease is desensitized to it, and the portions drawn upon are fixed against spreading by treatment with a gum Arabic and nitric acid solution. The nitric acid allows the grease to penetrate the stone, while the Arabic gum fixes the drawing. The drawing accepts the greasy printing ink and rejects the water; this is why a roll with greasy printing ink is applied on it; when the stone is damped with a sponge, and the ink adheres only to the drawing, not to the stone’s remaining wet parts. This is a complex process that requires skilled people to work on it, but it is paid off by its good results, since the original drawing is fully copied.

The lithography stone was replaced by metal plates just before it was put aside as a printing procedure and was eventually dismissed with the introduction of photomechanical processes. Today it is only used as an industrial process.

The Cardmaker’s work

The artisan who made playing cards was either a printer or a painter; he was personally in charge of printing and coloring individual items, since both tasks were regarded as essential to assure the quality of playing card production.

Additional activities to the playing cards production process, such as preparing and gluing paper, cutting and weighting cards, preparing colors and inks, etc, were performed by the artisan’s family members, apprentices or paid workers.

Before getting the status of card maker, it was necessary to go through a 3-year learning period as a master card maker apprentice. During this period the apprentice lived in the master’s house and was in charge of blending colors, stretching and drying the 3 sheets of paper used to make cards after glued to one another, and cleaning tools after use.

Upon completion of the training period, there was an additional 3 to 6-year period when the apprentice worked as a card maker. In order to obtain his status as a card master, it was essential for the apprentice to go through a 3-year-learning period with a certified master card maker, and also submit to the "keepers” of playing card craftsmanship a work of art by his own in order to have his skills and talent reviewed.

Such reviews were conducted according to the kinship level between apprentice and master, thus it was easier for sons of card masters to be approved.

Finally, after the reviews were completed, if the apprentice was granted the status of master card maker, it was customary to offer the evaluators refreshments, such as a light meal or a drink.

The History of Playing Cards Through Time

9th century: Most historians believe that the earliest playing cards have originated in (or before) the 9th century in Central Asia, probably China and Hindustan. China seems to be a good candidate for the origin of playing cards because it is the land where paper was invented (China has been making paper since A.D. 100; paper came to Europe only around A.D. 1000). However, for many years China was rejected as the origin of playing-cards because traditional Chinese playing cards are so unlike Western ones.

10th century: The documented history of card playing began in the 10th century, when the Chinese began using paper dominoes in an effort to develop new games. On New Year's Eve, 969, the Emperor Mu-tsung is reported to have played domino cards with his wife. Unlike the Western versions of Dominoes, Chinese Dominos were not used in positional games, hence they were played much like cards.

In addition to domino cards, the Chinese have also used money cards, although which one of the two came first is not exactly clear. These money cards were in effect suited cards, and the earliest Chinese suits were those of coins and strings of coins. There is also some speculation to the effect that Chinese gamblers used to use actual paper money as cards and that they played with and for the money.

Even to this day 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).

13th century: How exactly playing cards found their way into Europe is unknown. One myth states that they were brought into Europe from India by fortune-telling gypsies, who made their way into Italy through Persia, and Arabia, and Egypt. However, this claim is contradicted by the fact that cards were present in Europe four decades before the first documented mention of gypsies. Furthermore, there is yet another theory in direct contradiction that favors the idea that cards were brought into India from Europe by gypsies.

Historians favor the theory that cards entered Europe from the Islamic empire, where cups and swords were added as suit symbols to the already existing coins and sticks. Another Islamic addition to the deck are non-figurative court cards. Unlike the cards we know today, those court cards were not represented pictorially because Islam strictly prohibits man to reproduce the image of living creatures; according to the Kuran this privilege is only reserved for God. However, these court cards bare written lower inscriptions.

According to some sources, cards first appeared in Italy by the late 1200s and then subsequently spread throughout the rest of Europe. The same source dates the first recorded evidence of the use of playing cards in Italy in 1299, but does not substantiate this claim by any historic evidence.

1371: According to Luis Monreal, in his article Iconographia de la Baraja Espanola (Journal of the International Playing Card Society, February 1989), as well as according to Michael Dummett, the first known mention of playing cards in Europe occurred in Spain in 1371; in a Catalan document where they were mentioned as naip. The current Spanish spelling is naipes.

If playing cards were introduced to Europe prior to the 1370's, there are a number of places where we would expect to find some mention of them. Despite their strong interests in games; Petrarch (1307-74), Boccaccio (1313-75), and Chaucer (1343-1400) do not mention playing cards in their works. Guillaume de Machau's address to Charles V in 1364, which denounced gaming in general, and dice in particular, has no mention of playing cards. There are also ordinances controlling gaming from Paris (1369) and St. Gallen (1364) which don't mention playing cards.

1376: In Italy, a Florentine city ordinance forbidding a newly introduced card game called naibbe is dated May 23, 1376.

1377: By 1377 cards are described in detail in Switzerland by a monk in Basle named Johannes von Rheinfelden, "Thus it is that a certain game, called the game of cards, has reached us in the present year, namely A.D. 1377". His text describes a deck with 52 cards, 10 number cards (from 1 to 10), and 3 court cards (a King, and two Marshals), divided into 4 suits of 13 cards. There are further descriptions in the same manuscript, but these are believed to have been added around 1429. These describe 52-card decks with Queens instead of Kings, and 56-card deck with Queens added to the existing 3 court cards. The suits are not described except as "some of these signs being considered good but others signifying evil".

c. 1380s: By 1380 playing cards are reported in such diverse places as Florence, Regensburg, Brabant, Paris, and Barcelona.

The city of Florence passed statute on Gambling in March 23, 1376 (1377 by current calendar), on a vote of 98 to 25 regulating the playing of "A certain game called naibbe, [which] has recently been introduced into these parts".

On July 23, 1378, a German ordinance in Regensburg declares various gambling games, including "spilen mit der quarten", punishable by a fine if played for stakes higher than permitted.



1440: The first known Tarot deck appeared in Italy. This historical fact contradicts one of the popular beliefs that the Tarot deck preceded the now more common 52-card deck. The Tarot deck was in fact devised by expanding a regular deck from from 52 to 78 cards, by adding 4 additional court cards and 22 attuti (or trionfi) cards (permanent trump cards). In effect the Tarot deck consists of 22 major arcana cards, and 56 minor arcana cards. The minor arcana cards consist of 4 suits of 14 cards.

Another common misinformation surrounding the Tarot deck is that it evolved from the fortune-telling Tarot cards; this is not true, fortune-telling Tarot cards did not appear until the 18th century.

1461: Although England probably knew of cards much earlier, solid references to playing cards in England don't occur until the mid 15th century. Edward IV's first parliament (Nov. 1461- May 1462) prohibits card playing (and dicing) except for the 12 days of Christmas. The earliest known English card games date around 1520, and the earliest surviving English deck (French suited) dates around 1590.

1475: Throughout the years there was much experimentation with the composition of cards, suit symbols, and number of suits. National standards started to appear by the late 15th century. The traditional Swiss (Shields, Flowers, Bells, and Acorns) and German (Hearts, Leaves, Bells, Acorns) suits appear in complete packs around 1475 (individually from 1450). However, experimentations with a variety of other suit symbols, including wine pots, drinking cups, books, printers' pads, and animal suits, continued well into the 16th century and beyond.

c. 1480: France's national suits (Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds) first appeared around 1480. The early English decks were probably Latin suited, but most surviving decks (c. 1590) are French suited.

1628: On October 22nd 1628 Charles I granted the charter to the Company of the Mistery of Makers of Playing Cards of the City of London, and from December 1st 1628 all future importation of playing cards was forbidden. In return, a duty on playing-cards was demanded.

1685: In 1685 playing cards became the first paper currency of Canada when the French governor, Jaques de Meulles, paid off some war debts with them.

1731: The first known Swedish-produced playing cards date back to 1731. It is believed that cards were introduced to Sweden relatively late, probably in the 17th century, and they probably came from France and Belgium.

1742: The first accurate compendiums of rules of card games were those of English writer Edmond Hoyle, in his treatise on whist in 1742. Today the phrase "According to Hoyle" means to "play by the rules".

c. 1750: The earliest known use of Tarot packs for fortune-telling was in Bologna, around 1750. Furthermore, the use of ordinary packs of playing-cards for fortune-telling does not date from much earlier than this.

1760s: Historians believe that cartomancy, fortune-telling with playing cards, became common after the 1760's with the development of solitaire. It should be noted that fortune-telling is not necessarily connected to the use of Tarot cards for these occult purposes, in fact fortune-tellers used, and continue to use, a variety of different cards for these readings.

1824: The Austrian card maker Piatnik was founded in 1824 and began production of playing cards. To this day Piatnik is one of the strongest manufacturers of playing cards in Europe.

1827: By 1827 double-headed court cards were in use in France. Britain did not adopt the practice until the 1850s; America did not follow suit until the 1870s.

1848: Baptiste Paul Grimaud set up a playing card factory in France.

1850s: In England and America backs of playing cards were plain until the 1850s, when the English artist Owen Jones (artist for Thomas de la Rue, London card makers) began designing cards with ornate backs. However, in other countries patterned backs have been in use for far longer.

c. 1857: The first Joker was added to the 52-card deck around the 1860s. Some claim that it was not until 1863, or even 1865. However, it is believed that the Joker was added to the pack by American Euchre players who, when modifying Euchre rules sometime during that era, decided that an extra trump playing card was required. The Joker was first called the Best Bower. In the game of Euchre two of the Jacks are named Right and Left Bower; this happened during the 1860s in the USA. Bower is a corruption of the German word Bauer used in Alsace, from where Euchre or Juker originated as the ordinary word for Jack. This card evolved into the Joker during the 1870s. The Joker arrived in Europe in the 1880s along with the game of Poker. It was gradually incorporated into French-suited packs with 52 cards.

c. 1870: Corner indices are an American addition dating from shortly before 1870. Most European countries copied the idea during the 1890s, though Austria, Spain and Italy have been resistant. The first American indexed cards were called Sqeezers because the players were able to hold them in fan position and read the indices.

c. 1875: Rounded corners were not known before c.1875, However, it should be noted that oval and round playing cards were in use in some regions far before the 19th century.

1881: On June 28, 1881 the Russell, Morgan & Co., which later became the US Playing Card Co., printed their first deck of cards. About 20 employees started to manufacture 1600 packs per day, and in 1894 the playing card business had grown to such proportions that it was separated from the printing company, becoming the USPC. The USPC eventually became the biggest playing card manufacturer in the US.

Card games became a common recreation amongst all classes of people. Today's most commonly used playing cards were derived from French designs and are known as French-suited cards. Other playing cards that evolved in Europe and are still in use today are German-suited cards, Italian-suited cards, Swiss-suited cards and Spanish-suited cards. However, other standards were also known to exist, and some games were known to use cards with as much as ten suits.