"A (Brief!) History of Playing Cards..."

Origins: ...from Tarot to Trefle

Playing cards probably originated in China or Hindustan around AD 800. Some early decks had symbols resembling Chinese markings and may have been taken back to Europe by Venetian explorers, in the later half of the 13th century. Early Chinese cards used suits of coins, strings of coins, myriads, and tens of myriads...resembling the values of Chinese paper money. Cards first appeared in Italy by the late 1200s and spread to Germany, France, and Spain. The first recorded evidence of the use of playing cards appear in Italy in 1299; Spain in 1371, and Germany in 1380. The TAROT were the first cards to appear in the New World. Today's standard 52 card French deck evolved from the Tarot or tarocchi ("tablets of fate"). The earliest being the rare tarocchi di Mantegna, engraved in 1470. From the tarots of Mantegna evolved the 78 card Venetian tarots, consisting of 4 suits of 14 cards each. Each suit had 4 court cards (king/queen/cavalier/valet) and 10 numeric cards bearing swords, cups, money, and batons. These reflected medieval society and represented the following:

  • The Church = "Cups"
  • The Military = "Swords"
  • The Merchant Class = "Pentacles or 5-pointed Stars"
  • The Farmers or Peasant Class = "Batons"

  • In addition, the tarot includes 22 numbered atouts (high, or trump cards) with various meanings as the Pope, the Sun, Justice, Death (the 13th card). The 22nd card was il matto, the Fool, precursor to the modern joker.

    Card-Making ...from Hand-Crafted to a crafty hand!

    Card making has been closely linked with the development of printing. The first decks were hand-made and only the wealthy could afford them. They were produced by hand-colored woodcuts, a form used by German "Kartenmachers" (card makers) and later engravings by the 15th century. Color production known as lithography was used in the 1800s.

    Card-Design and the Royal Family ...from Jacks to Jokers

    As their popularity spread across Europe, suit-symbols gradually began to more closely resemble today's modern playing card. The French had the greatest influence on the creation of the modern deck. The Tarot cups became couer or "Hearts", swords became pique or "Spades", pentacles became carreau or "Diamonds", and batons became trefle or "Clubs." They eliminated the major arcana and combined the knight and page, reducing the deck to 52 cards and simplifying the suit symbols to red hearts & diamonds; black spades & trefoils (clover leaves). These changes allowed easier printing and lowered their cost. However, in Germany, "Hearts, Leaves, Acorns, and Bells (or Hawks)" illustrated the four suits. The first known German cards of Stuttgart (1440) were a hunting series with suits consisting of dogs, stags, ducks, and falcons. The French were also began to identify the court cards:
    King Queen Jack
    Clubs: Alexander the Great Elizabeth I Lancelot
    Hearts: Charlemagne Judith La Hire
    Spades: David Pallas Hogier
    Royal Spades
    Diamonds: Julius Caesar Rachael Hector

    Artists altered the court cards to resemble the nobility of the day. During the reign of Henry III of France, costumes reflected the extravagant fashions of the era. However, during the French Revolution, the playing card "royal family" was banished from the pack, replaced by philosophers and other important people. But by 1813, the royalty had reappeared in the deck for good. Designs remained unchanged until the mid- 19th century. Double-headed court cards appeared in 1827 and corner indices were innovations of the 1800s. The 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. Complex designs then became the norm. The first "Joker" appeared in an 1865 American deck.

    So what good are they? ...from Hoyle to "Hello!"

    Naturally, for fun and amusement! Most inventors of card games remained anonymous. The first accurate compendiums of rules 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." However, playing cards have also served other purposes in times of emergency. In 1685 they became the first paper currency of Canada when the French governor, Jaques de Meulles, paid off some war debts with them. Napolean used playing cards as ration cards during the French Revolution. Cards have also been used as invitations to parties, as visiting cards, and a natural source of advertising. In 1765, they were even used for class admission at the University of Pennsylvania!

    "The Card of The Day"

    "My Personal Playing Card Collection"

    "Links to Other Card-Related Sites"

    T.Scott Benefield - rtfuldodgr@hotmail.com