a special credit to Thierry Depaulis for having revised my historical notes and for his contribution

  (in this page)  


  • Western Playing Cards
  • Asian Playing Cards
  •   page 2  


  • The Composition
  • Playing Card Manufacturing
  • Tax Stamps
  • Glossary
  • Playing Card Collecting
  •   page 3  




    It has been suggested that playing cards were born in China, sometime around the 10th century AD. They were likely domino cards, i.e. the ones that represent a throw of two dice, very similar to the ones still used today in the Far East, and just slightly different from common domino tiles now used in many countries.
    A few centuries later, playing cards were in use by the Arabs, and soon after they spread also to the Western world.

    10 of Coins
    from the earliest
    Arabic deck known
    This was the result of the commercial and cultural relationship between the Mediterranean countries and the Arabic world, in particular the Mamlûks, who spread along the northern coast of Africa.
    The archaic Italian word for "playing cards", naibi, and the Spanish equivalent, naipes, still used, both come from the Arabic word na'ib, meaning "delegate" or "deputy".
    "Deputies" were two court cards of the old Arabic deck: the "king's deputy" (or "king's delegate") and the "second deputy" (or "religious minister"). Such cards did not feature the relevant personages as human figures, according to the Islamic tradition, but only stated the names of the three ranks at the base of the subject.
    The oldest surviving set of cards of this kind is known as   Mulûk wa-Nuwwâb ("Kings and Deputies"), held by the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. It was composed of four suits, each of which had fourteen cards (ten suit cards and four courts), for a total of 56 subjects.

    The suits of the Arabic deck were:





    On the surviving cards held in Istanbul, these names are spelled at the bottom of the court cards, together with the rank; a sample is shown at the end of the
    third part (relations between Western and Oriental cards), where the the meaning of the names and the connections that seem to relate these cards to an ancient Chinese origin are discussed more in depth.

    According to written records, Italy is the western country where tarot cards were first made, in the first half of the 1400s, but Spain is the country where the common non-tarot cards first appeared, some 50 years earlier.
    The relation between these two kinds of decks may be explained by the present theory, according to which the Mamlûk cards were taken into Spain and Italy sometime during the 14th century, following the close relations between the Arabic and European civilizations, facing each others across the Mediterranean.

    trump from the
    Pierpont-Morgan Visconti
    Tarot (15th century)

    In Spain the composition of the local deck dropped one court card; a further alteration that concerned the aforesaid cards was the introduction of actual personages instead of their description in words, which made them more easily understandable. They were locally called naibes or naipes, a word of Arabic etymology (as previosly explained), and they were likely made of 52 subjects, i.e. four suits with thirteen cards each.
    Similar cards were known in Italy, as well, often described as naibi (alternative forms were naibbe, nahipi, etc.). But other chronicles from the first half of the 15th century mention "saracen cards" - another indication suggesting their origin - and in the second half of the same century "cards for playing".
    A different deck was made in northern Italy, and called tarocco ("tarot"); this one had 78 cards. It was very likely obtained by merging the Arabic set of suit cards, i.e. the naibi, with a group of 22 picture cards of local origin, replacing one of the four courts, all male personages, with a female one, and sometimes even more than one. The enlarged pack was soon named trionfi ("trumps"), probably after a composition by Petrarch, and this was also the name of the game played with them. The word tarocco is only found in literature as of the early 16th century.

    More than one source mentions the "triumph cards" (or "cards of Lombardy") and the "cards for playing" (or "saracen cards") as separate items. Therefore, the two varieties of decks, i.e. with and without trumps, were in use at the same time. The diagram on the left summarizes their relation with the original Arabic cards.

    Curiously, the earliest surviving deck of Western playing cards is not a tarot, nor a traditional Spanish deck, but a german creation.

    courts from the suit of Deers
    (Stuttgarter Kartenspiel)
    Dating back to 1430, the Stuttgarter Kartenspiel ("Stuttgart deck") was drawn and painted in south-western Germany. These cards belonged to a particular kind of pattern now referred to as "hunting decks", which had no trumps and adopted peculiar suits. They were used in central European areas of German culture, since the first half of the 15th century.

    3 of Hounds
    (Germany, c.1440)

    This kind of cards, very few of which still survive, were beautifully illustrated with scenes of royal hunts, as the suit signs adopted were animals such as deers, boars, falcons, etc. Some of these decks were known to have a fifth suit showing shields. However, scholars tend to agree that these decks appeared shortly after the tarot.
    A 16th century French deck now partially extant, known as Tarot of Catelin Geofroy, features the 22 usual trumps, but the four suits are pheasants, lions, parrots and monkeys, almost in the fashion of the German cards: basically, a blend of classic tarot and hunting cards.

    penetration and spreading of playing cards in Europe
    (second half of the 14th century - first half of the 15th century)
    In fact, also the German cards probably originated from the Arabic pattern, considering the structure of both kinds of decks (arranged in suits, with both courts and pip cards).
    A much fewer number of German decks, only one of which has survived, known as the Hofämterspiel, instead of pips featured personages of a royal household, such as the chaplain, the lady-in-waiting, the master of the stables, etc., ordered according to their social hierarchy. Roman numerals from I to X marked each card's value, though two un-numbered subjects, a queen and a king, were the highest cards of each suit. Shields featuring the national emblems of central European countries were the four signs (see also the Hofämterspiel gallery for further details and pictures).

    subject from the
    (Germany, c.1460)
    German cards such as the aforesaid ones and hunting decks were probably used up to the 17th century, when they became extinct, while the popularity of the classic tarot kept growing. Nevertheless, their peculiar suits are believed to be the ancestors of the ones still used today by most German-speaking areas.

    From the 15th century onwards, playing cards spread through many princely courts, into neighbour countries, soon reaching most parts of the European continent.

    In all countries where the pastime had become popular, the cards of Arabic origin were apparently preferred by the common people, because the tarot game was complex, not for gambling, it required a good cultural level to understand the subjects, and because the latter kind of deck was also more expensive.
    Although the tarot deck remained alive especially among wealthier players, most European areas started developing decks made of suited cards only, i.e. modelled on the Arabic type, yet based on their own local composition by dropping some of the subjects not frequently used; obviously, the new composition changed from country to country, according to the favourite local games. This led to a rather large variety of combinations, which gradually grew into the standard regional patterns used today.
    • Northern Italy adopted the well-known 52-card scheme (values 1 through 10, and three courts), and the 40-card scheme (values 1 through 7, and three courts).
    • Central and southern Italy use 40 cards (same as above).
    • Spain uses both 40- and 48-card decks (the latter has values 1 through 9).
    • Portugal too now uses a 40-card deck, though slightly different from the Spanish one: 1 to 8 (but without a 7), and three courts.
    • Many central and northern European areas such as France, Germany (but not in the south), the Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, tend to use 32 cards, starting either from 1 (in French-suited packs) or from 2, i.e. deuce (in German suited ones), then 7 through 10, and three courts.
    • A 24-card pack is used in southern Germany and Austria for the game of Schnapsen.
    • Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland use 36 cards (same as above, but with 6s, as well).
    the map below refers to the composition
    of regional patterns used for local games

    trump from Mitelli's Tarot
    (17th century)
      Suit signs too were modified quite considerably:
    • in Spain the shape of the original Arabic signs slightly changed to a less stylized pattern: the look of Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons turned more "actual"; in particular, the original polo sticks, virtually unknown to the Spanish, were turned into cudgels.
    • Germany radically changed suit signs, probably inspired by the early "hunting decks", adopting symbols which recalled everyday's country life: Hearts, Leaves, Acorns and Bells.
    • Switzerland too chose Acorns and Bells, but the other two signs became Shields and Roses: the former was probably a reminiscence of the fifth suit of some "hunting decks", mentioned above. The Roses, instead, may have been a graphic corruption of the Coins used in northern Italy, due to the elaborate geometrical patterns featured by the latter suit signs, sometimes resembling the petals of a flower.
    • France changed suit signs to a rather stylized design: Diamonds, Hearts, Clubs and Spades, likely sprung as a simplification of the German ones (Leaves into Spades, Acorns into Clubs and Bells into Diamonds). Later on these signs were adopted by other European countries where cards had not yet become popular, thus becoming the international (or French) suit system.
    • Portugal originally used the Spanish suits, but around the 19th century the French system prevailed, and it is still the one presently used.
    • In the north-east of Italy, symbols remained more or less identical to the suit cards found in early tarots: this gives reason for the rather ancient look of these cards.
    • The center and the south of Italy developed local patterns sprung from the Spanish cards, whence their suit system made of Coins, Cups, Swords and cudgel-shaped Batons.

    Tracing the change of the suit signs, Coins maintained their early shape and meaning in the Latin systems (Italian, Spanish), while in Germany they were turned into Bells (still round, but no longer related to money), until in the French system this sign lost all its details and straightened its sides, giving birth to the suit of Diamonds. This last change may have developed because of the rough colouring technique used for early decks, which may have caused the circles to appear as irregular dots of tan-brownish ink.

    evolution of suit signs in different systems (left to right): Mamlûk, Spanish, Italian, German and French
    Also the suit of Cups substantially maintained its shape and meaning in the Latin systems, while in both the German and the French ones it turned into Hearts, whose shape, large in the upper part and tapered at the base, vaguely corresponds to that of a chalice.
    In the Swiss system, though, where the aforesaid two suits are represented by Bells and Roses, the latter, round in shape, seem to have developed from Coins more likely than the Bells did.

    The suit of Scimitars in the Mamlûk cards was clearly understood in Italy and Spain, where Swords faithfully preserved the suit's meaning; the Italian ones even maintained typical curved blades.
    In Germany, instead, the sign developed as Leaves: the connection with the original shape may be understood by considering the leaf as a corruption of a sword's hilt and handle, while the stem may have sprung from the curved blade. A similar interpretation probably gave origin to Spades, very similar to Leaves.
    In France and Germany the shape of Spades (called Piques and Pik, respectively) was likened to another early weapon, the pike, i.e. the long shaft with a pointed end carried by foot-soldiers. Furthermore, the Italian and Spanish names of the suit, i.e. Spade and Espadas, clearly recall its English name, probably not by coincidence.
    The Swiss equivalent of this suit, instead, are Shields, whose shape is in fact consistent with the German Leaves.

    Polo-sticks, familiar to the Mamlûks, were probably completely obscure to the Italian and to the Spanish; the former saw this long implement as a ceremonial staff, while the latter considered it a stick, thus explaining why the sign of this suit took the shape of a sceptre or a mace in northern Italy, and a rough cudgel in Spain.

    The German suit of Acorns, also adopted in Switzerland, was probably influenced by the latter interpretation, as the tip of the fruit recalls the cudgel's shaft, while the acorn's cup is consistent with the projecting branches. The French system developed a stylized, yet perfectly recognizable interpretation of this shape: Clubs; also in this case the allusive English name is a reminiscence of the early implement.

    Despite these many varieties, the original tarot was never abandoned, and still today it is commonly manufactured, although only its regional varieties are used for playing games (see The Tarot and Other Early Cards for further details).

    click on the map to see
    more samples of suit systems


    card from a modern
    Chinese Domino deck
    If the history of western cards is still partially obscure, we know even less about the development of cards in the East.
    The earliest findings in Chinese royal tombs provide enough evidence that domino cards were locally played already by year 1000 AD.
    Similar decks still exist today, in almost identical patterns (see the Chinese gallery page 4), suggesting their long-lasting popularity, more or less as the tarot in western countries.

    card from a Chinese
    money-suited deck

    money-suited patterns from
    Malaysia and Vietnam
    Other Chinese patterns belong to the so-called "money suited" system, whose earliest faithful description is found in a mid 15th century source. Also in this case few changes occurred, and most contemporary editions are fairly similar to the decks used in the 1400s, or earlier. Full details about these cards and their evolution may be found in the Chinese gallery page 1.

    Some cards in China borrowed characters from the national board game of XiangQi (Chinese Chess). They are likely the most recent ones, but very little is known about when and where they were created.

    Another important group of early Asian playing cards are typical of northern India, the so-called Ganjifa decks, a name whose origin is Persian: these cards were originally taken to India many centuries ago.
    Round in shape, early ones came in many sizes (they range in diameter from 2-3 cm to 12 cm, 1 to 8 inches), and many styles and suit compositions, since they were inspired by different themes, such as god Vishnu (Dashavatara style, with ten suits featuring Fish, Tortoises, Vases, Axes, Sabres, and other symbols of the god's reincarnations, often with additional suits, as well), the planets (Navagraha style, with nine suits), scenes from the Ramayana text (Ramayana style), etc.
    The suits have 12 cards each, so these decks contain either 96 cards, or 108, or 120, or more.

    South wind
    from a Chinese
    Mah Jong deck

    Even between decks of similar type considerable differences exist, according to the area they come from, therefore no pattern can be said fully "standardized".
    Unlike western cards, best Ganjifa decks were sometimes painted on tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, or even had precious inlayings.

    Ganjifa card
    Records concerning Ganjifa decks date back to the early 1500s, but apparently they were already used in earlier times, as suggested by the pre-Mughal style of some illustrations.
    By the end of the 16th century, the deck was given a fixed composition of 96 cards, with eight suits, a version known as Mughal Ganjifa . This made the game particularly popular, and although larger luxury decks were still a classy item, the game itself was being enjoyed with smaller ones also by common people. The 96-card version is still the main one found today, although due to the low request, the traditional hand-made decks have sadly become an endangered form of craft.

    Each Ganjifa suit has two leading cards, which basically have the same meaning of western courts: a king (or lord, or rajah, etc.) and a general (second in rank); the remaining cards have decreasing values, shown by arrangements of suit signs, as in western cards.
    From both geographic and historical reasons (the Mughals ruled India since the 16th century), a connection between the early Arabic cards and the Ganjifa sets would have not been impossible, although no evidence at all seems to exist, neither in favour nor against this theory.
    Comparing the two early systems, the suit of Sabres found in Indian Dashavatara style sets seems to match the Mamlûk Swords, and Vases are reminiscent of Cups.

    Ganjifa card

    Japanese painted shells
    Instead, we know much more about the origin of Japanese cards.
    For some peculiar reason, Japan was not affected by Chinese domino cards, despite the cultural relations of the country with China surely dated back to an earlier time than year 1000 AD.
    Around the 11th-12th centuries, the Japanese high class was already playing games with sets of sea shells whose text or pictures were painted (further historical notes in Uta Karuta and Iroha Karuta page).

    card from a
    Japanese Iroha deck

    card from a Hanafuda deck (left)
    and a Mekuri deck (right)
    Only around 1550, when Portuguese sailors reached the Japanese islands, the 48-card Spanish/Portoguese deck was brought on land, where it apparently stirred the local interest, becoming the ancestor of most following varieties, up to the modern Hanafuda (see the Japanese gallery for a more detailed description).
    Finally, during the first half of the 20th century, the aforesaid Hanafuda cards were taken to Korea, where they also became a regional pattern, changing their name into Hwatu.

    main elements of playing cards relations between
    Western and Oriental cards

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    Picture Gallery Index

    Multi-language Glossary

    the Fool and the Joker
    THE FOOL &

    ace of Spades from
    a deck made in Thailand
    Index Table

    Regional Games

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