Deal Me In!




Thomas de la Rue & Co. 1832



Mamluk playing cards from 15th-early 16th century Turkey

We are all familiar with playing cards, and everyone has used them—most of us probably have a deck sitting in a drawer right now.  But, have you ever considered the history of playing cards or wondered how they came into existence? These simple cards which most of us take for granted actually have a long and rich history.  Many experts believe that they were invented in Imperial China and the earliest known reference to playing cards dates back to the 9th century during the Tang dynasty.  Other historians believe that they originated in Persia and then spread to China, India and other parts of the world. However, it is difficult to ascertain their true origin as playing cards were made of such fragile material that no early samples have survived.



Playing cards designed by Tim Burton



Disney inspired playing card

Regardless of where they first came from, playing cards finally arrived in Europe in the early 14th century, and it is believed that their appearance was the result of trade between Europe and Egypt.  Initially, playing cards were made by hand which made them quite expensive and limited their use to the upper class and nobility.  As paper quality improved and printing processes evolved, it became easier to reproduce playing cards and they became available to everyone.  This led to an increase in the popularity of gambling and a fear that immorality would intensify from their use. As a result, the church and state intervened to control the sale and use of playing cards. Churches spoke out against the evil that card games inspired, and governments levied heavy taxes on makers and buyers of playing cards in an attempt to squash the negative influence that these cards were said to create.



Playing cards from the 1920s




German Art Nouveau playing cards from 1900

In fact, the Ace of Spades still carries a reminder of these events today.  The Ace of Spades is known as the insignia card of the deck as it typically carries the manufacturer’s logo or brand name to denote quality and provide identification.  This stems from 17th century England when under the reign of James I, a duty was imposed on local playing card manufacturers. The Ace of Spades carried the printing house’s insignia and a stamp as proof that the duty had been paid.




52aces playing cards—A project where each card in the deck was designed by a different artist



52aces playing cards

Spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds, which are the four suits used in today’s playing cards, originated in France in the 1480s.  In fact, the typical deck used today is often referred to as the French deck.  Comprised of four suits, each suit of the French deck includes three face cards; the king, queen and jack with an image symbolizing the suit, an ace, and number cards from two to ten.  Each card utilizes symbols of its suit, also called pips, to represent the number of the card, and the number or rank is also printed on each corner of the card to ensure readability when the cards are held in a fanned position.



1960s children’s playing card




Reproductions of Swiss Emperor playing cards from 1530

Throughout history, a typical deck of playing cards contained four or five suits, and the names and symbols used on today’s decks are quite similar to those used historically, and there is also little variation between suit names given in different countries. For example, German playing cards of today utilize hearts, bells, acorns and leaves. In comparison, the traditional suits of Italian and Spanish decks were comprised of cups, coins, clubs and swords. The utilization of these suits shows the close history that playing cards and tarot card share, as the two types of cards have been used for similar purposes.  In fact, many historians believe that tarot cards were once primarily used for gaming purposes as opposed to their principal function today.



Fraggle Rock playing cards



Ukrainian playing cards

When discussing the usage of types of cards, it should be noted that playing cards are utilized in a variety of ways.  Not only are they employed to play games, but they are also used for magic tricks, in illusions, to build card structures, to improve memory, and in cartomancy.  When used in cartomancy, playing cards take on a role similar to tarot cards of today, with each card acting as a symbol of an action or emotion used to divine someone’s future.



Ace of Hearts, designer unknown



Modern playing card design, artist unknown

However, despite this esoteric function, many of the individual cards themselves were said to represent specific figures or groups of people throughout their long history.  Traditionally, each suit was said to correspond to a category of people within society.  For example, within the French feudal society, hearts represented the clergy, spades stood for the nobility, merchants were symbolized by diamonds, and clubs were the lower class peasants.  In addition, face cards were said to epitomize different royal figures throughout history. Some popular attributions have included the idea that the King of Hearts was Charlemagne, the King of Diamonds was Julius Caesar, the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great, and the King of Spades represented biblical King David.




Animal kingdom playing cards


Contemporary card design, artist unknown

The significance given to each card within various card games has also changed over time and is a reflection of historical occurrences and societal attitudes.  For example, in earlier times, the kings were always the highest card within a suit, but special significance began to be given to the ace so it sometimes took the role as the higher card.  This idea of the lowest value card assuming the role as the most valuable was fully embraced in France during the French Revolution where games played with the “ace high” became a symbol of the lower classes rising about the nobility.



Reproductions of cards from the 1870s



Robot playing cards

The introduction of the Joker in the late 1870s was also an indication of changing societal views.  As a traditional symbol of the court jester or fool, the Joker represented a nod to the conventional Royal Household structure in which he was an integral member.   Despite the prevailing view of him as an outsider, he is often a game changer and typically possessing a Joker can ensure the holder’s advantage in a game. His ironic appearance and ability to upset the proper order of a game showed society’s desire to break with tradition and embrace new ideas of class organization.



Cher playing cards




Dia de los Muertos inspired design

While the images on each card have undergone numerous changes over the passage of time, there are some characteristics which have remained constant and are worth noting today.  For example, the Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts and King of Diamonds are all drawn in profile, while the other face cards are shown facing forward. As a result, these cards are referred to as “one-eyed.” In addition, the King of Hearts is the only king lacking a moustache and he is typically portrayed with a sword behind his head which makes it appear as if he is stabbing himself.  He is often called the “suicide king.” The King of Diamonds is sometimes spoken of as “the man with the axe,” as he is the only king holding an axe as opposed to a sword.  There are several other notable traits to be found on face cards which are typically reproduced in playing card design, and these aspects have found their way into game play as well.



Suicide kings




Film star playing cards for Metro Goldwyn-Mayer 1933

While much attention has been given to the depiction of the face of playing cards, the backside should not be ignored.  Left blank for many years, the reverse sides of playing cards were once viewed as a convenient source of paper, and as such were utilized for note taking, letters and even invitations.  However, as advertising gained in popularity, playing cards proved to be a useful medium.  As they were cheap, readily available and small in size, making them easy to take along, playing cards began to be widely utilized to promote products, ideas, places and services.




1930s Romanian playing cards




Latvian playing cards from pre-WWII

In addition, their function as a common, inexpensive item which is widely distributed has made them an appealing display vehicle for artists and designers as well.  Many well known artists such as Salvador Dali have created their own decks of playing cards, and they still draw interest from many in creative fields today.  As designers, we often find appealing the idea of trying to improve upon, or offer a new perspective on an accepted area of design, and playing cards obviously fit the bill.  Notable recent creations in playing cards include a deck that provides useful information about graphic design, and a deck designed in homage to the Helvetica typeface.




Playing cards designed by Salvador Dali



Green Spade Standard from 1937

With their long and interesting history, and their widespread use still today, playing cards are an integral part of today’s global culture.  Wherever you go in the world, you’re likely to see a deck; sold in supermarkets and as souvenirs, or being used to provide a few moments of enjoyment in a card game, playing cards are everywhere.  They are also a medium for expression and the sharing of information, and as such, their significance cannot be underestimated.  So, the next time you’re looking for a new source of inspiration, deal yourself a hand of cards!



“Modern Royalty” Hycrest Playing Card Co. 1931



Harlequin playing card from 1879


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