A Brief History Of Playing Cards

A look at the development of playing cards--what role did the tarot play? Where did the suits come from? And the names of the Kings and Queens.

A Brief History of Playing Cards

Nearly every corner of the world can lay claim to 'inventing' playing cards: the Chinese used slips of paper marked with coins and strings of coins as early as the 1120s, and the Indians used circular cards made of wood or tortoiseshell, with suits depicting the ten reincarnations of Shiva soon after. However, neither of these seem to have a great influence on the 52-card playing deck we know today.

Italy, Germany, and France all are possibilities for being the birthplace of the modern playing card. Although the exact date of creation is lost, most historians believe that it was somewhere around 1370.

The earliest mention in print comes in 1377, in a treatise written by a German monk, who details the manner of play, and suggests that card-playing is a beneficial past time in that keeps idle hands busy while teaching Christian virtues. This comment suggests two things: that gambling and card play were not yet closely associated (though that would soon come) and that the symbols of the suits held meaning for these early players.

It is interesting to note that the three countries mentioned above had different suits. Germany used acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. Italy employed swords, clubs, cups, and coins, and France with clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. In general, the suits were thought to represent the aristocratic class, the Church, the middle class as well as the soldiery. These same suits could be said to represent the virtues: the sword of justice, club of fortitude, coin of charity, and chalice of faith.

The first mention of the tarot deck does not appear until around 1450, nearly 100 years after playing cards. Having grown up thinking that playing cards developed out of the tarot, I found this interesting. Apparently, the tarot cards, also known as triumph cards, started off as a 4-suited pack of 22 cards. When combined in a deck with the other cards, they always triumphed, thus their name.

Various games abounded using both decks. Venetians played tarocchi, adding extra queens as well, leading to a 78 card deck for play. The Bolognese played a version called tarocchino, omitting the 2, 3,4, and 5 cards for a deck of 62. The citizens of Florence went in for minchiate, with a 96-card deck consisting of the 52 deck of regular play, the 22 tarot cards, plus: a card known as the Cardinal, three cards representing the virtues, four representing the elements, and twelve for the zodiac. This last deck was just as unwieldy as one might imagine, and play again turned to separating the tarot from other playing cards.



Tarot cards, either in or without a deck of playing cards, have long been a source of controversy. Some argue that they are a way of teaching tenets of Christianity, pointing to the Hanging Man as a Suffering God figure, and the figure of Death showing renewed life. Others, perhaps more vehement, argue the opposite, and identify it, as did one monk, with the work of the devil. Cards representing the Pope, as well as a female Pope raised particular ire. This interpretation gave the Inquisitors of the Catholic Church a reason to pursue the cards as a form of heresy.

The first cards, whether playing or tarot, were carefully hand-painted. These expensive creations were often given as presents, particularly wedding presents, among the wealthy. As demand increased, stenciling took the place of hand-painting. Still expensive, these cards could be produced somewhat more quickly. The artisans of each country where cards were found took their designing duties seriously. Spain took the lead in simplifying the designs, allowing for easier play. One of the unique markings of early Spanish cards is that the ace of batons shows the arms of Spain, while the ace of swords shows a boy holding a sword aloft. Interestingly, these packs have no queen, nor ten. These Spanish decks saw the world through the efforts of the explorers--sailors were reputedly great ones for card-playing.

German cards were unique not only for their reliance on wood-engraving to permit mass production, but because card makers often strayed from the nationally traditional suits of hears, bells, leaves, and acorns. Inventive card makers used unicorns, dogs, rabbits, apes, and other creatures, often in vignettes. None of the Spanish simplicity for them.

France introduced the suits we know today: hearts (representing the Church), spades (for the aristocracy), diamonds (for soldiers) and clubs (for the peasants). They also introduced the convention of coloring the diamonds and hearts red, and the spades and clubs black. The latter greatly aided play by making each card more instantly recognizable. As well, they began to portray the kings, queens, and jacks (or valets, or knaves, as they were known) in the 15th century clothing that we still see them.

Part of this movement towards regularizing the appearance of the face cards was naming them. No one is exactly sure how this came about, nor how the names were chosen. However, David was the King of Spades, Alexander the King of Clubs, Charlemagne the King of Hearts, and Caesar the King of Diamonds. Pallas was the Queen of Spades, Judith Queen of Hearts, Rachel Queen of Diamonds, and Argine the Queen of Clubs. La Hire was the Valet of Heart, Ogier of Spades, Hector of Diamonds, and Lancelot of Clubs. These cards were briefly renamed during the French Revolution, when the royal cards were briefly replaced with figures for Equality, Liberty, Rousseau, etc.

England furthered mass production with factories, and standardized cards in the mid 1860s using the French suits. One English innovation in the design of the cards was the double-ended royal cards in use today, eliminating the need to show the figures in full-length postures. The late 1800s saw the creation of the pneumatic finish, created by William Thomas Shaw, which allowed for easier sliding and shuffling.

From England, to America: as early as 1633, several people in the Plymouth Colony were fined for playing cards. Were they smuggled aboard the Puritan ships, or find their way up from Virginia? We may never know, but their existence is proof enough of their tempting popularity.

The first US born card manufacturer was Jazaniah Ford of Milton, Massachusetts. The American public's preference for English goods led Ford, along with other American manufacturers to stamp their cards 'London', complete with false address. The American contribution to cards was the joker, and developed out of the 'best bower' (or jack) in the game of euchre. The joker became the trump card for that game.

And so did cards develop.

© High Speed Ventures 2011