The History of the Standard 52-card Deck of Playing Cards

The History of the Standard 52-card Deck of Playing Cards

The History of Playing Cards: The Development of the Modern deck of Cards Over Time

Most of us have seen and used the modern deck of playing cards. A standard deck of Bicycle rider back playing cards looks very "normal" and "traditional" to us. But to people who lived in the past, a bicycle rider back deck like this was not normal at all! The truth is that playing cards have changed a lot since they were first used hundreds of years ago. This is how our modern bicycle rider back playing cards came to have a deck of 52 cards with four suits in red and black as well as two Jokers. It took hundreds of years and a lot of travel through many countries to make this happen. In fact, the most important parts of today's bicycle rider back deck came from the different cultures and countries that playing cards had to go through in order to get to the present day.

In this article, we'll look at the history of playing cards, focusing on how geography has shaped how modern cards look today. In this article, our quick trip through history will start in the East, where we don't know for sure where playing cards came from. As for the rest of Europe, in this article, we'll start in Italy and Spain. Then we'll go to Germany and France. We'll cross the English Channel to get there from there. Finally, we'll go across the ocean to the United States, where most of our decks are made by the USPCC in the form we know them today.

The East 

To this day, scholars can't agree on the exact origin of playing cards. Even the best theories are based on speculation rather than proof. They first appeared in Europe in the late 1300s and early 1400s. How did they get there? Somewhere in the East, they may have been brought to Europe by gypsies or traders, but it isn't clear where they came from or how. According to the general consensus, an early form of playing cards came from somewhere in Asia, but we can't be 100% sure, that's just the general consensus. Paper is fragile and usually doesn't last very long through the ages, so there isn't a lot of solid historical evidence or general consensus.

There have been educated guesses about how the cards, suits, and icons of the 12th century and even older cards in China, India, Korea, Persia, or Egypt may have been brought to Europe by Arabs, and how they may have been used in Europe. Some people think that playing cards were made in China around the 9th century AD. You can see some evidence that people were playing cards (and drinking) from this time onward. Cards with icons that look like coins, which also show up on playing cards later in Western Europe. If this is true, playing cards would have been around before 1000AD. It would also say that they came from tile games like dominoes and mahjong.

Some people think that playing cards were first used as "play money" and represented the stakes for other gambling games. Then, they became part of the games themselves. Others have said that playing cards and games like chess or dice could be linked, but this is again just an opinion. People who play cards may have come from China to Europe through Egypt in the Mamluk period. Decks from that time have goblets (cups), gold coins, swords, and polo-sticks, which show what the Mamluk aristocracy was interested in. This is similar to the four suits in Italian cards from the 14th century.

However, we can't even be 100% sure that playing cards first came from the East, there isn't really a general consensus on that. It could even be that the first ancestors of the modern deck of cards were actually made in Europe, not the East. Our first known evidence of playing cards in Europe comes from a Latin manuscript that was written by a German monk in a Swiss monastery. We'll go there now.

In Italy and Spain, there are a lot of people.
In a manuscript from 1377, our German monk friend Johannes from Switzerland talks about playing cards and a lot of different card games that could be played with them. There is clear evidence that a 52 card deck was used in the 1400s. In religious sermons, playing cards and dice games are often used as examples of gambling. First European decks of cards from the 14th century had signs that looked like swords, clubs, cups, and coins. Most likely, these came from Italy, but some people think they came from Egyptian playing cards made during the Mamluk period. If you play cards with Italian or Spanish cards, these are still the four suits you see today. They are sometimes called the Latin suits.

They usually had a mounted King, a sitting and crowned Queen, as well as a knave. The knave is a royal servant, but the character could also be a "prince." Later, the character would be called a Jack to avoid confusion with the King, who was called a King. Spanish cards came about in a different way, with the court cards being a king, knight, and knave, with no queens. They didn't have a 10 in the Spanish packs, either. This meant that there were only 40 cards in the deck.

First cards in Europe were hand-painted and beautiful, but only the rich people had them. But as card games became more popular and cheap ways to make them were found, playing cards became more common. It was only a matter of time before this new product spread to the west and north, and the next big thing happened after they were well-received in Germany. One historian has called their rapid spread "an invasion of playing cards," with soldiers also helping them move.


To become a card-making country of their own, the Germans came up with their own suits to replace the Italian ones. These new suits reflected their interest in rural life: acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells, which are hawk bells, and hawk bells were a reference to the popular rural pursuit of falconry, which used hawk bells. In Italy, the queen was also taken out of the courts. Instead, there was a King and two knaves, an obermann (upper) and untermann (lower) (under). While that was going on, the Ace was replaced by the Two to make a 48 card deck.

People made their own decks of cards, and the suit symbols on the novelty cards from this time include animals, kitchen utensils and even printers' inkpads! There were a lot of German suits that had acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells, but there were also some that had flowers instead of leaves and shields, which were more common in Switzerland. This time in history is where the Germanic suits are still worn in parts of Europe today. They are based on this time in history.

But the most important thing Germany did was come up with new ways to make playing cards. Printers were able to make more playing cards because they learned how to cut wood and engrave wood and copper because there was a lot of demand for holy pictures and icons. Because of this, Germany took over the playing card trade, even exporting cards from the country that made them in the first place. Eventually, the new suit symbols that Germany started using became more common in Europe than the ones that Italy started using.



Early in the 15th century, the French came up with the icons for the four suits we use today, which were hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs, but they were called coeurs, piques, carreaux, and trefles. They may have come from acorns and leaves on German playing cards, but they could also have come up with fancy designs on their own, which is possible. The French also used a king, queen, and knave as court cards.

French genius came when they divided the four suits into two red and two black ones, with symbols that were easier to read and understand. This was the real genius of the French! This meant that playing cards could be made with stencils a hundred times faster than if they were made with wood-cutting and engraving. With better paper-making techniques and Gutenberg's printing press (1440), the slower and more costly woodcut techniques that were done by hand were replaced with a much more efficient production. People in Germany used to be very good at playing cards. The French decks and their suits spread all over Europe, giving us what we see today.

One interesting thing about French cards at this time is how much attention they paid to the court cards. Court cards were named after famous literary works like the Bible and other great books in the late 1500s. It was during this time that the practice of naming certain court cards after famous people began. King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds) are some of the most well-known and accepted names for the Kings. Pallas Athena (Spades), Judith (Hearts), Jacob's wife Rachel (Diamonds), and Argine (Argine) are all Queens (Clubs). The Knaves were called La Hire (Hearts), Ogier (Spades), Hector the hero of Troy (Diamonds), and Lancelot, the knight of King Arthur, by many people (Clubs), all more similar to our common design.

There was a lot of variety in clothing, weapons, and accessories in the French decks of cards that were used at this time, so we don't know where the postures, clothes, and accessories we see today came from. But over time, things started to get more standard. This was sped up in the 1700s when taxes were put on playing cards. Manufacturers in each of the nine regions of France were told to use a design that was unique to their region. In fact, it wasn't until playing cards moved to England that a common design really took hold in the playing card market. Having a common design was leading us closer to our modern-day deck.


Belgian cards began to be exported to England from there, and soldiers from France may also have helped bring playing cards to England. Our journey across the Channel starts there. Due to high taxes in France, some of the most important card makers moved to Belgium. This led to a lot of card factories and workshops being built there. There were many places where people made things by hand, but Rouen was a very important one. Thousands of decks of Belgian-made cards were sent to countries in Europe, including England. The fact that English card players have almost always used French designs makes it no surprise that they have done so.

There was a time when people played cards all over Europe without the English leaving their mark on them. First, they chose to call these four cards suits "hearts," "piques," "carreaux," and "trefles." The French had called them "hearts," "piques," "carreaux," and "trefles." We don't know why they used the names of the Italian deck for two of the suit names (spades and clubs) instead of translating the French terms piques (pikes) and trefles (clovers). One possible reason is that the Spanish suits were brought to England before the French ones. When you think about it, the English word for carreau (wax-painted tiles used in churches) at the time was a lozenge. Whatever the reason, we owe the names we use for the suits today to English use.

It is also thanks to the English that the Ace of Spades has a place of honor. This honor comes from tax laws. There was an act passed by the English government. Cards could not be made or sold until they had evidence that they had paid the tax on playing cards. In the beginning, this was done by hand stamping the Ace of Spades because it was the most important card. This is why in 1828, the Commissioners for Stamp Duties decided that the Ace of Spades would now have to be bought from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties. They also decided that it would have to be specially printed with the manufacturer's name and the amount of duty paid. As a result, the Ace of Spades usually had a lot of fancy designs and the name of the company that made it. Only in 1862 were certified manufacturers finally allowed to publish their own Ace of Spades. The fate of the signature Ace of Spades had already been decided, and the procedure of an ornate Ace with the manufacturer's name was often kept going, even though it was no longer allowed. As a consequence, to this day, it is the only card in a deck that usually gets additional attention and fancy designs.

The art on English court cards looks like it was based on fancy designs made in the Belgian city of Rouen, which made a lot of cards for export. They include things like kings with crowns, flowing robes, beards, and long hair; queens with flowers and scepters; and knaves who are clean-shaven and wear caps. But as a result of the hard work of Briton Thomas de la Rue, who was able to lower the prices of playing cards because of more output and productivity, there was less and less variety. Mass production in the 1860s led to him becoming the most important person in the industry. Smaller manufacturers with their own unique fancy designs were eventually swallowed up by him, which led to the more standardized designs we see today. During the 1800s, De la Rue's designs were first modernized by Reynolds and then again by Charles Goodall in 1860. This is the design that most people use today. It was also around this time that double-sided court cards started to become more common. This was to avoid having to turn the cards, which would show your opponent that you had court cards in your hand. The designs of the full-length cards were changed to make them double-sided.

The United States

The Americans are late to join us on our journey through history because for a long time they had to buy playing cards from England to meet their needs. Some American makers even put the word "London" on their Ace of Spades to make sure they would sell well. This is because the general public likes things made in England. There are even examples of the general public of Native Americans making their own decks with unique suit symbols and designs, which suggests that they learned card games from the new people who came to the area.

The general public who made cards in the early 1800s, like Lewis I. Cohen, are a well-known name, contributing to what is now known as our modern deck. He even spent four years in England, and he started making cards in 1832. In 1835, he came up with a machine that could print all four colors of the card faces at the same time. In 1871, his business became a public company called the New York Consolidated Card Company. This company made it easier for people to hold and recognize a poker hand by only fanning the cards a little. The corner indices were made popular by this company. It wasn't until 1875 that the Consolidated Card Company came up with a way to make decks with indices. Another company had already made decks with indices back in 1864. The first decks with these indices were called "squeezers." They didn't get a lot of attention right away from the general public. When a rival company, Andrew Dougherty and Company, first started making "triplicates," they came up with an alternative that used tiny card faces on the opposite corners of the cards. There had been new territory gained, so indices soon became standard. It is hard to think of playing cards without them today.

This is the last thing that we owe to the United States. We added the Jokers. The term "the best bower" comes from the popular trick-taking game of euchre, which was popular in the mid-19th century. It refers to the highest trump card. Around 1860, someone came up with the idea of having a trump card that could beat both the right bower and the left bower. As a matter of fact, the word "Joker" may have come from the word "Chuck." The first time the Joker was used as a wild card in a game of poker was in 1875, edging closer to our modern deck. 

America hasn't made any long-term changes to the modern deck, the standard deck of cards, which had already been around for a long time and had become more and more standard by this time. However, the United States has become a major player in making playing cards, and this is why. Samuel Hart and Co., Russell and Morgan, and the United States Playing Card Company are just a few of the well-known names of printers from the late 19th century. The United States Playing Card Company is now the biggest company in the industry. The USPCC's Bicycle, Bee, and Tally Ho brands have become symbols of playing cards in their own right. American manufacturers have been making special-purpose packs and decks of playing cards for a long time. The USPCC, an industry leader, has taken over a lot of other card companies over the last 100 years, and they are now the industry leader and the printer of choice for many custom decks, as the industry leader.

As time went on, many romantic interpretations were added to the true history of playing cards, but not all of them were based on facts from the past. Playing cards have been around for a long time, but what will happen to them? How will our own time change the shape and content of a "standard" deck of cards? For now, you can play with a modern deck and know that it looks a lot like the cards of 15th century Europe and that playing cards have been a part of life and fun around the world for more than 600 years. Only time will tell.



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