Curiosities from History That Shaped Our Modern Deck
Those of us who enjoy personalized playing cards may succumb to the desire to be dismissive and cold toward an uncustomized, specifically a standard, deck of playing cards. You know what I'm talking about: your standard Bicycle rider-back deck, complete with "simple" courts and face cards. The type of deck we've all seen a billion times, to the point where we consider it standard, if not dull
With that in mind, it came as a bit of a surprise to me to learn that playing cards in the 1800s looked nothing like this. Let me hold a fictitious deck of playing cards from that era in your hand and tell you what you'd see. First and foremost, you'll note that the card-backs are entirely white. Yes, a pure white shirt with no back design at all. Then you look at the court cards and realize they're all full-sized one-way drawings. As you fan the cards in your palm, you notice that there are no indices on the corners. When you eventually find the Ace of Spades, you note that it is fairly simple and conventional, without the extravagant and oversized design that is typical of current decks.
So, how did we go from here to the "standard" deck we have today? Let's take a look at some of the historical oddities that have influenced the design of current playing cards.
Curiosities from History That Shaped Our Modern Deck
Today, we expect a deck of playing cards to feature red and black suits, but that was not always the case. In truth, the initial suits used in Italian playing cards in the 1400s were Swords, Clubs, Cups, and Coins, and each of them featured distinctive artwork that was not simply red and black. When playing cards were transported to Germany, which became a leading producer of playing cards on the European market, these suits were altered to Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells.
All of that changed when French manufacturers created new printing processes for playing cards. France had already evolved its own suites, as we know them now, by the early 15th century: Hearts, Spades, Diamonds, and Clubs. But the true innovation came when French playing card manufacturers separated these four suits into two red and two black suits and reduced the design of pips so that they could be made inexpensively by stencil while remaining easily recognized by card players. Suddenly, it became feasible to employ stencils to swiftly and easily produce vast quantities of cards by combining a single picture of a king, queen, and knave with stencils for the suit insignia.
The French quickly dominated the playing card market due to the sheer volume of manufacture, as this technology was significantly more efficient and easy than utilizing wood cutting or engraving. As a result of this significant economic advantage, the red and black French suits became well-known throughout Europe, with just pockets remaining from the German suits. That's how we received the red and black uniforms we're still wearing today!
It's difficult to picture playing cards with suits other than the ones we're familiar with: Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades. However, the four suits have experienced a substantial change in terms of artwork and terminology. These modifications owe a lot to the history of playing cards and are intimately related to the many nations that were world leaders in playing card manufacturing at various eras.
Playing cards most likely made their way to Europe via Egypt. The Mamluk period in Egypt's 14th-century playing cards featured four-color suits with Cups, Coins, Swords, and Polo-sticks. These were the principal diversions and occupations of the upper class, which was known to enjoy polo, for example. Cups, Coins, Swords, and Clubs were also employed as suits on Italian and Spanish playing cards during this time period, and they appear to be beholden to the Mamluk suits, which presumably found their way across the Mediterranean with the assistance of traders. These are the suits seen on modern playing cards used in Italy and Spain today and are known as the Latin suits.
When Germany became the world's top producer of playing cards, the suits were altered to Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells to reflect German culture and interests. A version of this may be found in neighboring Switzerland, where Shields and Flowers are used instead of Leaves and Hearts.
However, France soon surpassed Germany's supremacy in the playing card business, thanks to new techniques of manufacture made feasible by reducing the deck into red and black suits and the printing press. When the capital of playing card manufacture returned to Western Europe, these red and black suits became the standard suits, utilizing the recognizable pips as we know them today, albeit they were known as Coeurs, Piques, Carreaux, and Trefles at the time.
Even though the pips introduced and popularized in France about 1480 are the ones we know today, they had not yet been given the names that are currently in use. While the French term Coeurs means Hearts and Piques (pikes) indicates Spades, the phrase Carreaux (tiles) should have been translated as Lozenge, which was the word used at the time to describe a rhombus or diamond form. While Trefles can be interpreted as Clover, the name Clubs has a stronger link to the corresponding Italian suit of Bastoni and dates back to the Mamluk era's polo sticks. We just don't know why any of the French card names were dropped. But we do know that the English card names were the most popular, and they are being used today.
Interestingly, the English-French suits and court cards have a decidedly courtly flavor, whilst the Latin suits and court cards have a military flavor and the Germanic ones have a rustic flavor. Some historians have proposed that the four suits are symbolic and reflect the four classes of medieval society, which changed depending on the geographical and cultural origin of the decks. It is suggested, for example, that the Latin suits connect to the church (Cups = chalices), merchants (Coins), peasantry (Batons = clubs), and soldiers (Batons = clubs) (Swords). Similarly, the German suits are said to represent the church (Hearts), nobility (Hawk Bells), peasantry (Acorns), and middle class (Leaves), whereas the French suits represent the church (Hearts), the citizenry (Diamonds = tiled paving stones used in churches), peasantry (Clover = pig food and husbandry), and aristocracy (Spades = pikes or spearheads).
In any case, the primary suits we wear now were firmly established in France by the end of the 15th century and haven't changed much since then.
Backs of Cards
Before the turn of the nineteenth century, all playing cards had white backs. These accessible supplies of paper could readily be recruited for other purposes and were frequently written on and used for letters, notes, or drawings, as well as credit notes. One unusual application dates back to the 18th century in the Netherlands when impoverished mothers left their babies at orphanages with a message written on the back of a playing card - the cheapest paper available - which served as a form of ID and contained a message from the mother as well as the baby's name. Mothers who intended to return would leave only half a card, preserving the matching half as future proof of their parental relationship.
However, the white backs had practical issues: cards could readily become marked, which was an evident difficulty while playing card games. Options were limited, especially if money was short - buying a new deck was expensive, and returning the cards to the workshop for cleaning wasn't an ideal or long-term option. Although manufacturing skills improved throughout time, the usage of elaborate patterns or little graphics on the back originated as a commercially savvy move to disguise flaws in the paper, allowing companies to utilize lower grades of paper or decrease the issue of marked backs. There was a need to conceal any evidence of wear and tear, which drove manufacturers to print designs and pictures on the reverse of playing cards, using repeating geometric patterns of stars or dots.
The first card backs with an original design were developed in 1831 to honor King William and Queen Adelaide's coronation. With the invention of full-color lithography, it became feasible to manufacture highly adorned card backs, which began to be made in 1844. It wasn't long before card backs were utilized for advertising and marketing, as well as creative designs that helped make the cards more appealing or showcased the artist's and designer's abilities.
Poker-sized cards may appear "big" in comparison to bridge-sized cards, but playing cards were originally considerably larger than the ones we use today. The drop in size from these bigger cards to the "poker-sized" cards we know today is a later development in the history of playing cards.
Bridge-sized cards were created in response to the rising popularity of card games such as Bridge, which needed players to handle a large number of cards in their hands while quickly determining their values. A conventional poker-sized card is 2.5 inches wide by 3.5 inches high (64 89 mm), but the thin bridge-sized card is 2.25 inches wide by 3.5 inches high (57 89 mm), making them around 10% smaller and better suitable for greater hand sizes.
The terms poker-size and bridge-size merely refer to the size and are not limited to certain forms of card games. Bridge-size cards may also be used for poker, while poker-size cards can be used for other games such as BlackJack, and are commonly utilized in many casinos. However, these two sizes are now more or less typical and may be seen in playing cards made by the USPCC as early as the 1880s. Magicians and cardists favor poker-sized cards because their additional width allows for more manipulation, card sleights, and flourishing.
Despite some assertions to the contrary, Tarot cards appear to have had a different genesis from conventional playing cards and were not a forerunner to the current 52 card deck. In reality, the earliest surviving Tarot cards originate from a considerably later time than normal playing cards, and they appear to have been used as supplementary trump cards early on. They were made up of 22 different designs with allegorical pictures that were added to a conventional deck to make a bigger overall deck that was mostly used for gaming. While this larger deck may have also served as a source of instruction and education, the extra cards were not included because of an interest in the occult or fortune-telling.
Tarot cards were only utilized for occultic cartomancy for the first time around 1750, as part of a 78-card tarot deck that could be used for more complicated and complex games. The symbolism and importance of the original drawings that date back to Renaissance Italy have been lost through time, and the original artwork of these extra cards most likely just reflects 15th-century cultural styles of the day. Although the Tarot deck has taken on a life of its own in esoteric circles today, its usage does not predate the conventional deck.