History of Playing Cards

History of Playing Cards


Playing cards have an incredibly rich and mysterious history. While many facts are known about the origins of playing cards, several of the details surrounding the creation of cards as we know them today are still subject to debate. Part of the problem is that paper is a fragile medium, so it is almost impossible to truly trace the originals, since samples no longer exist.

Early examples of cards can be traced to India, Persia, and Egypt but most experts agree that playing cards originated in China, alongside games such as Dominos and Mahjong. The Chinese invented paper and printing, and there are examples that can be traced to China dating all the way back to 1294! There are even similarities that exist between today’s cards and decks that were made 800 years ago!

Other historians believe that cards originated in Persia, where they then spread east to India and China. They also spread west to Egypt, and finally into Europe.

Designs of European cards seem to derive from Egyptian cards from the 14th century. It is believed that cards arrived in Europe primarily from trade with Egypt. There are many striking similarities between the 14th century cards and cards of today. The old deck had 4 suits. Swords evolved into the Clubs of today’s decks. Sticks evolved into Clubs. Suits of Cups and Coins can still be found on decks made in Italy and Spain today. Many different areas were eager to put their own styles and cultures into their decks, as evidenced by suits of Acorns, Hawk Bells, Hearts, and Leaves found on German decks. These symbols are influenced by the German pride and love of their natural surroundings.

Spread and Development

After playing cards first arrived in Southern Europe, they spread quickly to other parts of Europe. Some even refer to the speed at which cards traveled throughout Europe as the ‘Invasion of Playing Cards’. Due to the small size and convenient portability of a pack, it was very easy for soliders to carry cards across Europe and introduce them to new regions. It is very likely that cards first arrived in England in the pockets of French soldiers. Cards were finally introduced to America by explorers and soldiers.

While different cultures infused their own cultures into their decks, they all used symbols that were attractive and easy to identify. They were also based on real objects.

Early decks had no Queens, which reflected the fact that courts were male-dominated.  Early decks had a King and 2 ‘Marshalls’, but no Queen.  Even today Italian, Spanish, and German cards have a variation of the 3 male court cards.  The exception is the French design, which does have a Queen.

The common red and black suit color scheme that we know today was invented in France. This simple creation offered better readability and became the basis for the modern Anglo-American deck. The core elements of the deck and major suit systems were established by the end of the 15th century, and very little has changed since. This means that decks that were printed last week still have a rich history that goes back hundreds of years!


Availability, Banning, and Taxation

Initially, playing cards were made by hand. This made them expensive and accessible only to the upper class. As paper quality and printing techniques improved, higher-quality decks became available to everyone. By the end of 14th century, there was a stir throughout Europe that cut through cultural and class divides.  Due to the huge variety of games and easy access to packs, gambling was a popular pastime. There was a worry that these increases in gambling would also lead to increases of immorality in the lower class. This caused church and state to intervene to control the sale and use of playing cards.

The church was very opposed to gaming with cards.  Sermons were delivered against using playing cards, and their use was restricted and sometimes forbidden. People were told that the use of cards could lead to crime, dishonesty, drunkeness, fighting, and other unsavory behavior.  Cards were viewed as evil and sinister.

As early as 1376, games were being forbidden in Florence. Two years later, gambling with high stakes was punishable by a fine in Germany. In 1423, Saint Bernadine of Sienna in Bologna was so successful in her crusade against playing cards that there was a public bonfire where thousands of decks were burned.

In 15th century England, cards were forbidden by the Parliament, except during the 12 days of Christmas.  In the 16th century, Henry the 8th felt that the use of cards was distracting his bowmen from training.

In the 17th century, cardmakers petitioned the king for a royal charter.  Charles I granted  the charter in 1628. The result was the creation of The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards, which still exists today. Back then, they stopped the import of French cards to protect the trade.  It was easy to tax popular, addicting items, so Charles I imposed a tax that quickly rose to 6 pence per deck - equivalent to about $5 today. The duty continued to rise, eventually reaching 2 shillings and 6 pence for a single pack - about $25 today!

To prevent tax evasion, the Ace of Spades was held by customs. The Ace was only issued once duty was paid by the card makers. One man was even sentenced to death after forging an Ace of Spades!


 Other Uses

Playing cards were also used for much more than playing games. For a long time, only the faces of cards were printed, leaving the backs blank. These blank backs were one of the most convenient sources of paper, so they were often written on and used as coupons, love letters, invitations, and even currency.

In 18th century Netherlands, mothers would leave a message on the back of a card to identify an abandoned child. If card was torn in half, it meant that the mother would someday return with her half of the card to claim the child. If card was whole, it mesnt that the child was fully abandoned and the mother would not return.


Secret Societies and Hidden Meanings

Some people believe that the images in cards are the work of secret societies.  Since the true origins are still unknown, many think that all of the suits, values, and symbols could have hidden meanings.

Some of the popular theories include a correlation to the natural world. There are 4 suits, which relate to the 4 seasons. There are 52 cards - one for each week of the year. The 13 cards per suit relate to the 13 cycles of the moon.

Many theorists believe that the Freemasons concealed messages in the cards. For example, the Jack of Hearts seems to hold a sprig of Acacia, which was used in Masonic rituals. However, this is not an exclusive Masonic emblem. The Queens hold roses, which could also show a connection to the Freemasons. Links between the deck and Egypt could suggest Masonic involvement, as it is believed that Egypt is a large source of Masonic knowledge.

To date, no hard evidence has been discovered of messages placed by intention, as the results would be far more blatant.  Thus, it is very difficult to prove or disprove any given theory. The mere existence of these stories proves the importance of symbolism and meaning within the deck.


Ongoing Beauty and Mystery

Decks of playing cards are simultaneously simple and complex. They are small, easy to carry, and colorful. They connect with the fact that people love secrets. When playing a game, only you know your hand, so you hold a secret.  The thought that you will beat your opponents appeals to desires of control. The romantic interpretations of the cards have increased the mythology surrounding them. Cards can be used to connect friends, swindle enemies, and amaze strangers.  Cards can be whatever you want them to be.