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Early American Playing Cards


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Historical Background: Playing cards were invented during the 12th century in China. These early cards were probably paper dominoes since the official Chinese record for the invention of paper was 105 A.D. Sir William Henry Wilkinson, a British sinologist, published an article entitled "Chinese Origin of European Playing Cards" in the American Anthropologist in 1895. This historic paper compares Chinese and European decks of playing cards and includes a wealth of information. From China, playing cards may have spread to Venice, Italy, via Marco Polo or his father.

From Venice, cards made their way to other European countries. There are many mentions of cards from Ulm, Germany, in the late 1300s and early 1400s. Even though no actual card packs exist from this time, it is certain that woodcuts would have been used in their production by this time. The invention of the removeable-type printing press made mass production of playing cards possible around 1440.

Playing cards also became very popular for gambling. Preachers denounced card playing and the conduct that followed "poor losers" who exhibited bad behavior and emotional outbursts. It was declared immoral and prohibitions sprang up in many cities. Ulm, Germany, had a prohibition against card playing in 1397. Other prohibitions and ordinances against card playing occurred in Paris, France, in 1377; St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1379; Lille, France, in 1382; Barcelona, Spain, in 1382; and, again, in Paris, France, in 1397 forbidding working people to play cards on working days.

Some card decks from China featured only three "suits." The four suits used in present-day playing cards (spades, hearts, diamonds & clubs) are derived from the Middle Ages where the Tarot deck reflected the societies of Medieval times. The king ruled a world in which there were four classes: the church, military, merchants, and farmers. These four classes were featured as suits on the cards in the forms of cups (the church), swords (military), pentacles or five-pointed stars (merchants), and batons (farmers). When card popularity spread throughout Europe and, particularly, into Germany during the 15th century, the cups became hearts, the swords became spades, the pentacles became diamonds, and the batons became clubs.

English playing cards from the 15th century probably evolved from France. The first documentation of cards in England is from an Act of Parliament (3 Edw. IV.c.4) in which domestic card makers petitioned against the importing of foreign cards. At this point, cards had plain backs, square corners, no numbers in the corners, and the face cards were single ended.

It is thought that Christopher Columbus' expedition brought playing cards to what is now Latin America. Cards were later brought to the New World by Jamestown settlers. In the American colonies, Puritan children were not allowed to play cards and the sale of cards was prohibited in their communities. In the Puritan Colony Laws of 1656, children and servants were to be "publickly whipt" for second offenses of playing cards. The county records of Plymouth, Massachusetts, show that in 1633 two heathens were fined two pounds each for card playing. The colonists did, however, enjoy playing cards. When Captain James Cook returned from England to Jamestown, Virginia, he found the colonists starving, but still playing with cards!

Card designs featuring the King, Queen, Jack, and the "pip" cards (cards without numbers from two to ten) did not change much from the 15th to 19th centuries. During the mid-19th century, face cards became double-headed and the card values appeared in the left corners to allow greater ease in reading fanned cards. Players would also not want their opponents to know whether they had a face card by turning these cards right side up. Doubled-headed face cards helped players "protect the hands" or not "tip their hand" to another player.

Up until 1850, most playing cards had plain backs. Because this plain side could become soiled or "marked" and used for cheating, design patterns began to appear on the backs of cards. In some American cities further inland, this type of card deck with plain backs was used longer than 1850 simply because it took a while for the other cards to migrate to western states and territories. After cards were played with a number of times, the square corners rubbed off and, so, rounded corners became the new standard. After all, cards were made from only heavy paper then and did not have the plastic-coated finish we see on today's cards.

Native Americans also made their own cards, but not out of paper. They used animal hides and decorated each card individually. A set of North American Indian cards is displayed in the National Museum in Washington, D.C.

Fun Fact: The joker was invented because of a game called Eucher, which needed one more high card. Card manufacturers would add a blank card called the "Eucher card" in each deck. The word was mispronounced and the "joker" was born!

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Early American Playing Cards
Early American Playing Cards
Item Number 3010

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