The history of playing cards is an interesting one. Few items in human existence have signified gaming and chance over the decades like playing cards. There may be many interactions but the tried and true deck of playing cards is a 52 card deck, with four suits (hearts, diamonds, clubs, spades) each containing 13 cards of numbers 1 – 10 alongside a king, a queen and an ace. It hasn’t always been that way. See below for the concise history of playing cards and the overall timeline of events.

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900 AD (ish) | The playing card is invented in China during the Tang Dynasty

This is speculated in the history of playing cards that the invention was possible as a result of the usage of woodblock printing technology.

The first possible reference to card games comes from a 9th-century text known as the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, written by Tang dynasty writer Su E. It describes Princess Tongchang, daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang, playing the “leaf game” in 868 with members of the Wei clan, the family of the princess’s husband. (original citation)

Other games revolving around alcoholic drinking involved using playing cards of a sort from the Tang dynasty onward. However, these cards did not contain suits or numbers. Instead, they were printed with instructions or forfeits for whomever drew them. (original citation)

1200 AD (ish) | Playing Cards Spread To Other Countries

By the 11th century, playing cards were spreading throughout the Asian continent and later came into Egypt.

The oldest surviving cards in the world are four fragments found in the Keir Collection and one in the Benaki Museum. They are dated to the 12th and 13th centuries in the history of playing cards.

A near complete pack of Mamluk playing cards dating to the 15th century and of similar appearance to the fragments above was discovered by Leo Aryeh Mayer in the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, in 1939. The Mamluk court cards showed abstract designs or calligraphy not depicting persons possibly due to religious proscription in Sunni Islam, though they did bear the ranks on the cards.

1370 AD (ish) | Playing Cards Spread To Europe

According to Timothy Husband in the history of playing cards, the earliest record of playing cards in Europe is believed by some researchers to be a ban on card games in the city of Berne, Switzerland in 1367. This, however, cannot be confirmed. The first absolutely confirmed reference is to a Florentine ban on playing cards dating to 1377.

Among the early patterns of playing card were those probably derived from the Mamluk suits of cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks, which are still used in traditional Latin decks. As polo was an obscure sport to Europeans then, the polo-sticks became batons or cudgels. Wide use of playing cards in Europe can, with some certainty, be traced from 1377 onward.

1400 – 1500 AD (ish) | Playing Cards Start To Resemble What We Know

From about 1418 to 1450, as the history of playing cards is growing far and wide, professional card makers in Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg created printed decks. Playing cards even competed with devotional images as the most common uses for woodcuts in this period. Most early woodcuts of all types were colored after printing, either by hand or, from about 1450 onwards, stencils. These 15th-century playing cards were probably painted. The Flemish Hunting Deck, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the oldest complete set of ordinary playing cards made in Europe from the 15th century.

As cards spread from Italy to Germanic countries, the Latin suits were replaced with the suits of leaves (or shields), hearts (or roses), bells, and acorns, and a combination of Latin and Germanic suit pictures and names resulted in the French suits of trèfles (clovers), carreaux (tiles), cœurs (hearts), and piques (pikes) around 1480. The trèfle (clover) was probably derived from the acorn and the pique (pike) from the leaf of the German suits. The names pique and spade, however, may have derived from the sword (spade) of the Italian suits. In England, the French suits were eventually used, although the earliest packs circulating may have had Latin suits. This may account for why the English called the clovers “clubs” and the pikes “spades”.

In the late 14th century, Europeans changed the Mamluk court cards to represent European royalty and attendants. In a description from 1377, the earliest courts were originally a seated “king”, an upper marshal that held his suit symbol up, and a lower marshal that held it down.

In England, the lowest court card was called the “knave” which originally meant male child (compare German Knabe), so in this context the character could represent the “prince”, son to the king and queen; the meaning servant developed later. Queens appeared sporadically in packs as early as 1377, especially in Germany. Although the Germans abandoned the queen before the 1500s, the French permanently picked it up and placed it under the king. Packs of 56 cards containing in each suit a king, queen, knight, and knave (as in tarot) were once common in the 15th century.

In the history of playing cards, this style of the three royals, which reflects more what we know today, become widely used around this time.

1600 – 1800 AD (ish) | More Modernization Changes

The deck is a little closer to what we know but there are all these modernization things we take for granted, like little things that make cards wear faster. This is the section of the history of playing cards where much of this innovation is happening.

Packs with corner and edge indices (i.e. the value of the card printed at the corner(s) of the card) enabled players to hold their cards close together in a fan with one hand (instead of the two hands previously used. The first such pack known with Latin suits was printed by Infirerra and dated 1693, but this feature was commonly used only from the end of the 18th century. The first American-manufactured (French) deck with this innovation was the Saladee’s Patent, printed by Samuel Hart in 1864. In 1870, he and his cousins at Lawrence & Cohen followed up with the Squeezers, the first cards with indices that had a large diffusion.

This was followed by the innovation of reversible court cards. This invention is attributed to a French card maker of Agen in 1745. But the French government, which controlled the design of playing cards, prohibited the printing of cards with this innovation. In central Europe (Trappola cards) and Italy (Tarocco Bolognese) the innovation was adopted during the second half of the 18th century. In Great Britain, the pack with reversible court cards was patented in 1799 by Edmund Ludlow and Ann Wilcox. The French pack with this design was printed around 1802 by Thomas Wheeler.

Sharp corners wear out more quickly, and could possibly reveal the card’s value, so they were replaced with rounded corners. Before the mid-19th century, British, American, and French players preferred blank backs. The need to hide wear and tear and to discourage writing on the back led cards to have designs, pictures, photos, or advertising on the reverse.

1860 AD | America Invents The Joker

It only makes sense that America’s big contribution to the history of playing cards is the investion of the “Joker” card.

It was devised for the game of euchre, which spread from Europe to America beginning shortly after the American Revolutionary War. In euchre, the highest trump card is the Jack of the trump suit, called the right bower (from the German Bauer); the second-highest trump, the left bower, is the jack of the suit of the same color as trumps.

The joker was invented as a third trump, the imperial or best bower, which ranked higher than the other two bowers. The name of the card is believed to derive from juker, a variant name for euchre. The earliest reference to a joker functioning as a wild card dates to 1875 with a variation of poker.

1885 – 1917 AD | Bicycle Starts Journey of Domination

In 1885, the first Bicycle Brand cards are produced by Russell, Morgan, & Co. In 1894, Russell, Morgan, & Co. becomes The United States Playing Card Company, acquiring the Standard Playing Card Company (Chicago), Perfection Card Company (New York), and New York Consolidated Card Company (also New York).

Toward the end of the first World War, the United States Playing Card Company produced four “War Series” decks under the Bicycle brand to represent each of the branches of the U.S. armed services: Flying Ace for the Air Force, Dreadnaught for the Navy, Invincible (aka Conquerer) for the Marine Corp, and Big Gun for the Army. The decks were printed in 1917, and apparently only given an extremely limited release before being withdrawn from circulation.

These helped them become the staple we know today. In the American history of playing cards, Bicycle is certainly a superstar.

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