Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.
The Game begins...
No other game has influenced human thought, emotions, superstitions, language, art and entertainment since their inception centuries ago.
Whether it’s the solitaire played on a rainy day when no one else is around to give us company, the boisterous card games played with pretend money with family and friends or the high stakes poker games where millions can be made or lost, you can’t deny the power of the playing cards.
Millions of playing cards are in circulation and they are known to most of the civilized world. They inspire passion and panic, luck and loss.
So come with me and let’s journey from ancient China and India, take a ship with Marco Polo, cross the seas across to Europe, spread though Italian, Germanic and French cultures, travel across to the New World and go find fun and fortune among the desert lights of Las Vegas.
From the Orient..
As with most ancient origins, the stories have got blurred but most scholars accept that playing cards originated in the East. Both India and China have got their versions of ancient playing cards and either one could have started first. They date back as early as 9th Century AD.
In India the ancient cards called Dasavatara Ganjifa were based on the ten incarnations of the Hindu God Vishnu. They were circular picture cards where each of the ten avatars formed a suit. It is unclear whether the original cards were used for religious rites or for simple fun. As they were all created and painted by hand, they represent artistry of the highest order, a window into miniature paintings of that era.
In China, they were played by the royalty and have been mentioned in the memoirs of various ancient travellers. They were called ‘leaf’ cards. Some believe that the playing cards in those times acted as money too. So they were both the game and the stake itself. The one holding the highest card won the lot, much like the modern version of children’s card games like Top Trumps and Pokémon cards.
There are many theories on how the cards came into European society. Some claim Marco Polo and his sailors brought back the card after their travels in the East. Others prefer the land route and say the Arabs and Saracens introduced them into Italy through the Middle East. There are some ancient cards from the Ottoman times and from Egypt known as Mamluk cards that bear considerable similarity to the modern versions.
The Route of the Playing Cards
The Influence of Tarot
It is clear that the Tarot cards were in existence for foretelling fortunes and were used by the Romany Gypsies. In Renaissance Europe the Tarot and the Eastern playing cards became merged and resulted in the modern versions of cards.
The Renaissance Venetians may be credited for blending the two. As the Eastern Cards had no recognisable suits relevant to Europe, they probably borrowed the symbolism of Tarot- Swords, Staves, Chalice, Coins and re-mixed them with the Feudal hierarchy of King, Queen, Knight, Page etc.
The representation of the Fool or Jester in Tarot may be the precursor of the modern Joker.
The Tarot used to contain 22 cards and this was combined with the 56 card deck of those tiems. There are still packs consisting of 78 cards that exist in some countries in the eastern Europe that may be a medieval residue from this combination.
A Royal Pastime...
Most of the earliest mentions of playing cards and card games allude to Royalty. It is possible due to the fact that they had to be handmade, painted individually and illustrated, they were considered works of art and a luxury only affordable by the royalty in Europe. The earliest mention dates as far back as 13th century.
There is a possibility the Rudolf the First of Germany spent many amusing hours in the company of playing cards in the 13th century. There is a miniature painting featuring the playing cards that is dated back to 1352. There is a receipt dating back to 1392 that claims Charles VI purchased a pack of playing cards of ‘gold and diverse colours’. Good for him!
Didn’t think the Royalty kept receipts.
From Italy the cards spread across to Germany, Spain and France the then fashionable cultures. The English adopted the French pastime and cards still exist from Henry the VII courts.
The individual suits system can be divided into three subsets based on these cultural influences.
The Suits unravel..
The modern suits of Heart, Diamond, Clubs and Spades although now pretty much standard weren’t so all the time.
The Italians who adopted the suits from Tarot and had Spada ( Sword), Denaro (coin) , Bas-tone ( rod or stave) and Coppa ( cup or chalice)
The Spanish adopted a similar style.
The Germans went for Grun ( leaf- maybe the forerunner of the spade) , Eichel ( acorn – then transformed to clubs or clovers), Herz ( Heart) and Schelle ( Bell)
The French adopted a system pretty similar to the modern versions Their spade was a ‘Pique’, their heart ‘Couer’ , their diamond is actually a ‘Carreau’ or a tile/square and their clubs is the ‘Tefle’ or the cloverleaf.
The English predominantly adopted the French system and went on to call them Heart, Diamond, Spades and Clubs.
The French Names of Kings, Queens & Knaves and Characters
|Current Name||French Deck Name||Prbably named after|
King of Hearts
Charlemagne the Great or King Charles VI
King of Diamonds
King of Spades
King of Clubs
Alexander the Great
Queen of Hearts
Judith of Bavaria or Biblical Judith
Queen of Diamonds
Queen of Spades
Greek Goddess Athena
Queen of Clubs
Anagram of Regina (Queen) or after Argos
Jack of Hearts
Étienne “La Hire” de Vignolles, companion of arms to Joan of Arc
Jack of Diamonds
companion of Lancelot or Greek Hero?
Jack of Spades
? Ogier the Great from the Song of Roland
Jack of Clubs
The Materials and Methods
Earlier they were hand drawn and painted, sometimes made for gold or silver. They were made from pasteboard with two sheets stuck together and made with painstaking precision.
When the woodcuts were used to transfer print, the cards started to get mass produced for common consumption and not just the domain of the royalty. The woodcut manufacturers in Germany were making cards as far back as 1418. Since 1450 they were able to make stencils and this speeded up the process even more.
There was a Master of the Playing Cards working in Germany during the mid 14th century and there are some packs still surviving from this era.
The arrival of Guttenberg’s printing press and subsequently movable type hastened the spread even more.
The double ended printing design that makes us hold it any way up is attributed to a French manufacturer from 1745 and adopted to English and Spanish cards after that era.
The corner indices so you could hold them in a fan didn’t arrive until well into the 19th century. The patent is attributed to Samuel Hart in 1864.
The modern cards have the plastic coating that makes shuffling far easier.
Culture and Connotations ...
Originally a domain of the royalty, the mass production meant even peasants could partake in playing card. The Feudal system of taxation and the rise of the revolution meant that people were fed up of royalty.
In the original deck King was always considered the highest card. However, the peasants changed the rules and made the Ace which was originally the lowest rise as the highest card – indicating the rise of the commoner. This concept was hastened during the French revolution and has stuck. Aces high! comrades.
However, the French went one step further and refused to play with the King, Queen and Knave and changed the names to Liberties, Equalities and Fraternities after their motto. This didn’t last very long and reverted back during Napoleonic era.
The Knave only changed to Jack when corner markings were born as the ‘K’ for the King and ‘Kn’ for the Knave were very similar and confusing so the ‘Jack’ was born and became abbreviated to ‘J’.
As playing cards were largely imported in the Middle Ages, Royalty saw the opportunity to impose heavy taxes on them. This led to the tax stamp to be always placed on the Ace of Spades.
To this day this tradition means that the manufacturer’s logo is imprinted on the Ace of Spades.
The playing cards due to their links to the original Tarot are still meant to contain religious and astrological symbolism. The 13 cards in each suit represent the 13 lunar months (28 days each). This will equate to the 364 days.The 52 cards represent the 52 weeks in the year too.
The Ace itself represent the ‘beginning the end’ ( Alpha and Omega ) as it can both be the lowest order or ‘one’ and yet be the highest of the suit also.
The Ace of spades with its large black Spade in the middle is sometimes called a death card.
This fact was used as a psychological warfare against the Vietcong in the Vietnam war where officers requested decks just consisting of Ace of Spades and distributed them throughout the forest- the Viet cong were superstitious and viewed this as a harbinger of death!
Art and Media
Since the inception of the printing press many saw the possibilities of advertising, propaganda, titillation and knowledge exchange on the back face of the card. Cards have since been used to promote products, produce erotica and pin ups as well as propaganda for various philosophies and religion.
Playing card games has also inspired many painting throughout history from Renaissance era to the art noveau.
There are countless films that feature the card game.. It has resulted in love, romance, heartbreak, loss, gain, death.The Quintessential Bond films have also glamourised gambling into a stylish diversion.
I do adore the opening credit sequence of Casino Royale that effectively captures the Gambling arts into a seamless exercise in digital wizardry where cards merge into scenery, become enticing, turn into weapons, and surround everything in a magical art form . Each suit is used to very effective symbolism in a beautifully rendered sequence.
Watch it below...
Casino Royale sequence
Facts and Trivia
- The Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts and the Kind of diamonds are the only ones show n in profile. This led to the term ‘ one eyed Jack ’.
- The King of Hearts has no moustache and is seen to be hiding a sword behind him. However there is an urban myth that the sword doesn’t really belong to him and that he is the ‘False’ King being murdered! Some even go as far to say that the sleeves of the hand holding the word belongs to the Queen of spades- go figure!
- The King of Diamonds is the only one holding the axe while others hold a sword. He is known as the ‘man with the axe’
- The Queen of Spades holds a sceptre and the Queen of Clubs, a flower.
- The most common sizes for playing cards are poker size (2½in × 3½in; 63 mm × 88 mm, or B8 size according to ISO 216) and bridge size (2¼in × 3½in, approx. 56 mm × 88 mm)
- Playing cards have been adapted for use by the visually impaired by the inclusion of large-print and/or braille characters as part of the card.
- The United States Playing Card Company (USPC), located in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the world's largest producer of playing cards. Founded in 1867, USPC vends over 100,000,000 decks of playing cards annually and mostly to Las Vegas where the decks are only used once in a game and discarded.
Other 'Uncommon Histories' by Docmo..
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- The Soaring History of Kites
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I'll shuffle off, shall I..
Dear reader, hope you enjoyed this history of the playing cards.
Go on, grab a pack and shuffle it, feel it in your hands, fan the cards, admire their feel, finish, artistry and their history. But please don't gamble your life away. Have fun.
Really appreciate your visit and do leave your comments and feedback below.
If you enjoy what you read, share it with friends/family on Facebook/Twitter so others can enjoy and learn too.
I am grateful for your company. I'll leave you with a montage of some of the best gambling scenes in movie history from YouTube.
Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2011
KDuBarry03 on September 08, 2012:
Wow...this is really detailed and well explained. I never would have thought cards were this old and this culturally diversified. I'm definitely coming back to this hub and reading it again later.
Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on September 07, 2012:
This is beautifully illustrated and thoroughly researched. What a great run down on the history of playing cards. I loved the French Names of the face cards. We played penny poker and blackjack in my childhood family. This brings back great memories of learning to shuffle the deck and deal the cards.
Mary Craig from New York on September 07, 2012:
Only you could keep a bunch of people reading about cards from inception to the current day! You've done a great job including so much information...lots of research here Mohan. The history was very interesting and the videos superb.
So you've said you dabble in palm reading...how's your poker?