Updated date:

The History of Playing Cards


Playing cards are made of thin pieces of pasteboard or plastic in uniform sizes by decks. The cards are usually rectangular with rounded corners, although earlier cards were sometimes square or circular. Cards are chiefly used for competitive games, such as bridge or poker. However, cards are also employed by fortune-tellers to predict the future, by magicians to play tricks, and sometimes by psychologists for various test purposes.

A full deck, or pack, of modern playing cards contains 52 cards equally divided in four sets, called suits. The two black suits are spades and clubs, and the two red suits are hearts and diamonds. Each suit has 13 cards. They include three face cards, or picture cards, which represent the jack, queen, and king; nine cards that bear the numbers or pips of two to ten; and the ace, which is counted as either the highest or the lowest card of the suit. One or two jokers are extra cards in the deck and are used in certain card games.

Card Games

Card games range from simple games of chance to sophisticated games of skill. Many games can be played with the conventional pack of 52 playing cards which is divided into four suits: spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. Each suit contains thirteen cards. Most games use the whole pack and in some a separate Joker card is used.

There are countless forms of Patience, a solitary game in which the player starts with a pattern, and then by a series of regulated moves attempts to sort out all the cards in order, perhaps in separate suits and ascending and descending order. In games like Piquet, Bezique and Cribbage, two opposing players attempt to arrange their hands in certain scoring combinations.

Tricks and Trumps are the basis of Whist, for some 400 years a popular game for four players paired as partners. Each player is dealt 13 cards and play proceed in a clockwise direction.

Each player must follow suit if possible, but if he cannot he may use a card of the suit declared s 'trumps' or any other card. The highest trump card, or the highest card of the suit led, takes the trick. Bridge is a development of Whist involving bidding for the right to play, each hand, and the exposure, face-up, of the cards belonging to the declarer's partner.

In the skilful game of Poker, as in Rummy, the object is to assemble certain combinations of cards. In another group of games, players are required either to get rid of their cards, or collect the greatest number.

The gambling or 'showdown' game of poker developed in the United States in the nineteenth century but owes its origins to a French version of an old British game called 'brag'.

Solitaire, or patience, was devised for the lone card player and there are perhaps more varieties of this game than of all other card games combined.

The first rule book for card games was produced in England by Edmund Hoyle (1672-1769). Some card games require a certain number of participants, for example bridge, which is played by four people, while others may be played by any number of people.

The possibilities have proved almost endless, the number of games that can be played and differing types of rules that ensues for simple deck of cards.

The Origins of Playing Cards

The origin of playing cards is obscure. They apparently were popular in ancient times, and their invention has been ascribed to the Chinese, Egyptians, and Arabs. Playing cards probably originated in China between 100 BC and AD 100.

It is believed that cards replaced arrows and shells formerly used for games and fortune-telling. For centuries, cards have been associated with religious rites and divination. Ancient Hindu cards, for example, had ten suits representing the ten incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god. A Chinese dictionary of 1678 stated that cards were invented in 1120 for the amusement of the royal court. The oldest cards still in existence are handpainted Italian cards dating from 1299.

It is almost impossible to pinpoint the origins of playing cards but the 52 card deck or pack which we use today can be traced back to cards which were in use throughout Europe in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. They were probably introduced into southern and eastern Europe by the Crusaders, returning from the Near East in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is also possible that the Moors brought cards with them into Spain and that the gypsies carried them into eastern Europe.

The earliest European cards were called tarots and were first used in Italy. There are 22 tarot cards in a deck. On each card there was an allegorical picture that symbolized the forces of nature or the virtues and vices of man. Belief in the supernatural powers of the tarots have long made them favorite cards of fortunetellers.

As cards spread through Europe, they quickly changed. They had become a main instrument of gambling, and for this a pack of seventy-eight (ninety-seven for the Florentine game of minchinate) was unwieldy. So one of the four 'coat' (or 'court') cards in each suit was discarded. The atouts were abolished, all except the Fool, who survives with us as the Joker. Thus the pack was reduced to the present figure of fifty-two, the Joker apart. Several countries introduced their own suit-marks. Spain and Portugal were satisfied to retain the Italian cups, swords, money and batons, but Germany, the Netherlands and parts of northern Europe adopted hearts, bells, leaves and acorns. France took to hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs, which were handed on to England.

Painted cards were unsuited to shuffling and dealing and only the rich could afford them. By 1425 the Germans were stencilling cards; before long they were printing them from wood blocks and then from metal plates. French wood-block cards of the fifteenth century (such as the King of Diamonds, named after Charlemagne, reproduced in Plate 4) were printed several cards to the sheet and then cut up by the purchaser.

Since the fifteenth century there has only been one change of importance. In France early in the ninteenth-century double-headed figure cards appeared for the first time. This change to cards which can be recognized the moment they are thrown on the table was sensible and inevitable, and the double-heads soon crossed the Channel, though it was some while before they were generally adopted. Indeed, court cards with whole-length figures were still being printed for some of the famous clubs in England as late as 1875.

Until the development of woodcut printing in the 15th century, playing cards were rare and expensive. Printing made cards available to many people, and card games became a popular amusement. According to the chronicles of Columbus, his sailors played cards during the voyage to America in 1492. By the middle of the 18th century, playing cards were so popular that Edmond Hoyle, the English writer on games, wrote best-selling books describing the rules of several known card games.

In appearance, playing cards have not changed very much since the 16th century. The costumes of the jack, queen, and king are similar to those worn by royalty in the Elizabethan period. Following the Chinese practice, decks are still divided into four suits. Each suit has the same French symbols that conformed to the four major divisions of mankind. As adopted by the English, the nobility is represented by a spade, the clergy by a heart, the merchants by a diamond, and the peasantry by a club.

Only two important changes have been made in the modern deck of cards. One is the placing of symbols and numbers at opposite corners of the cards for quick identification. The other is the use of a double-faced design on picture cards so that they may be read from either end.


Om Prakash Singh from India, Calcutta on May 04, 2009:

Hey this is a good Hub. We hardly think so deep while playing cards that this simple looking thing has such a big history behind it originating in 100BC...my goodness. This is a great piece of info, thanks for the Hub.

Gin G from Canada on May 02, 2009:

Fantastic info, DS :) I love cards but a totally horrible card player, lol

Christa Dovel from The Rocky Mountains, North America on May 01, 2009:

I have always enjoyed cards and card games. I also love the history of things.

The Good Cook on April 30, 2009:

I always find the origins and history of things very interesting even though I have no personal interest in card games. Good hub. Thanks.

Related Articles