During any of your live or online poker sessions, have you ever wondered how the deck of cards used for your entertainment originated? The reality is that playing cards have a lengthy and ancient backstory.
In fact, there is hot debate over the factual origins of the deck of cards we play poker with today. One of the most robust theories is that playing cards were conceived in ancient China, dating back as far as the 9th century, around the dawn of the Tang Dynasty.
The first formal reference to card-based games is found in the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang when Princess Tongchang was said to be indulging in a “leaf game” with her husband’s family, known as the Wei clan. Ouyang Xiu, a scholar of the Song Dynasty, was also adamant that playing cards were present midway through the Tang Dynasty.
The Ming Dynasty and their money cards
One thing we can be sure of is that playing cards were present during the Ming Dynasty, which kick-started in the latter half of the 12th century. Iconic characters from some of the most read novels from this age, namely Water Margin, were prominent in some of the earliest forms of playing cards.
The first instance of suits for decks of cards appeared in ancient China, too. Images of coins, coins on strings, myriads and multiples of myriads were used and known as “money cards”. There is a sense that the first playing card decks were even used as legitimate paper currency when playing for stakes.
Playing cards break new ground in the Western world
The first examples of playing card decks took a couple more centuries to appear in mainland Europe. During the late 14th century, playing cards are said to have existed in Catalonia, France, as well as northern Italy, southern Germany and Switzerland. This is all hearsay in some cases, as no real-world examples have survived to the present day.
Nevertheless, several well-placed sources suggest the first playing cards were painted and gilded, ensuring an exceptional look and feel that’s still the hallmark of an exceptional deck of cards today.
During the formative years of the 15th century, European-style playing cards would go on to introduce a new theme for the four playing card suits. The ‘Latin suits’ today include swords, cups, coins and clubs.
Some say these suit themes originated on Tarot cards and made a seamless transition to playing cards. The Latin suits can still be found on decks of cards made in Spain and Italy today.
One of the earliest instances of the playing card royals came from Italian decks, which hand-painted kings and queens and knaves and princes, which would later become the jack.
Playing cards in Spain opted not to include queens, and there weren’t any tens in their decks either, but for good reason. The card game ‘Ombre’, which became something of a national obsession, removed the use of eights and nines from play. Spanish decks were likelier to be 40 cards deep instead of 52.
The emergence of playing card mass production
The intricate and elaborate nature of the first wave of playing cards in Europe meant they used to be the reserve of only the wealthiest and most noble citizens. Naturally, as card games surged in popularity, both continentally and globally, a need to mass-produce decks of cards grew greater.
A breakthrough in playing card manufacturing was made when decks of cards made landfall in Germany. Their increasing popularity among German soldiers ramped up the need to find new, creative ways of developing playing cards in vast quantities. In fact, Germany became the world’s first central ‘hub’ for playing card manufacturing, exporting decks throughout Western Europe and beyond.
It was German playing card manufacturers who would make initial steps towards designing the playing card suits we know and love today. They introduced four new symbols designed to reflect life in rural Germany better. These were leaves, acorns, bells and hearts. During this time, they also inched closer towards the 52-card deck of cards we play poker with now, with a secondary jack replacing the queens and twos ousting the aces.
The French have also had a big say in the evolution of playing card decks. The French decided to split the four suits into two categories – black and red. As paper manufacturing and printing processes evolved rapidly, the French overtook the Germans as the playing card mass production market leader.
The English touch has left its mark on today’s decks of cards
Increased taxation on playing card manufacturers in France forced some producers to pack their bags and move to nearby Belgium and England. English playing card manufacturers eventually conceived the clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds we see today as the quartet of suits. A fusion of early Italian and French playing card designs, the English-style cards have since been adopted for the long term.
The De La Rue printing firm took mass production of playing cards to even greater heights through the Industrial Revolution. Low-resolution versions of the suits became the standardised versions, which are still iconic today.
Then, it was the turn of the Americans, with Lewis I. Cohen being the most influential figure behind the innovation of playing card production. He conceived a printing press capable of printing all four suits at once. In the mid-to-late 19th century, American card pioneers introduced a joker to the deck of cards, becoming the most valuable trump card in the trick-taking game Euchre. It would later become a wild card in poker around 1875.
It was the Americans who have since standardised playing card designs and production. Today, the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) manufactures the world’s finest playing cards – Bicycle playing cards.
So, the next time you sit down with the dealer button and deal to your pals, just remember that playing cards have come an awful long way through the generations.