• Rose Smith

A History of Playing Card Decks

Photo Source: Open Photo

For a couple years now, I have slowly been collecting playing card decks. It’s not a big hobby of mine, but whenever I find myself shopping at my local Walgreens or CVS, I like to take a quick peek at the playing cards section to see if there is an interesting deck I could pick up. At this point, I have probably amassed at least ten decks. I have always found their designs to be extremely interesting in both its uniformity and its room for creativity. All 52-card decks have to have four suits (often in the form of spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds) all ranking from Ace to King (with maybe two jokers). However, the art on these cards can vary in style from featuring mythical creatures and star systems to simply a white, plain background. However, this deck format did not always exist in the way we imagine card decks today. In fact, the origin of playing cards reaches back farther than you might expect.

While the exact origin of playing cards has seen some debate, the first recorded use of playing cards were from Tang Dynasty China in the ninth century AD (Bicycle). A scroll written by Su E talks about playing a “leaf game” with her husband’s family, with leaf being a synonym for cards (Parlett Games). Some historians also thought playing cards were also used like play-money when gambling to indicate how high the stakes were or used alongside other chess or board games (Playing Card Decks). Playing cards then began to spread farther West, taking root in India and Persia. Playing cards then made their way to Europe through Mamluk period Egypt in the in the 1300s. Egyptian cards had four suits—coins, goblets, swords, and polo-sticks, which reflects what the Egyptian aristocracy was interested in at the time. Italy (and later Spain) would use these suits for cards.

The first European decks were often luxury items (Playing Card Decks). Often all hand-painted, playing card decks used to be possessions reserved for the upper classes. By the 15th century and as playing card games were becoming more popular, engravers started to print playing cards (Bicycle). Because card decks could be made with engraving, it was much easier to make a deck of cards, allowing the common people to have easier access to obtaining card decks. Germany became one of the biggest exporters of playing cards. German suits reflected rural life by using acorns, leaves, bells, and hearts as suits instead. The suits we know now (spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds) are the French style of card decks (The Atlantic). The emblems for these suits were called pips. The pips were not very reflective of what the suits were supposed to represent, but they were easy to print.

Card deck quirks as we know them have some interesting origins. For instance, the reason that the ace card stands out is that in 1765, England started to tax the sale of playing cards (The Atlantic). To show that you paid your tax, the ace had to be stamped. From that point on, aces were designed to be more prominent. Another interesting thing is that card backs used to be blank, and it was not until the 1800s in which card backs had some background. The first card backs featured stars, dots, and other simple symbols. In the 1870s, the joker was introduced to card decks as well, which is now a card deck staple (Bicycle).

Playing card decks have an interesting history. With origins dating back to the 800s and evidence of use reaching across the world, it shows something interesting about people in that there is a love of games, including playing cards. Playing games are one way we can bond with each other and spend time with one another, and it’s interesting and wonderful how we have been using playing cards to do just that for centuries.