Where do playing cards come from?
June 13, 2020
Well, I hope you are ready for a bit of a history lesson, as the playing cards we are so familiar with took over 10 centuries to reach the form that we know and love.
While the exact origins are hard to trace, most theories agree that playing cards would have most likely originated in central Asia around the 10th century and resembled flattened dominoes. As they began to spread through Asia, playing cards travelled to Egypt were they were adopted by the Mamluk people who developed four suits for their cards: swords, polo sticks, cups, and coins, all of which represented aspects of daily life for Mamluk aristocracy.
It wasn’t until the year 1370 though that these four-suited cards reached the European countries. It was France though that gave the cards an overhaul, dressing the figures in the royal garbs of the times, and introducing a new suit system that we use today: Pique (Spade), Carreau (Diamond), Trèfle (Club), and Coeur (Heart).
Interestingly, at this time, the three court cards were King, Cavalier and Knave (to this day, Spanish, Italian and German cards have three male figures and no Queens). It was the people of France who once again brought the design of playing cards closer to that which we recognise today as it was they who substituted the Queen for the Cavalier.
It was a long time before cards saw any further changes, going through periods of being outlawed as wherever they were found, so were gambling, drunken behaviour, fighting and some feared it would lead to infidelity. In 1376 the city of Florence banned gaming and in 1423, St. Bernardino of Sienna preached against the use of playing cards, even going so far as to hold a public card burning in Bologna. In Britain, things were a little more lenient, but not by much, as cards were forbidden except during the 12 days of Christmas.
The next big change for playing cards was in 1864, until then, cards had only been distinguishable by the suit pips across the face of the card. Therefore, in order to ascertain the value of the card, a player would have to spread the cards out very wide and view each one individually, thereby risking his opponents glimpsing their cards. The first solution to the problem was a new breed of cards called “triplicates,” which used a small picture of the entire card in the corners, where the indexes are now. Triplicate cards are now a rare collector’s item, but they were the first cards that could be fanned tightly while still allowing a player to see his entire hand of cards.
With the introduction of triplicate cards, a new issue arose around the names of the cards. At this stage, the court cards were still in the same form as the French had left them many years ago, but with the new triplicate cards, and eventually the indexes, became confusing. The shorthand for the court cards was: Kg for King, Qn for Queen and Kn for Knave. This would lead to the King and the Knave being confused easily during card games, thus leading to the term Jack being implemented, which was a synonym for a servant or Knave.
The final piece missing from our complete deck to have been created is the evolution and creation of the Joker card. The joker is often erroneously attributed to the fool card in a tarot deck, but this iconic card actually first appeared in a game of ‘euchre’, a popular game among German-American immigrants. In this game the most powerful card is the Jack of the trump suit, referred to as the “best bower”. In 1865, American card maker Samuel Hart created a special best bower card to replace the Jack. The card was name after the game its bearer would win: the euchre card. And “euchre” in German is Jucker; although euchre’s popularity was replaced by poker, the jucker, or Joker has remained.
So now you know how our 53 friends found their way into existence, but there is still a lot of interesting and unproven stories around playing cards. If you are like me and you get excited by this sort of weird and wonderful information, you can look forward to tomorrow’s article where I’ll be telling you about some of the stranger and unproven bits of history relating to a deck of cards.
I should mention that I gathered the majority of the information here from a few different sources, but the greatest help was Joshua Jay’s Amazing Book of Cards. Check out the link below to get yourself a copy if you’re interested! Previous Blog Next Post