Jun 16, 2020
Image: A Friend in Need by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge - wikipedia.com
To you, a playing card may be as recognizable as a baseball: 52 cards in a deck, four suits, red and black printing, etc. Describe a “typical” playing card to someone from ancient China, 1600s France, or the Civil War-era South, however, and they may not have any clue what the heck you’re talking about according to boredomtherapy.com.
The truth is, no deck of cards is alike. One of your favorite past times has a richer history than you may expect, and everything from its origin to its design to its ultimate usage are little-known international debates. Behind your yellowed, worn-out deck of cards is a complicated backstory you never saw coming.
Though it’s the subject of intense international debate, playing cards almost definitely originated in China. If you consider dominoes to be the distant cousins of playing cards, then you would’ve fit right in with the ancient Tang Dynasty.
Scrolls from the Tang Dynasty mention a game of paper tiles, which were a cross between dominoes and playing cards. More recent versions resemble MahJong tiles, but this is considered to be the first recorded usage of playing cards (sorry, Britain!)
Other historians trace playing cards back to nomads who brought fortune telling cards, later known as tarot, with them from India. Truly, the origin of playing cards are shrouded in mystery…but there’s no doubt how they became so ingrained in pop culture.
Playing cards as we know them today — as objects of amusement — had a more debaucherous use in medieval Europe. Back then, a card game always meant alcohol, gambling, and the potential for violence. And when something supports a vice, more people want to do it.
Card games became so connected to violence and law-breaking that they were often banned. In 1377 Paris, for example, it was forbidden to play card games on workdays in fear that it would cause an outbreak of bad behavior.
No one hated card games more than religious officials, and European preachers were convinced that the “Devil’s picture book” led to a life of crime. But like most forbidden things, playing cards were still extremely popular…among all walks of life.
Everybody played card games, even those who probably wouldn’t admit it: Kings, clerics, friars, noblewomen, sailors, prostitutes, and prisoners are only a few groups who passed the time with playing cards. That said, one group saw cards as more than just a passing amusement.
No one saw more money-making potential in playing cards than gamblers, and they made doing so their first priority. Gamblers filled bars, basements, and pretty much any concealed location, all the while shaping playing cards into what we recognize today.
52 cards with four suits make up a standard deck. The symbols that make the suits (clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades) are called “pips,” and it’s these symbols that reveal cultural secrets from the region they come from.
The pips on playing cards were once lavishly detailed because they were meant to tell a story, and to catch the eye for their artistic value as much as for their usefulness. Through their artwork, the stories they told were certainly complex.
Pips in particular always had symbolic meanings that reflected what most fascinated 16th-century Europe, mainly astronomy, alchemy, mysticism, and history, according to The Atlantic. Some historians suggest the pips we know of today originated from these very topics.
Specifically, some believe that pips represent the four classes of Medieval society: Clergy (hearts), nobility (spades), merchants (diamonds), and peasants (clubs). Listed this way, it all seems very logical, but truthfully, this kind of logic just doesn’t apply in the debaucherous world of playing cards.
Modern day suits were influenced by years of cultural shifts and changing attitudes. German playing cards, for example, obviously use different pips than those originating in England, as their iconology is different.
Instead of spades, German cards featured bells, since they more accurately represented German nobility. Diamonds in France represented the upper class rather than anything mercenary. Other common symbols — roses, clovers, acorns, shields — are more difficult to explain.
According to experts, these symbols often can’t be traced back to any specific meaning. When it comes to those cards detailed with roses and shields, it’s all about the personal taste of the nobleman commissioning his own special deck.
Unlike pips, “face cards,” once called “courtesan cards,” have remained largely unchanged to this day. How is this possible, given the variable nature of pips? It all comes down to history’s habit of being permanent.
British and French face cards always featured the same four kings: Charles, David, Caesar, and Alexander the Great (no queens represented on these decks, unfortunately.) Spanish cards featured knights, and Germans divided their suits into kings, noblemen, and peasants.
Queens weren’t overlooked for long, though, and Britain even instituted the “British rule” in which the values of the king and queen cards are swapped if the reigning monarch of England is a woman. Then, there are the wild cards.
Fittingly, the two wild cards are often represented by a wily court jester. They first appeared in American decks but were quickly added to British productions, and they weren’t always seen as the “optional” cards in a deck.
In fact, they were supposed to trump the value of any natural card. Nowadays, they’re true wildcards in how they aren’t always featured in a standard deck. Still, the tricky joker card has nothing on what is likely the most controversial card in the deck.
The ace has been dividing players since it appeared in the 1700s: Does it have the highest or lowest value? (Answer: It depends on what game you’re playing.) The ace is one of the most recognizable cards in the deck, and it’s not the only card that stands out.
Of all the “face cards,” the king of hearts is recognizable for the sword he always seems to be plunging into his own skull. Surprisingly, this image doesn’t have a bloody backstory; rapid production of cards merely degraded the integrity of the image!
We can’t forget one of the most important innovations of playing cards, which is the use of numbers on the upper corners of cards. Patented during the Civil War, these “corner indices” revolutionized game play in how it forced players to develop their own etiquette.
The way most players hold cards is because of the corner indices: They’re almost always tightly fanned so as to conceal one’s “hand” from the other players. You probably “perform” this etiquette without even thinking about it…
And if you’re familiar with poker, then you know how essential this etiquette is to playing the game. You hold your cards close to your chest while maintaining as indifferent an expression as possible, resulting in one of the most well-known playing card traditions.
Cards’ growth in popularity opened manufacturers up to business opportunities, including as propaganda, classroom tools, and means of advertisement. Obviously, this hasn’t changed over time — all you have to do is check Pinterest for proof.
During medieval times and today, cards have been used as invitations, tickets, wedding announcements, obituary notices, and even as notes between lovers. They can hold a special meaning beyond their pips, and can even become important historical documents studied by historians.
Today, you can find playing cards in practically any size and shape and with as simple or ornate a design as you want. Still, the average deck, sometimes creased and smudged and missing a couple cards, offers a unique glimpse into another time.
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