Why Playing Cards Look Like They Do

By EndersGame - Thursday, April 25, 2019

Most of us use a deck of playing cards on a regular basis for our card magic. It is like a familiar friend that we've known for most of our life, and so it's hard to imagine it looking any different than how it does. But did you know that playing cards have evolved significantly over time? When they first appeared in Europe in the late 1300s, a deck of playing cards looked very different than the one you're using to perform magic with today.

So let's take a look at some of the factors that have shaped the face of our modern deck. If we know something about the journey that our paste-board friends have gone through, it will help us appreciate them all the more.

Historic Image of Playing Cards

French origins: The suits and face cards of the modern deck largely go back to French decks of the 15th century. While playing cards may have originated in the Far East, perhaps China, they first appeared in Europe in the late 1300s. From Italy, playing cards spread to Germany, and also to France. All of these regions were using their own localized suits, deck sizes, and court cards. The French deck became popular because its simple design and colours made it easier to print at a low cost. These more cheaply made cards became standard when they spread throughout all Europe.

Deck size: A 52 card deck is considered standard today, but some European decks have less cards, such as the 40 card Spanish deck and the 32 card German deck. Different countries had different numbers of playing cards in a deck. But it was the French system of a 52 card deck that eventually made its way to England. From there it crossed the ocean to America with the help of English colonialism.

Suits: The four suits as we know them today also originate in France. They correspond to Swords, Clubs, Cups, and Coins from the Italian playing cards of the 1400s. These became Leaves, Acorns, Hearts, and Bells in Germany. They were then were adapted in French decks to become Spades, Clubs, Hearts, and Diamonds. The different suits might reflect social classes or perhaps other elements from these cultures. The reason the red and black French suits became the most popular is largely because they could be massed produced cheaply and easily.

Male courts: Since men dominated the royal courts of Europe, early playing cards did not have Queens. Instead they typically consisting of a King, Cavalier and Knave (later called a Jack). The absence of the Queen reflected the male dominance common in actual European royalty of the time. Many modern Italian, Spanish, and German decks still continue this tradition today. Perhaps as a nod to gallantry and chivalry, the French included a female in their set of royal court cards. Since we have inherited the French style of playing cards, the Queen is a standard fixture in our deck of playing cards today.

Jacks: Jacks were originally called Knaves, referring to royal servants. But the abbreviation Kn could easily be confused with the abbreviation Kg that was used for the Kings. That led to them being called the Jacks, to avoid such confusion.

Real courts: Court cards have a lengthy association with members of the royal court. In the late 1500s French publishers began a trend to associate them with individuals from history and literature. No standard was ever adopted, and there was also regional variation. But the most common associations for the Kings were King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds). Other common court card characters included the Greek goddess Pallas Athena and Jacob's wife Rachel as Queens. Lancelot and Trojan hero Hector were often Jacks.

Clothing: The exact origin of the clothing and accessories depicted in the court cards of modern decks is lost in the pages of history. Originally items like swords and flowers must have been associated with the royal characters featured on the cards. The traditional designs of court cards in a typical Bicycle deck have their roots in English playing cards. These in turn were adapted from French playing cards of the 15th and 16th centuries. Over time various changes occurred, but for unknown reasons.

Ace of Spades: The special treatment and ornate artwork usually given to the Ace of Spades goes back to tax laws in England in the 1800s. Since playing cards were so popular, it was a smart move for the government to tax them. The Ace of Spades was considered the "duty" card, possibly because it was usually at the top of the pack, or because of its large amount of white space. It had to be stamped or marked as proof that the printer had paid the taxes required to produce the deck. Forging an Ace of Spades was considered a capital crime, and one man was even sentenced to death for doing this!

White backs: In the 1700s and earlier, playing cards had white backs. This made them convenient for re-purposing as pieces of paper used for writing down messages. Patterns on the card backs first began to appear to prevent dirt and smudging creating "marked" cards, which could be used for cheating.

One-way cards: Double-ended court cards as we know them today only became common in the late 1800s. Prior to this the artwork on court cards was a full-length one-way design. Turning a card around in your hand was usually a dead give-away that you held a court card. So double-ended court cards were a welcome innovation that helped card players make it less obvious what they were holding.

Indices: Indices only became standard in the 1870s, as an easy way of identifying cards in your hand. Before this American development, playing cards had no indices whatsoever, and you had to spread out your whole hand of cards to see what you had. The early decks with indices were called "Squeezers", a term which reflects the new advantage these cards offered. A rival publisher began producing "Triplicates". These did the same job with the entire card pictured in miniature on opposite corners. But indices as we know them today with the card value and suit won the day.

Jokers: Decks of playing cards originally had no Jokers. Jokers are a relatively recent addition to the deck, after Euchre became popular in the United States in the 1860s. In Euchre, a wild card called the best bower was occasionally added to the deck as a special trump card. The word Joker might even be derived from the word Euchre. The playful artwork usually associated with Jokers today is a later development, likely inspired by the name of the card.

Devil's picture book: The expression "devil's picture book" is sometimes used to refer to a deck of cards. This dates back to the time where cards were strongly frowned along by religious communities. Their close association with gambling and cheating was a major reason for this. There was a real concern that playing cards led to drunkenness, fighting, and infidelity. So both church and state have at times banned the use of playing cards, and enacted edicts and preached sermons against them. Sometimes they even held public card-burnings!

Historic Image of People Playing Cards

Playing cards sure have come a long way since their early beginnings in Europe in the 14th century. The shape and style of our modern deck has become well established across the centuries. So next time you're asking a spectator to "pick a card", spare a thought for the many generations who have gone ahead of you. It's the people from history that have helped define the familiar features of those 52 friends that you're holding out!

Reader comments:


Wednesday, 08 May 2019 12:42 PM - Reply to this comment

I love this stuff. I first saw some of this history when researching the "mystical" origins of the Tarot deck. Turns out the early Tarot deck evolved in the mid 1400's from those early European decks (not the other way around) and was used for a card game called Triumph. The "Major Arcana" were simply 22 permanent trump cards. The game started to be call "tarocchi" in Italy in the 1500's. It wasn't until 1871 in France & England that mystical meanings were attributed to the "Tarot" cards. An alternate history sprung up afterwards that the cards and their mysterious symbols were the last remaining pages of an ancient Egyptian book that contained the "keys to life". Alas, I could find no evidence for this more interesting theory. :) [One good summary source can be found here: https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/extrasensory-perceptions/tarot-card6.htm]

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