Collecting Antique and Vintage Playing Cards

November 20th, 2008

Miriam van Houten and Joop Muller run DXPO Playing Cards, a great information resource on antique and vintage playing cards, and a member of our Hall of Fame.

People are often surprised when we tell them we collect playing cards. They all know how to play games with cards and have all held them in their hands before, but they’ve never realized that ordinary playing cards come from a long history of ancient patterns, in Europe dating back as far as the 14th century. Local standard patterns appeared, disappeared or evolved over the centuries and different patterns, regional or by country, are still used within the European territory.

Queen of Clubs – Club Card, variation 1, printed by Bernard Dondorf, Germany, ca. 1875.

Queen of Clubs – Club Card, variation 1, printed by Bernard Dondorf, Germany, ca. 1875.

Besides standard patterns, normally used for everyday playing, special non- standard decks have been printed and published since the introduction of playing cards in Europe. At first special non-standard decks were made by artists, for the courts in Europe. By the 17th century special educational or practical decks, like geographical decks showing regional or global maps, were being made.

Sometimes non-standard decks were published to commemorate certain events or comment on them, sometimes for political or religious reasons and in the previous century often for publicity and advertising purposes too. They have become historical testimonies. Even now a 50 year old deck will give a nice impression of how things looked or were done in those days. Going back 100 years you’ll find the Art Nouveau influences in the non-standard designs of the courts, aces and backs.

Each decade or century shows its characteristics on its playing cards. Can you imagine what “pin-up” cards looked like in the Victorian age? See that Ace of hearts here! And when the process of photography was discovered, it didn’t take long before the first application was featured in playing cards too. Holding and studying playing cards up close will tell you things about the technique, their makers sometimes, and their topics. The more antique and vintage decks that are found the more we can tell about the history of playing cards and the “fashions” in their development.

How we got hooked on playing cards

But of course we didn’t realize all that when we first started collecting. It was one of our neighbours who was a collector of (not only) playing cards and showed us some of his collection. Miriam was amazed by the variety and designs and started to go to flea markets and collectors fairs to pick up unusual decks. Miriam couldn’t drive, so at first Joop came along as chauffeur and looked at everything but cards on the stalls, but it didn’t take long before he started participating in this card hunting.

Ace of Hearts – Hard A Port Cut Plug, for Moore & Calvi Tobacco, printed by Lindner, Eddy & Claus Lith, USA, ca. 1890.

Ace of Hearts – Hard A Port Cut Plug, for Moore & Calvi Tobacco, printed by Lindner, Eddy & Claus Lith, USA, ca. 1890.

Then we found out that we were not the only ones with an interest in playing cards and that there were special playing card collectors meetings in the Netherlands and Belgium. The first time we went to such a meeting was an eye-opener. There were collectors of antique decks only, collectors of Dutch decks only, collectors of non-standard decks with certain topics. But there were also collectors of single cards only: joker collectors and collectors of advertising backs, mostly with preferences for certain topics like airlines, tobacco, or beer only.

So we had difficulty focusing in this wide field of collecting. We did single jokers for a while too, but decided that we would try to complete a collection of decks, made by the Dutch “Speelkaartenfabriek Nederland” (1909-1969), to be specific. Besides that we would still collect all kinds of non-standard decks too, with only one parameter: that we would both like the designs. And if we could find affordable antique decks, we wouldn’t leave them on the table either. Oh well, at least we tried to focus!

The result is that we now have a collection of some 4000 decks, which includes a wide variety of techniques, styles and topics and covers two centuries in time. And that gives us the opportunity to create expositions around certain topics, showing decks from all over the world. It also makes it possible to compare the patterns, styles, techniques and topics that have been used over the centuries, which sometimes gives unexpected insight into the development of playing cards.

The hunt, and the buzz!

Something that every collector will recognize is “the buzz” that a special find will give. Your heart rate will go up, causing a faint dizziness and warm feeling that may even result in wet palms or armpits. We still remember our first buzz. It was on a flea market, where we found a “Kroonkaart” deck (by the Speelkaartenfabriek Nederland) almost hidden among steel machinery parts.

Jack of Diamonds – Designed by Cassandre for Hermès, printed by Draeger, France, 1948.

Jack of Diamonds – Designed by Cassandre for Hermès, printed by Draeger, France, 1948.

We noticed it, grabbed it and quickly bought it, as the price was ridiculously low. We strolled away as casually as we could and then ran to our car to count the cards and enjoy the design, scenic aces and jokers. At that time it was our first find of a vintage deck, nowadays we don’t even consider this deck a very special find anymore. It will take a lot more to get a buzz nowadays, but still the pleasant excitement is there, when you see a big, old, wooden playing card box on a stall.

Opening it usually only brings disappointment, because the antique cards it should have held are gone or replaced by a modern standard patterned deck. But sometimes there’s a sudden buzz! And although the downside of a large collection is that the chance to find something new for your collection only decreases, that buzz will keep you card hunting again for several months.

Card hunting is a tough job! It often means getting up really early to go to a meeting, market or fair, as the competition doesn’t sleep either. Fortunately in the Netherlands there are only a few avid playing card collectors, who are willing to get up early. There’s even a sort of comradery among us. There’s no real envy, you’ll have coffee together and discuss the finds. On few occasions you even do a trade right then and there with another collector. And if you’ve been card hunting for years, the merchants will know you and set decks aside for you. Sometimes that makes card hunting much easier.

Playing cards on the Internet

9 of Clubs – Key to the Kingdom, a modern transformation deck, designed by Tony Meeuwissen, printed in China, 1992.

9 of Clubs – Key to the Kingdom, a modern transformation deck, designed by Tony Meeuwissen, printed in China, 1992.

eBay and other auction sites make life easier too, but they have changed the nature of collecting drastically. We’ve been active on eBay since February 1998 and at first it was an eye opener: we saw decks from other continents, that we had never seen before. In the early days of eBay there were not that many collectors there, so bargains could be found. And then you would get your buzz by bidding in the last minute, staring at the screen and waiting in the dying seconds to see if you were the lucky one. This has changed over the years.

Nowadays if there’s a special deck on auction, it will never go at a bargain price anymore. So for the last 5 or 6 years we’ve frequented regional small markets, antique shops and garage sales again too. But there are two good things about eBay and other international auction sites too. First, in general prices of decks have decreased. On any given day, if you type in “playing cards” on eBay, you’ll find some 9000 decks on offer. The second good thing is that often serious item descriptions can be found, which provide usable information about the decks, their makers and dates. Without having to buy, you can expand your knowledge.

We have learned a lot about playing cards in the past 12 years and not only from eBay. We have attended international conventions, met collectors from all over the world and discussed amazing decks. These personal contacts are often good for extra information. We’ve joined several international and national playing card collectors clubs and their publications are a source of information too. And we’ve gathered a good number of books that have been published about playing cards. All these are necessary to determine maker, country and date of the decks you find. And there are decks you come across that have never been seen or described before. There will always be mysteries to solve!

About Miriam van Houten and Joop Muller

King of Hearts – Tile Card deck, printed by the Speelkaartenfabriek Nederland, Netherlands, 1909 –1912.

King of Hearts – Tile Card deck, printed by the Speelkaartenfabriek Nederland, Netherlands, 1909 –1912.

We operate the DXPO website and have been together for more than 30 years now. For the last 25 years we have been living in Zaandijk, a small town in the western part of the Netherlands. Since 1998 we have maintained a website about this hobby. Each month there’s an update with new additions and expositions and we send a free report of this to the subscribers of our newsletter (in Dutch and English).

On our site you’ll also find special sections about jokers and playing card ephemera. The main purpose of the website is to show the visitors a large variety of decks from our collection, often related to certain topics such as “Art and Cards”, “Decks with a Fragrance”, “Yuletide on Iceland” and many others. By sharing our knowledge about playing cards, we hope that more people will become interested in this hobby.

We have also published two CD-r’s, that show their content as web-pages on your browser. The first presents the history of the Dutch “Speelkaartenfabriek Nederland” (1909-1969), showing all their non-standard and standard decks, special games, quartet decks and over a thousand different backs. Our second CD-r we show 150 decks from our Pin-Up & Erotica collection in full.

(All images in this article courtesy Miriam van Houten and Joop Muller of DXPO Playing Cards)

34 comments so far

  1. william riordan Says:

    I have 2 decks and holders of Congress playing cards unopened#217x and 217y. Can you tell me anything about them? Thanks

  2. Dorothy Callaway Says:

    I have a set of two decks in one. on the front it says NR.1500 made in Austria. on the back it has Piatnik Vienna. there in a blue slide box with gold trim. Can you please tell me anything about them?
    thank you for your time.

  3. Barbara Seth Says:

    I have a deck of unopened Congress playing cards #247. They are marked “Independence Hall Philadelphia”. There is a sample card glued to the wrapping paper and has the print of Independence Hall. All I can see through is “Congress Playing Cards Cel-U-Tone finish” printed on the box. These look very old. Can you provide any information regarding their age and value?
    Thanks.

  4. Corin Says:

    I have a pack of Blue Star Line playing cards as pictured on your site. I was wondering about the history of them and where I can pinpoint either age or what ship they may have been distributed on.

  5. Ian WAGSTAFF Says:

    I have – a Dondorf 158 set – which I believe is from around 1894 – it is complete -in played with condition. The jack -states B Dondorf Frankfut a/m.There is no tax stamp on the ace. There is a box of the retailer in poor condition. Non of the cards are bent or creased. Is it collectable?

  6. Katherine Bernholz Says:

    I have a Tiffany & Co box with two decks of cards. The main box is light green velvet type material with gold overlay on both the insert boxes and inside the main box. There are no other markings on the box. Can you tell me anything about the cards other than what I have provided

  7. Ian Says:

    I have deck of cards. Gold back on the cards with “Mercury American Airlines.” Jokers both say “congress.” Ace of spades says, “606 Congress. The U.S Playing Card Co. x 1909.” The case has gold at the edges and a faded green velvet covering the rest.

  8. hildy glick Says:

    I found a deck of WHIST-KARTEN No.150 playing cards marked B.Dondorf frankfurt. The Jack is marked witha “B” the queen with a “D” the deck is gold and red with a gilt-looking finish. the cards are in perect condition

    thanks!

    hildy

  9. steve Says:

    i have several playing cards by b.p. grimaud(printed on the side front) and the word “paris” also printed on the front side edge.
    they have no numbers just pictures for jack-king, and the other cards just have the number of “clubs”, “hearts…” to indicate the numbers.
    I have been unable to find a match in my research. Could you help?

    Thank you so much

  10. Elizabeth Jackson Says:

    I have a deck of KEM cards that are pocket sized and in a soft leather case with the KEM logo in gold and the side profile of an eagle in gold. The front of the cards is a red background with a profile of an eagle and a line of stars. They belonged to my husband’s father and he said they were used when he was in the service during WWII. I cannot find anything about them online. Do you have anything about their history and worth? I will try and send a picture for the show and tell gallery. Thank you. Elizabeth Jackson

  11. Neil Girton Says:

    I’ve just aquired a full deck of cards, plane back with only the four spade, diamond, club + heart with no numbers. The ace cards with only a single symble, the ace of spades has a wreath around the spade with maybe german text? A line of french at the bottom of the wreath all written in black. To the left GEO. III in red + to the right REX. If I’m not mistaken this would refer to king George the third. I had a friend look at the deck who I regarde as a civil war expert + he advised me to place them in a safe as these may be from the revolutionary period. He feels these are on the correct card stock and are not reproductions. The corners are not bent + do not show great use, there are stains on some of the backs that are most likly tobacco stains. I have talked to some dealers that have sold single civil war cards for 100.00 to 150.00 a peice but are stumped by something this old. Is this a treasure? Any info would be greatly accepted. Buy the way I paid about 15.00 hoping they were 100 yrs. old not expection 250 year old cards. Thank You Neil Girton

  12. Alberta Wooton Says:

    I am trying to identify 606 Congress U.S Playing Cards. The Ace of Spades has the 606 CONGRESS at top and with The U.S. Playing Card Co., Cincinnati, U.S.A. with a M 1627 under that at the bottom of the card. The deck features a Blond Cocker Spaniel. It is incased in a green velor box with a gold seal saying CONGRESS Playing Cards, CEL-U-TONE FINISH. The Spade in the middle features a woman with a sword and olive brance sith stars around her and then dots around that and on the pedistal she stands upon. It is probably not all that old, I just can’t find any Blond Cocker Spaniel Congress 606 Cards with the this particular dog on it. Can you help me date and value it, that is if you can find it!

  13. Kym Says:

    i was given a 2 deck set of some old john wayne playing cards. he is wearing a lt. suit,black tie, and a white hat with black. He looks very young.
    can anyone help me date and value them?

  14. Harland Loving Says:

    I have a red box with a slide off top that says “TWO PACKS – 606 – CONGRESS PLAYING CARDS – BRIDGE” on the front. The 2 decks have J1659 and J1612 on the Ace of spades of the 2 decks. Can you tell me the age of these cards and if they are of any special value? Thank you for your time.

  15. carolyn Says:

    I have a double set of congress playing cards still in cellophane unopened. Each card has two butterflies on it and they are in a light blue box. One set has a very light tan background and the other set has a medium brown background. The edges of the box have a gold strip around it. There is no date or number on the box. They have across the right corner of the box ‘only congress cards have CEL-U-TONE FINISH. How old would they be and how much would they be worth?

  16. kat wickham Says:

    i just inherited a bunch of stuff and i found a double deck of congress playing cards among them. its in a blank velvet-ie box with 2 different paintings of horses on the front as well as the back of the playing cards. im not seeing any way to identify the name of this deck. ive tried so many different things. please help me.

  17. Bernice Pittman Says:

    I have a deck of sealed Symphony playing cards, copyright 1939, Assn., of American Playing Card Manufacturers. I would like additional information and what they might be worth. Thank you in advance.

  18. Susan Adler Says:

    I found 2 decks of Cruver Playing cards in plastic cases and 1 deck of Congress Playing cares with a Cel u tone finish. can you tell me if they are worth anything.

  19. Steve Conto Says:

    I have a deck of Congress Playing Cards CEL-U-TONE FINISH gold edge. Never been opened! Picture of a matador. Has seal as well. In a case in excellent good. I like to know if it is worth anything.

  20. Linda Kania Says:

    I have a double deck of opened (boxed) 606 Congress playing cards #2628. They are marked ‘Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg’ and ‘Capitol of Williamsburg’. The Congress Playing Cards are ‘Cel-U-Tone finish’ printed on the box. I referenced these and the 606 Congress series began 1881. Can you provide any information regarding their actual age and value?

  21. Linda Kania Says:

    I have a second set of cards–black (celluloid?) double deck case, containing washable all-plastic cards. The manufacturer is Northbrook Plastic Card Co., of Northbrook Illinois. I’ve attempted to research this Company on the internet and was unsuccessful. Can you provide any information as to their age and value? Thanks

  22. candy clark Says:

    I have a set of unopened duratone cards with a ballerina on them. They have a tax? tag like liquor bottles have that have A.P.C. Co. on them, which seals the celluphane. Can you give me any information on these?

  23. Dottie Frick Says:

    I have a set of 2 decks of Congress Playing cards (cellophane unopened) – Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence. Can you please tell me anything about them. Thank you very much for your time.

  24. glenda g. pagan Says:

    I have a set of Congress Playing Cards with tigers on the cards and the name Gladys Emerson Cook and one deck os cards. And the ace of spade has CONGRESS T he US Playing Card Co. Cincinnati USA k1660. The cards have CEL-U-TONE FINISH on box. Can u tell me anything about them.

  25. Anita Flick Says:

    I have two unopened decks of cards that I inherited from my sister. One is – Now- a Fleet of “400″ Streamliners. It features different streamliners between Chicago, Milwaukee, The Twin Cities, Upper Peninsula, Central Wisconsin and Southern Minnesota. The other is Pictorial playing cards published and distributed by Barkalow Bros. co in Omaha, Neb. It contains scenic views of outstanding places along the Union Pacific Railroad.A booklet is included with it describing each subject on each card. Any info you can give me on these will be appreciated., Thank you.

  26. Tony Says:

    I bought a Bridge black zippered case with the initials W.H.B. on the front. It has two complete decks of cards in it plus a pencil. The Extra Jokers have written on them, 1939 ASSN. of American Playing Card Manufacturers. They are also gold plated edges. There is a picture of a woman in a dress wearing a Bonet,and carrying a basket,plus a sketch of two buildings. Any idea who the initials might belong to? Is there any value to these? Thank You.

  27. Robert Rosengrant Says:

    I have eight copper plates used for printing bicycle playing cards that were found in a house that was being remodeled. I believe the date back to the early 1900s. Can you tell me anything about these plates?

  28. Kim Says:

    Just came across a red box of 52 playing cards – no Jokers marked “Natinal Press Club” & “Special Club Pack” Would like to know how old they are! I already looked up the history of the Press Club – couldn’t date the cards though – I know some of them had the date on the ACE of Spades – cannot see that on this deck! Thank You

  29. Susan Says:

    I have two decks of cards when sat up on side look like books and the cards have reference to bowling on them can anyone tell me anything about them

  30. Ben Delgado Says:

    I have 2 packs each cello wrapped each with a blue u.s.internal Revenue stamp sealing it marked a 10. The edges are gold .They are in a gold box.. The backs have a sort of art neuveau pattern . One pack with a light green border dark green backreound and gold decoration .The other deck has the same decoration except blue background and white border. All have gold gilt edges and are in a gilt box with Colonial Playing Card. on top Mfg by Standard Playing Card Co Chicago Ill
    The other packs are in a black lacquered box marked Made in Japan. and decorated with cards on top and symbols on the sides.
    The cards are not sealed . marked Congress playing card #606 cel u tone finish Mfg by United States Playing Carg Co.
    The back of one has a white McCaw with a flowery background gold edges. The other deck has gold gilt edges and 2 storks. All are in excellent condition.

  31. Monica Says:

    Hello everyone, I have a few old deck of cards that I have come across in the last years. One set is a Ferd-Piatnik @Sohne, Wien 89, normal size cards. The other is a No. 190 Whist-Karten, smaller size cards. Heraclio Fournier (Spain) 701-1960. I’m a virgirn to this. Would any reader have an idea of any of their worth.

    Grateful,

  32. LEMAINS Says:

    i have buy a pack marked MONTAUDO GIOVANNI/VIA BARBAROUX N°7 P2 TORINO on ace of heart
    someone can tell me the date of activity of this maker

  33. Sheldon Murrell Says:

    I am hoping someone can shed some light on a set of cards/dominoes I acquired this weekend. There are 52 cards in the form of bone & ebony dominoes. The suites are in the French form with kings inscribed Alexandre, Cesar, Charles & David. Each is 1-3/4″ long, 7/8″ wide x 3/8″ thick. I have been unable to find any information on similar items and at this point am completely stumped.

  34. heather m Says:

    I have 2 deck of cards 52 in each says international playing card co. ltd windsor ontario, canada the back of the deck has a lady in a pink dress with a blue scarf and a pink floppy hat also looks that she is holding a small pair of binoculars with a tree in the background and grass the Ace says made in usa and F1895. Help!!


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