For over six centuries – apart from its functionality as a number game – the playing card has been chosen as a medium for artistry, aesthetic endeavour and ornamental design, ranging from hand-painted and engraved cards for medieval patrons, to the chromo-lithographic delights and transformation cards of the nineteenth century, and the designer and art packs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Early Playing Cards and Their Uses
The earliest playing cards were hand-painted, often gilded, and designed to be beautiful objects. Packs of cards were mentioned in wills and inventories, and given as wedding presents, so would have been considered valuable and precious. Not only were cards gilded and painted in many colours, and not merely decorated with ornamental patterns, but often the designs themselves showed great artistic skill, harmony of colour and grace of forms.
A cluster of early literary references refer to the game being introduced by ‘a Saracen’, ‘the Moorish Game’ etc. Etymological evidence also suggests that the Arabs introduced playing cards into Europe in the second half of the fourteenth century and that European cards evolved from the suit system and composition of these cards.
Playing cards have always served two distinct purposes: gambling, and the playing of games of skill. Their introduction provided a new alternative to dice and knuckle bones. Evidently both kinds of game existed in Europe since the first introduction of playing cards. Prohibitions of card playing and denunciations by preachers demonstrate their widespread use for gambling. However, instances of playing cards being used for games of skill are also recorded, as well as instances of moralising, allegory and representations of the social hierarchy.
Man’s mind likes to categorise and classify experience… the elements, cardinal points, lunar cycles, virtues, heavenly spheres, temperaments, taxonomies and hierarchies. Many packs of playing cards have been designed as such a system, a practical ‘mnemonic’ or device for representing life’s basic facts, a memory aid or teaching tool, a means of condensing knowledge. The subject can be anything from botany to heraldry, from cosmology to geography. Political satire has also been an inspiration for playing cards.
The format of the pack – suit symbols, numeral cards, court hierarchy – has served many secondary purposes beyond a gaming device. It can be used for predicting the future, and in the case of the tarot, it has become a popular religion. In view of this, fanciful or exotic theories have been suggested to explain the origins or true meaning of the pack of playing cards and its symbolism. However, the early evidence suggests that it was nothing more than a new kind of game, at least to begin with. What has happened since then is another story…
The Evolution of European Cards
The first European references to playing cards date from the 1370s and come from Catalonia (Spain), Florence, France, Sienna, Viterbo (Italy), southern Germany, Switzerland and Brabant. No cards from this early survive, but the sources indicate that cards were being painted ‘in gold and various colours’ or ‘painted and gilded’ which suggests luxury packs. The earliest surviving cards are from the fifteenth century.
The Medieval mind delighted in the ornate and colourful, and the art of the miniature was much admired and practised. The diverse cultural context led to a diversity of playing card types. Whereas France was the leading centre for manuscript illumination, Germany led woodcut and engravings, which have a close affinity to printed matter. The Renaissance flowered in Italy, whilst Moorish influence endured in Spain until the 15th century.
The increase in demand for cultural objects led to the inventing of quicker and cheaper production methods… woodcuts, movable type, paper instead of parchment, multiple copies. As card-playing became more popular production was accelerated by these alternative processes, including hand-made cards, cards printed from woodblocks or using stencils, or other improvised techniques.
More expensive cards were produced from engravings in copper using the skills of the goldsmith and engraver. These cards have greater detail and a more naturalistic use of line. Such packs were given as wedding gifts, bequeathed as heirlooms, and regarded as valuable commodities. They were often produced for collectors.
Luxury hand-painted packs were only available to a few, who enjoyed them privately or with select company. The printed or mechanically-produced versions, cruder in design and execution, were viewed simultaneously by larger audiences but were prone to deteriorate more rapidly.
Sources of Imagery
The craftsmen’s tradition throughout the medieval period was to work from sketch-book models, collected on scraps of vellum. These models were copied time after time, so that images spread between workshops and from master to pupil. Images acquired during journeys abroad often contained errors of observation and proportion which were compounded by subsequent copying.
Imagery on many early playing cards resembles the stock repertory of animals, plants, birds and flowers which recurs almost identically in the marginal drollery, miniature illustrations and trompe l’oeil of widely divergent manuscripts, as well as in playing cards. Often the theme was a playful allusion to tournaments, cavorting children or mock warfare between animals. Cards were produced by painters whose main source of income might have been other forms of painting, not necessarily playing cards.
Designs would also have been influenced by written texts and moralised stories. Plants from the herbal, beasts from the bestiary, birds and insects from the Books of Hours, all suggesting a symbolism, a semiotic language, echoed the everyday world of popular beliefs and proverbial wisdom. The pack of playing cards gained a format and structure of its own, and became a new language.
Many early examples of playing cards are preserved inside the covers of old books, where they were used as pasteboard to stiffen the covers. This is fortunate, because nearly all the others have perished.
The Renaissance, Suit Systems and National Types
With the onset of the Renaissance in Italy, the new spirit of Humanism was spreading through Europe bringing a change of form and direction. This did not reach certain parts of Europe until the high and late Renaissance in the 16th century.
Artists were commissioned to paint anything from wall frescoes through Books of Hours to illuminated playing cards, thereby exhibiting the taste and cultivation of the patron. In some cases the imagery had an esoteric, Christian, instructional or philosophical content, whilst in other cases it was based upon popular culture, or else merely conventional or adorned with the owner’s heraldic devices.
By about 1500 three main suit systems had evolved: Latin (including Italian, Spanish and Portuguese); Germanic (German and Swiss) and French. First came the Latin suit systems, which are still employed in Spain and the Americas, Italy, the Philippines, some parts of France and North Africa. Germanic suit systems (including Swiss) evolved after a period of experimentation with different combinations of suits, and finally the French suit system was invented which has become the most widely-used suit system around the world.
These suit systems became the basis for various Standard National patterns, or National Types, which were associated with specific regions or tax jurisdictions. These were cards for everyday use, as opposed to luxury packs. Many have remained unchanged for centuries, being handed down through the generations, preserving their medieval characteristics. Others have evolved into modern types.
The Origins of Modern Playing Card Design
The design of playing cards involves a balance between utilitarian constraints and artistic possibilities. The basic purpose of playing cards hasn’t changed much in the last 625 years, but the fundamental precepts and principles of design and print have been continuously developing and improving to the present day. Tradition – or conservatism – bears quite heavily on the design of standard cards, especially the court cards, but originality can be refreshing in a well-designed pack.
In around 1820 Hunt was the first manufacturer to modernize his design with a complete redrawing, in which he attempted to rationalize some of the idiosyncrasies which had crept into playing card designs. In 1832, after an attempt to introduce new ‘modernized’ designs, Thomas De la Rue imitated the earlier wood-block style in the new technology of letterpress. These designs were subsequently redrawn with more decoration and became the basis for all their double-ended courts.
In 1840 Reynolds also modernized its court card designs with an overlay of decorative scroll-work and patterning on the clothing. Other makers experimented with novelties or variations in the design details, such as headgear, crowns, faces, etc. Charles Goodall, for example, produced ‘modernized’ court card designs, with some unusual features, which did not last long.
In 1860, Goodall produced a completely new design in double-ended format only, and which is still in use today in multiple imitations world-wide. The reduction of Playing Card duty from one shilling to threepence in 1862 led to expansions in playing card sales, and no doubt new players were tempted to enter the market. Manufacturers, in general, began taking pride in the quality and elegance of their designs, so as to attract the best clientèle, and from this time onwards special personalised Aces of Spades were designed, instead of the ‘Old Frizzle’ duty ace.
The extra “Joker” card is believed to have been invented by American Euchre players who, when modifying the rules sometime during the 1860s, decided that an extra trump card was required. Originally he was called “The Best Bower” and then later “The Jolly Joker”.
These Jokers, or extra cards, were first introduced into American packs around 1863, but took a little longer to reach English packs, in around 1880. One British manufacturer (Chas Goodall) was manufacturing packs with Jokers for the American market in the 1870s.
It has been suggested (Dianne Longley, 1999) that “the Joker is the ‘wild-card’, or the card of opportunity, not unlike the ethos of opportunity and individuality that has been the driving force behind America’s pursuit of greatness.”
For More Information
For more information on the design, history and imagery of antique and vintage playing cards, visit The World of Playing Cards website, which includes in-depth information and galleries of cards from specific artists and eras, a collectible decks for-sale page, and a replica 17th Century card deck.
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