Playing cards evolved from a variety of gambling games established in the Middle East and Asia, including chess and backgammon. Among the oldest known card decks is the “Marmalukes of Egypt,” a set marked with swords, cups, coins, and polo sticks.
Cards arrived in Europe sometime in the late 14th century, likely passing through the major port of Venice. A key piece of evidence in this theory is a 15th-century document called the "Chronicles of Viterbo," which indicates that playing cards with various numbers and suit designs arrived in Italy in 1379. These cards may have been brought by North African Moors, whose influence on southern Europe was strong at this time. But where the Moors got playing cards, or whether they invented them at all, is a good deal less clear.
The earliest surviving playing cards date from the 15th century, bearing images of animals, plants, birds, and flowers. During the Medieval era, cards were associated with sorcery and black magic, and often a full deck was thrown into the fire before a witch burning.
By about 1500, three main suit systems had evolved: Latin (including Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese); Germanic (German, Austrian, and Swiss), and French. French cards established the suit system that is most common today, featuring hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. In contrast, German decks were marked with hearts, acorns, leaves, and harkbells, while Spanish cards used coins, cups, swords, and batons to delineate suits.
The French also established today’s court ranking of king, queen, and valet or knave. Originally, the king was the top-ranking card, though games began giving the highest status to the ace by the 17th century. In 1565, Frenchman Pierre Marechal illustrated the set of reversible court cards with intricate designs showing figures turning to the side and holding weaponry, scepters, and flowers. This imagery would later be copied by most British and American manufacturers, and evolved into the standard characters seen on face cards today.
These early playing cards were hand-painted, often with gilt detailing, and designed to be beautiful objects. Meant for gambling as well as playing games of skill, they also typically incorporated symbols or mnemonics to represent knowledge ranging from botany to heraldry, cosmology to geography.
During the 1700s, Edmond Hoyle got his start by tutoring affluent players in the art of “Whisk,” the most popular card game in England at the time. Hoyle printed a manuscript on ...
Beginning in 1765, British cards had to be labeled with a tax stamp on one of the cards in the deck, usually the ace of spades. These revenue stamps were designed as a “sin” tax, like those given to alcohol or tobacco, and this procedure continued up through 1965.
The first stamps read "G. III REX" until the 1820s, when the label was changed to "G. IV REX." The words "SIXPENCE ADDITL. DUTY" were added to cards from 1776 until 1789, and subsequent changes to this legend and its placement provide important information about a card's age.
Around the same time, many face cards adopted famous historical, literary, and mythological figures like Joan of Arc or Shakespeare. Prior to the mid-19th century, backs of British and American playing cards were plain, though decorations on card backs were common in other countries long before that.
Playing-card design as we know it today—double-ended court cards with clearly marked suits—became standardized in the late 1800s by designers like Hunt, Reynolds, De La Rue, and Goodall. Before the 1870s, there were no jokers, corner indices, or rounded corners, and most face cards depicted a full-length figure that was not reversible.
The New York Consolidated Card Company is credited with putting small numbers in the corners of their cards, which they dubbed “squeezers” since a hand could be squeezed more tightly to reveal only the corner markings. This labeling method quickly became popular throughout Europe, causing the term “jack” to replace “knave,” since using corner “K” marks on both kings and knaves was too confusing.
Following the move to corner indices, playing cards were frequently produced as tourist souvenirs, because the central imagery didn’t need to relate to the card’s suit or ranking, and could instead depict landscape settings, wildlife, or consumer products. By the 20th century, playing cards were often given away by airlines, railroads, and tourist destinations, because they could advertise on the back of each card, as well as on the outside of the packet in which the deck was stored.
Russell & Morgan, the forerunner of the U.S. Playing Card Company, launched its line of Bicycle cards in 1887 at the height of the American cycling trend. These have since become some of the most widely printed cards, with more than 80 intricate designs, mostly in red or blue, created for the backs of Bicycle decks.
During the first half of the 20th century, playing cards were still made from a rough paper stock, which sometimes incorporated linen. After World War II, plastic-coated cards were produced in large numbers.
The ace of spades is generally the most important card for identifying early American card decks. Since this card often served as the top cover of a deck, it included the manufacturer’s name, location, and product-coding system. Many collectors seek playing cards with specific advertising themes, like tobacciana or air travel, while others look for decks used exclusively by casinos, which replace their decks so frequently they often go through more than 100,000 each year.