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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

World of Playing Cards

World of Playing Cards

A full house of great images and reference information on vintage playing cards. Browse cards by country and subjec… [read review or visit site]

Bicycle Playing Cards for Collectors

Bicycle Playing Cards for Collectors

Joseph Pierson’s ode to Bicycle playing cards produced by the U.S. Playing Card Company lays down a royal flush w… [read review or visit site]

DXPO Playing Cards

DXPO Playing Cards

This Dutch site showcases a wonderful international collection of old playing cards, with themes as varied as the P… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Talking Boards

Museum of Talking Boards

Prepare to enter the strange world of Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board game, which captured imaginations en masse… [read review or visit site]

Non Sports Cards: Tobacco, Gum and Candy

Non Sports Cards: Tobacco, Gum and Candy

Tom Boblitt moderates this extremely deep, collaborative site dedicated to non-sports cards (tobacco, gum and candy… [read review or visit site]

Elliot Avedon Games Museum

Elliot Avedon Games Museum

This in-depth University of Waterloo virtual exhibit showcases vintage games in a variety of categories, from class… [read review or visit site]

Electronic Plastic

Electronic Plastic

From Tomy to Coleco to Mattel and Nintendo, check out this collection of over 660 handheld and tabletop videogames … [read review or visit site]

Pong Story

Pong Story

David Winter's tribute to early video games, and to Ralph H. Baer, 'inventor of the video game.' Offers a detailed … [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Whispering Imps Private Reserve Gold, Red, Limited Edition Red,black,green RareRare 1900 Alaska Souvenir Deck Of Playing Cards - Edward H. MitchellMissouri Pacific Lines ~ Railroad Playing Cards ~ Sunshine Special & SunflowerEstate Antique 1896 The Stage Actors Gold Edges Playing Cards Us Playing Card CoVintage Playing Cards 1968 Knoll International Mid Century Modernism Signed RareRare Deck Tourists' Playing Cards No. 155 Circa 1886 With Original PackagingRare Playing Cards Antique Card Game 1800s NorrkÖping SwedenVintage Playing Cards Pin Up Risque Gil Elvgren Art Still Sealed Deck In Box!Antique Playing Cards 1904 Nile Fortune Telling Cartomancy Occult Divination1903 Congress 606 Playing Cards Named Cavalier 52 + Spec JokerVintage Art Deco Butterfly Full Deck Of Bridge Playing Cards In BoxVintage Maxfield Parrish Brown & Bigelow “landscape Masterpeices” Playing Cards Playing Cards Factory Sealed Red Stud Cards Pocker SizeBrown Wynn Playing Cards - Theory 11 - Rare! Authentic!Rare Antique Vtg 19th Century No Indices Playing Cards German Pottery Stein MugPlaying Cards Factory Sealed Blue Stud Cards Pocker Size3 Swap Playing Cards Australian Named Art Deco Fairy Lady #21 Rare Daniel Madison Revolvers Playing Cards Deck (new And Sealed)Red Fontaine Deck Of Playing Cards By Zach Muell - Limited, Rare1844! Antique Vintage Playing Card Game Pickwick Club Charles Dickens D166Vtg Antique Advertising Playing Cards In Box Home Rubber Co. Trenton New JerseyLot Of 9 Different Twa Airlines Collector Series Playing Card DecksVintage Pipes Of Pan Playing Cards Past L Eze Fan C Pack Co Inc Art Deco Design Old Wide Raspberries And Bee Gilt Detail Single Vintage Swap/playing CardSet Of 27 Single Swap Cards With Blank Backs - Coles, Woolies & Newsagency3 Swap Playing Cards Australian Named Art Deco Fairy LadyDavid Blaine Gator Backs Brick Box Ellusionist Theory11Wide Named - In Old Madrid & Flirtation - 2 Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards HSteamships - The Plant System - 1 Old Wide Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards HOld Vintage Indexed Brand Playing Cards Set Box From Austria 1930Vtg Woman-in-trouble Celluloid Bridge Score Card W Trump Card Suit Marker 1930s1905 Playing Cards Std Pc Co Advert Deck Siegel Dept Store Boston Fireproof 52+jPin Ups - 3 - Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards /Lot Vintage Unused Cat Playing Cards Congress 2 Decks W/ High Grade Box Pet Old Wide Deco Flowers Blue/red/gold Detail Single Swap/playing Card1 Single Swap Playing Card 1901 Antique Joker Pan American Expo Souvenir Ny OldLots Of 13 Jetsetter Luxury Playing Cards (pd8)Staehle Butch Cocker Spaniel "play Ball With Butch" Baseball Park Playing CardsAnime Playing Cards Tokyo Ghoul Poker Cards In BoxMen - Set Of 2 Linen - Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards /Vintage Pin-up Models Art Guild Playing Cards 52 Cards Plus 2 Jokers And BoxBuck & Doe - Set Of 2 Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards /53 Vargas Girls Playing Cards 1950's Blue DeckVintage Mint Sealed Baldpate Inn Playing Cards With Tax Stamp - Estes Park CoDigital Playing Cards Kickstarter Prototype Deck Signed (ellusionist, Theory 11)Vintage Antique Clock Tower Playing Cards Gift Set Old Dog Cat Mouse Moon 1950sVintage Yellowstone Souvenir Playing Cards Haynes Gilt Edges Case Is ExcellentDale Mathis Mechanical Playing Card Deck Double Deck Of Unopened "soo Line" Railroad Playing Cards 1926 Playing Cards Uspc Congress 606 Named Rookwood American Indian Sitting Bull1897 Michigan Trivia Americana Parlor Game Antique Playing Cards W/instructionsVtg U.s Playing Cards Tax Stamp Peter Pan Fairy Bicycle Congress 2 Pack W BoxSet Of 3 Artist Signed Lial Horses Vintage Swap/playing CardsArtist Signed Bernard Roundhill - Foal Wedgewood Blue Vintage Swap/playing Card2 Vintage Decks Of Kem Plastic Playing Cards, Athens, 1967 In Kem BoxDuratone Vintage Playing Cards Double Deck Horses Citation & Whirl-awayVintage Swap / Playing Card - 1 Single - Ladies And Dogs - Or Cats U1968 Unopened Skip Bo Card Game -still In Cello Outer Wrapper - Skip-bo GameVintage 1930's Cat Kitten Playing Cards Deck Fifth Avenue 58 Pals Usir StampNew Elf Movie Playing Cards Deck Christmas Sealed Holiday Stocking Stuffer

Recent News: Playing Cards

Source: Google News

Winnipeg created hockey card game
Yorkton This Week (press release), November 25th

So from the introduction to Spence's game on the pagat site we find; “This simulation of Ice Hockey using playing-cards is played mainly in Canada. Ida A Spence tells me that she invented the original version of the game in Eddystone, Manitoba during...Read more

Coloring Books, Calendars, Murals and More
Flagpole Magazine, November 24th

Following ATHICA's creative artist-designed decks of playing cards in 2013 and tarot cards last year, the gallery has come up with another clever stocking stuffer for art lovers just in time for the holidays. A full-color 2016 calendar ... The eye...Read more

Retro Indy photo gifts: Custom, old-school cool
Indianapolis Star, November 24th

This holiday season, you can buy amazing vintage photos from the IndyStar's archives – 100-plus years of city scenes, landmarks, people and sports moments captured by newsroom photographers. ... Stack the deck with custom photo playing cards. Shown ...Read more

Share Your Blessings
Baltimore Sun, November 24th

For general program services: colored copy paper, auction items such as restaurant gift cards, gift baskets, autographed sports memorabilia. ... Wish List: Stress balls, small Lego sets, sketch pads or writing journals suitable for boys or girls (not...Read more

The best food events in London: Supper clubs, cookery workshops, pop-ups and ...
London24, November 23rd

Styled as a banquet, you will be surrounded by giant hand-sewn playing cards, over-sized vibrant flowers and bespoke vintage music - creating the ultimate wonderland for brunch jollification. Having been greeted with a 'Mad Hatters Cocktail', chatter...Read more

How I spend me-time... the stars reveal how they relax
Irish Independent, November 22nd

If I'm in Donegal, I go playing cards a few nights a week. I also like to go to a ceili for some set ..... is my favourite place for a bit of me-time. I get to soak up the traders' banter, try out a little street food, buy some flowers and hunt down...Read more

Topeka stores ready for shoppers looking for 'perfect' present
Topeka Capital Journal, November 21st

Gift-giving is one of the best parts of the holiday season, and even our bodies agree. Numerous studies have shown we release endorphins and dopamine — feel-good chemicals — when we give. Of course, anyone who has watched a child open gifts ...Read more

Arcade bars level up in metro Phoenix, November 19th

Arcade bars use vintage arcade games to invoke a sense of nostalgia and cater primarily to Gen-Xers, generally those born between 1965 and 1984. “Of course ... “They're playing 'Cards Against Humanity,' they're playing Killer Queen all night long. It's...Read more