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    

Complete Deck Antique De La Rue & Co United Kingdom English Euchre Playing CardsRare Vintage Authentic Jerrys Nugget Casino Cards Factory Sealed NewComplete Unused Boxed Deck 53 Vargas Girl Playing Cards John Deere AdvertisingSarah Kay 1970's Blanks Cute Kids X 144 Genuine Vintage Swap Playing Card AlbumRare Original David Blaine Tally Ho Split Spades Playing Cards Factory Sealed Rare Soldout Theory11 Deck Of Red Stinger Playing Cards Factory Sealed New T11Rare T11 Dan And Dave Original V4 Smoke And Mirrors Playing Cards V1 With SealRare Oop T11 Dan And Dave Fantastique Playing Cards Factory Sealed NewRare Vintage Double Deck Orient Express Playing Cards Non-standard Vintage Rare Sands Casino Playing Cards Factory Sealed Mint Condition Rat PackRare Vintage Deck Le Jeu De Marseilles Playing Cards Non-standardAntique Buster Brown Tige Shoe Advertising Miniature Playing Cards Comic StripRare T11 Dan And Dave Original V6 Red Smoke And Mirrors Playing Cards SealedOriginal Jerry’s Nugget Casino Red Deck :: NewRare T11 Dan And Dave Original V5 Denim Smoke And Mirrors Playing Cards SealedVintage German Playing Cards - Art By Sonia Delaunay - 1980Rare Deck Curator Playing Cards 2011 Emmanuel Jose Ltd Artist's Edition1950's Vintage Authentic Hermes Cassandre Playing Cards Paris France 2-decksRare Vintage Deck Arpak No-revoke Playing Cards Liverpool Non-standardRare Dan And Dave Deck Of The Expert At The Card Table Playing Cards SealedVintage Vargas Pin Up Risque Playing Cards Deck Box Set53 Vargas Girls Playing Cards Complete Set (1950's Era)Winchester Poker Deck Never Used Ca. 1970-80'sRare Deck Russian Wwii Propaganda Playing Cards 2012 Non-standard2 Coles Swap Cards Named Pair Robin & Swiss Shepherdess With LambsAntique Dondorf Playing Cards - Costumes Suisses Ca. 1900Rare Vintage Deck Arnold Schoenberg Playing Cards 1981 Ltd Ed #1522 Non-standardRare Vintage Deck Angel Playing Cards Non-standardVintage (1940s?) M & H Playing Card Company Nude Print Playing CardsEncarded Aurum Laser Cut Playing CardsSold Out Dan & Dave Aristocrat Classic Playing Cards Red Blue Two Deck Set Uspcc Set Of 3 Absolut Vodka Sealed Playing CardsDavid Blaine Split Spades New (black) Playing Cards Linoid Finish Rare 20 Different Backs Of Uspcc Bicycle Playing Cards ~ Nice Swap 32 Playing Cards Rare Hudson's Bay Company Hbc Stripes Canada Deck Playing Cards Sealed Bnib2 Single Vintage Swap / Playing Cards - Ladies - By The Garden GateEncarded White Gold Aurum Special Edition 008/500 W/ Display Case!Carte A Rire Gioco Dei Giornali Transformation Playing Cards - 1819 ReproductionRare Vintage Surrealists Playing Cards - Dutch Version Jeu De Marseille - 198512 Decks Of Iraqi Most Wanted Playing Cards U.s. Playing Card Co. (1.14e)Vintage Delta Airlines Playing Cards Complete Set Of Twenty One Complete Decks 2 Decks Of Vintage Nude Pin-up Playing Cards Art Studies & Models Of All NationsAntique Johnstown Pa Playing Cards ~ Beautiful Tin Litho Can ~doves~ Clown JokerVintage Set Of Three Decks Of Scottish Terrier Design Duratone Playing Cards Vintage Patience Mini Two Decks Playing Cards Dogs Leather Zipper Case Ec Mint180+ Single Swap/playing Cards - All AssortedVintage Wwii Era Victory Army Tank Playing Card Set Cards Complete Military OldRare Red Foil Fresh Arrco 21 Double Diamond Back Playing Cards Factory Sealed1 Deck Poker Sexy Lady Pin-up Girls Elvgren 54pcs Playing CardsRare Blue Foil Fresh Arrco 21 Double Diamond Back Playing Cards Factory SealedRare Vintage Bicycle Fanback Playing Cards Deck1 Single Vintage Swap / Playing Card - Cottages -decoAlmost Antique Dutch Mah-jongg Playing Cards - Sn - 1924Abstract Art Bridge Simultane Sonia Delaunay Cards In Box Never Opened W BookNightmare Of Oz Playing Cards New Sealed Deck Limited Edition Only 350 MadeWpt Bellagio Playing Cards (8 Never Been Opened Two Colors)Rare Oop T11 Daniel Madison Players Playing Cards Factory Sealed NewVintage 1947 Kem Polo Design Playing Cards Bakelite Case - SealedOriginal Iraq War Terrorists Most Wanted Playing Cards By Hoyle - Sealed BoxLarge Lot Deco People Cats Dogs Horses Single Genuine Vintage Swap Playing Cards

Recent News: Playing Cards

Source: Google News

Concert preview: Strong new album fuels Interpol's resurgence
Reno Gazette Journal, April 15th

So, the first question listeners had while spinning "El Pintor" was, is it still vintage Interpol? With Daniel Kessler providing an epic wash of ... The bus occupants passed the time with the help of vodka and playing cards. "It was kind of like...Read more

Cheap Stay, Free Art — Why Hostels Are a Hot Spot for Emerging Artists
Yahoo Travel, April 15th

Travelers have long sought to connect with local culture by exploring the art scene in places they visit. That concept is robustly embraced these days not just in museums and galleries, but in a somewhat surprising venue — hostels. Many hostels around...Read more

You two stay with the bear
Yale Daily News, April 14th

This was vintage Pop. He'd let himself go a bit since Mom passed, but he still looked all right. He liked to wear big denim shirts and khaki work pants. He had a big gut, but it suited him. Pop looked at the bill, put some money on the table, and stood up...Read more

Take a Tour Inside Bellino Trattoria Siciliana, Now Open
Eater PDX, April 14th

Chris Setser of Surface Brokers and Shannon Ponciano of Ponciano Design renovated and redesigned the 2,200-square-foot space, giving it a modern makeover with vintage elements. There's a distressed concrete floor, wood- ... And, in fact, motifs from...Read more

Hill Fosters Generations of Artists
The Potrero View, April 13th

He taught drawing and painting at the San Francisco School of the Arts, and created his own publishing company, Prospero Art, selling playing cards, stationary and advent calendars. When his father passed away in 2011, Padover and his brother Jaime ...Read more

Capital City Comics Convention to fill Haslett High
Lansing State Journal, April 13th

•Dan Frazier, Lansing area collector with more than 13,000 comics, silver age comics and artist prints;. •Impressions ... Three packs of Dragons of Tarkir; Three Packs of Fate reforged to build a minimum 40 card deck, lands will be provided. Prizes...Read more

Breaching Sacred Walls to Purchase Souvenirs
New York Times, April 12th

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters tournament ended Sunday. So did another tradition unlike any other. The Masters merchandise tents, open annually for just seven days, closed for another year. The competition for the prized Masters green jacket captivated an ...Read more

Oh, goodies! At this products convention, they're left holding the swag
Los Angeles Times, April 1st

In the mix too were old-fashioned companies, including Fisher Space Pens and Bicycle Playing Cards, which offers completely customized decks. The advertising institute's ... "Everybody wants the vintage copper look," he said. For now. "I'm 100% aware...Read more