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]

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]

Handhelden.com

Handhelden.com

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    

Vintage Gucci Double Deck Playing CardsAntique Playing Cards 1909 Uspc Co Congress 606 Named Deck Delores 52+j Nr MintAuthentic Hermes Tarot Playing Card Set 78 Cards With Box & Manual New2 Decks Congress Playing Cards - Vintage For Auction Bridge 606w Whist SizeVintage Adult Nude Playing CardsUltragaff Deck By Daniel Garcia & Wayne Houchin + Training Dvd Vol 2 EllusionistGolden Nugget Orange Playing Cards & Casino Box & Bonus Deck Las Vegas RareArcane Gold Playing Cards By Ellusionist - UnopenedRare Magic Con V1 First Edition Playing Cards Deck (dan And Dave)Magic Con 2011 Playing Cards Dan And DaveAntique Deck Of Hart's Squared Linen Eagle Pharo Playing Cards W/ Box #173Louis Vuitton White Murakami Pattern Playing Cards/no Box All 52 Cards + 1 Joker2 Decks Of Kem Polo Playing Cards W/ Plastic CaseHuge Lot Vintage Playing Cards Decks Airlines, Railroad, Advertising TarotEnglish Laundry Playing Cards, Rare Ltd. Edition Dan & Dave DeckComplete Deck Of Vintage Playing Cards Antique Art Deco Lady With Borzoi Dog1950's Gil Elvgren Playing Cards 52 American Beauties Pin Up Original Near Mint!Alberto Vargas 50's Girls Playing Cards 2 DecksVintage Deck Of Kem Playing Cards-june 1956-cranes-with Black Case & Jokers-vgcComplete Deck Of Vintage Playing Cards Antique Art Deco Lady Gorgeous Vintage Deck. Austria. Piatnik. B. Wiinblad. Speelkaarten.jeu De CartesVintage Waddington's Fine Playing Cards Sealed Red Velvet Box 2 Decks1939 Limited Edition Walt Disney Pinocchio & Jiminy Cricket Playing Cards - NicePlastic Playing Cards Poker Stars Free ShippingPair Vintage Swap Playing Cards - Deco Ladies Swap Cards Blank Back / Coles No.2043Coles Swap Card - 1956 Olympics - Main StadiumVintage Complete Deck Of Lyxspelkort Korupelikortteja Finnish Playing CardsBicycle Dreamcatcher Playing CardsJackson Robinson Bicycle Federal 52 Playing Cards 5 Unopened Great Antique Deck Belgium. Biermans. Cartes Opaques.speelkaarten.jeu De CartesVintage 1918 Double Deck Of Congress 606 Playing Cards Exc Cond! Complete!Vintage 1985 Sealed Double Deck Kem Cards-bald Eagle- Case And Sleeves1986 Kem Plastic Playing Cards Sealed Deck Plastic Container Monaco Blue Red6 Single Swap Playing Cards Dog Dogs Terrier Spaniel By Artist Mabel Gear ArtFive Vintage Swap Playing Cards - Deco Horse & RidersColes Swap Card - 1956 Olympics - The Netherlands - Dutch Windmill - Gc !Coles Swap Card - Green Frog By PondColes Swap Card - 1956 Olympics - Eire - Moorhen & Stoat 5-vintage Decks,red Mohawk,ace,tabasco,bee,credit Union. Ads - Old Crow Whiskey - 3 Single Wide Vintage Swap/playing Cards *New Free Shipping Lol League Of Legends 54 Pcs Playing Cards Poker F03Samual Hart Linen Eagle Playing Cards With 2 Cent Irs Tax Stamp. Ca. 1885 Hermes Playing Cards Gold EdgeThe Binding Of Isaac Tarot Cards Deck - Signed 1st Limited Edition 526/666 - NibFirst Edition Fontaine Playing Cards 144 Lovely Swap Playing Cards In A Swap Card Book !!!!!!!! 1930s Playing Cards Matched Decks Bully Boston Terrier Dogs Complete Nr Mint1930s Playing Cards Gibson Twin Decks Art Deco Ladies Drink Cup Of Tea Mint SealLot Of 5 Sealed Decks Of Bicycle Cards. Tally-ho Viper Circle Back. Ellusionist.Vintage Collectible Decks Of Playing Cards - Railways - UnusedVintage Playing Cards Advertising Edison Electric Reddy Kilowatt Appear Unused!1942 Wwii Us Military Air Plane Squadron Scramble Card Game #1 Aeronautic AssnVintage Lot Of 6 Decks~playing Cards~pinup~advertising~Vintage 1944 Vargas Playing Cards - Pinup Girls - 2 Full DecksKem Unopened Playing Card Deck With Hard Case Mallard DuckVintage Swap / Playing Card - Advertising - Scotch - Perfection Whisky - IndianVintage Single Deck Of Glendale Playing Cards ~ Silhouette Of Buggy Horse DogPair Vintage Swap Playing Cards - Deco Ladies Maxpedition Tacfielddeck Tactical Field Deck Waterproof Playing Cards

Recent News: Playing Cards

Source: Google News

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Review (iOS)
Arcade Sushi, April 18th

Casual versus games are best for discovering the best cards to keep in your 30-card deck. Experimenting ... You almost never have to buy anything, but the curious collector will likely spend a few dollars to get a few packs to start a proper foundation...Read more

Sharing the Harvest
Wicked Local Marion, April 17th

ROCHESTER – The New England Antique Tractor & Truck Association will host a tractor show from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday April 26, at Rochester Fairgrounds, located at 65 Pine St. Rain date is Sunday, April 27. The tractor ..... Hospice Volunteers...Read more

Terry's French accent is tres tasty
Arkansas Online (subscription), April 17th

Along the north wall, built in shelving houses plenty of antique books and nice wine bottle-base lamps - plus the wine-bottle chandelier near the bar - that accent the mostly indirect lighting. Several pieces of ... Our Pan-Seared Salmon ($23), a filet...Read more

Grant Days offers activities for everyone
Ledger Independent, April 16th

With no elaborate apparatus, no hidden assistants, and in full view of the assembled throng, scarves will appear and disappear, coins will invisibly travel from hand to hand, playing cards will exhibit the most extraordinary behavior, and all manner of...Read more

After 'eminent domain:' Family relocated, but transition was 'not easy'
Beloit Daily News, April 14th

They've been busy finding homes for their four-wheeler, camper, antique farm equipment and many other tools and recreational items they kept out at the property. Although the deadline to move ... “We might be sitting around playing cards now,” Lisa said...Read more

Food for the Mobster's Soul
New Yorker (blog), April 12th

A young crook named Tommy Uva, fresh from jail for robbing a flower shop in the Bronx, starts slipping into the back benches at the John Gotti trial, and hears a weary hit man testify about the “social clubs” where the Mafia's aging lieutenants hang...Read more

Group helps collectors of railroad gear stay on track
azcentral.com, April 11th

Question: I have collected railroad memorabilia for more than 30 years. I began with railroad china and gradually added posters, timetables, ashtrays, playing cards and even several vintage lanterns. ... Q: I have an antique wicker chair that got damaged...Read more

The Collector's Guide to Playing Cards (Book Review)
BioGamer Girl Magazine, March 22nd

For playing card enthusiasts, The Collector's Guide to Playing Cards is a pretty obvious purchase, but even casual collectors of vintage items will find some interesting facts and information within the pages of the guide to make it well worth a look...Read more