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    

Vintage Vargas 53 Playing Cards Pin Up Girls Factory Sealed W Tax Stamp Blue BoxOriginal Vintage Vargas 53 Playing Cards Pin Up Girls Factory Sealed W Tax StampRare 1908 The "wizard" Fortune Telling Cards W/ Box & Inst. - Milton BradleyVintage Gil Elvgren 52 American Beauties Pin Up Playing Cards Sealed W/tax StampVintage Gil Elvgren 52 American Beauties Pin Up Playing Cards, Sealed, Tax StampVintage 1940s Vargas Vanities Complete Pin Up Playing Cards Deck With BoxRed Saturn Playing Cards. Hard To Find. Sold At Ellusionist Rare Playing CardsGold Artifice Deck Of Playing Cards From Ellusionist-new Sealed Rare Deck1 Single Swap Playing Card Antique Wide Train Ad Maine Central Railroad VintageWhite Centurions Playing Cards From Theory 11. Rare, Hard To Find Blue Ribbon 929 Pinochle Playing Cards, Blue, Mint With StampDaniel Madison Blue Rounders Playing Cards Deck. Rare Ellusionist DeckVintage Kem Playing Cards Unopened SealedPing Pong - Couples - Set Of 2 Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards !Billards - 1 Old Wide Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards !Silhouette Lady & Flowers Deco Pr Genuine Vintage Swap Playing CardsVintage Golf Belle Playing Cards, Gold Edge. Full Deck In Original Box Alice In Wonderland Art Playing Cards Miniature Pack Dominic Murphy CollectableIndians - 1 Lady - Old Wide Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards !Circa 1892 Bicycle No. 808 Emblem Back Playing Cards ~ Cigar Store Rochester, NyIndian -- I Old Wide Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards !Joe Porper Gold Playing Card Clip By Dan And Dave - (no Deck Included)2* Poker 100% Plastic New Poker Size Playing Cards Standard Ships Fast From Usa!Nude Girl Playing Cards Deck Of 54The Nile Fortune Telling Cards Playing No ReserveRare & Unreleased Uncut Sheet Of Black Monarchs Playing Cards By Theory11 Old Wide Harem Ladies Minarets [green} Single Vintage Swap/ Playing CardVintage Gaiety Brand "54 Models" Colour Playing Cards No. 421Unique Gifts - 24k Gold Playing Cards Foil Dollar Style Poker Entertainment Game1970's Lemonade Kids Girl Boy Set 3 Single Genuine Vintage Swap Playing Cards*sealed* Set Vyctory (endgame) Playing CardsUltra Rare New Sealed David Blaine White Lions Series A Set ( Red & Blue Deck )3 Black Backed Sealed Decks - 1st Edition Split Spades By David BlaineKem Double Deck Playing Cards In Case NewNtique Square Corner Wide 1800s Lovers In The Wood Single Vintage Playing CardKem Playing Cards Mehndi Double Deck Red/blue Ss New!Bicycle Playing Cards 12 Decks Jumbo Print1 Rare Daniel Madison Revolvers Playing Cards Deck (new And Sealed)World Beauty Brand Nude Women Risque 54 Playing Cards Circa 1960, Box Complete Vintage Playboy Double-deck Playing Cards1 Single Swap Playing Card Old Wide Baseball Game Art Old Uniforms Vintage ArtSwap Playing Cards 70's Giordano White Cats Grey & Mauve RareAce Of Spades - Angels - 1 Old Herringbone Stock Single Vintage Playing Cards !!Set Of 3 Deco Cottages And Horses Vintage Swap/playing CardsGorgeous Olden Days Deco Ladies Pr Genuine Vintage Swap Playing CardsAce Of Spades - Washburn - 1 Old Wide Single Vintage Playing Cards !!Deco Lady Gold And Silver Pair Of Vintage Swap/ Playing CardsVintage Playing Cards ?? Perfection Playing Card Co. # 400 Champion PhiladelphiaKem Playing Cards "grab Bag" Lot Of 9 Single Decks 2 Decks Ss 2 (pair) Rare Single Vintage Playing Swap Card - Horse Horses - Heads - JdChameleons Playing Cards. All 3 Decks, Red, Blue And Green!Vintage Russian Playing Cards - Black Palekh - Cpp - 1976 Old Wide Harem Ladies Minarets (red) Single Vintage Swap/ Playing CardNew Bettie Page Pin Up Girl Playing Cards1 Single Swap Perfection Playing Card Antique Ace Of Spades New York Vintage OldSingle Swap Playing Card Antique Wide Ad King George Iv Scotch Whisky EdinburghBillards - Couple - Set Of 2 Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards !Blank Back 1970's Retro Frog Pr Single Genuine Vintage Swap Playing CardsBlank Back 1970's Retro Panda Bear Pr Single Genuine Vintage Swap Playing CardsWide Swap Playing Card Joy Girl Bridesmaid Bride Modern #2

Recent News: Playing Cards

Source: Google News

Quick guide to Lake Tahoe
Bay Area Reporter, April 27th

The promenade will feature various stations around the Tallac Historic Site, each offering food and drinks, interpretive history, and historic figures along with playing cards for event participants and a concert Featuring Radoslav Lorkovic. Tickets...Read more

Obituaries: Fery, Brand, Wallace
Statesman Journal, April 25th

Helen enjoyed quilting, traveling, playing cards and her grandkids. Helen is survived by children Randy (Jill) Fery ... Dennis enjoyed hunting, fishing, ATVs, RVs, boating, antique cars and starting do-it-yourself projects. He was a devoted son...Read more

Pizarro: SoFA Street Fair will be wall-to-wall music
San Jose Mercury News, April 21st

The Electric Bike Expo running Friday through Sunday at Stanford Shopping Center will feature more than 100 e-bikes available for test rides from different manufacturers -- including South Bay-based Vintage Electric. The styles range from ... HISTORY'S...Read more

Overwatch vs Battleborn vs Paragon: the battle of the betas
VG247, April 20th

The game on consoles is only in alpha so it's very unforgiving and difficult to read when you start. Getting the hang of building your equipment card deck is tricky and really needs a better tutorial. ... Overwatch - prepurchase the Collector's edition...Read more

Barker's Museum Tells The Toy Story Of The 20th Century
Hartford Courant, April 19th

The Barker Character, Comic & Cartoon Museum in Cheshire has more than 80,000 pieces of memorabilia and toys from 20th century pop culture. (Melanie Stengel, Special To The ... A "Man from U.N.C.L.E." card deck? In the case dedicated to spies, with ...Read more

Kobe Bryant Tabbed As Cover Athlete For 'NBA 2K17' Legend Edition
Forbes, April 13th

Some may just want the real-life Bryant memorabilia. In either case, there's no doubt, hardcore Bryant fans will be salivating over what the Legend Edition offers. As for other 2K fans, the standard edition might be all they need. I'm expecting there...Read more

Flights of Fabric Fancy
Wall Street Journal, April 8th

A textile display will invariably make him stop and look: He's a connoisseur and collector of cloth. So it's fitting ... New York artist Sarah Sze builds elaborate ecosystems, amassing and arranging items like paper cups, dandelions, playing cards and...Read more

ANTHRAX To Sign Copies Of 'For All Kings' Playing Cards At Vintage Vinyl In ...
BLABBERMOUTH.NET, December 29th

On January 15, 2016, ANTHRAX will release a deck of custom "For All Kings" playing cards at indie record stores. There will be a download card inside that contains two tracks from the album prior to street date. On February 26 — the official "For All...Read more