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]

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    

Early 1930s Art Deco Playing Cards- In Original Box, Authentic Deco DesignDondorf Antique Rare Playing Cards N227 "musicalisches Karten" Pr. 1860 Germany Golden Nugget €25 Coles Swap Cards Cats Dogs Panda Etc Vinatge CardsVintage Bicycle Rider Back 808f Braille Playing Cards Complete Deck Good ShapeBicycle Black Book Decks Of Playing Cards Horizontal And Vertical! Super RareAntique 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition World's Fair Souvenir Playing CardsDan And Dave Smoke And Mirrors Decks Of Playing Cards. 5 Decks V3(2), V4, V5, V6Bicycle Different- 3 Deck Set Of Playing Cards. New, Limited, And Rare. Two Vintage Decks Art Deco Playing Cards Lady Orange & Blue Dress, TurquoisBoxed Ltd Ed Erotic Print Society Playing Cards - A Wicked Pack Sylvie JonesRare Playing Card Set ( Dan And Dave, Theory11, Ellusionist, David Blaine )Bicycle Split Spades Silver Edition Deck Of Playing Cards By David Blaine Ellusionist Lot- 5 Decks Of Playing Cards Arcane Sultan Viper GhostBee Coterie- One Deck Of Playing Cards Brand New- Sold Out And RareEllusionist Playing Cards Red Rounders Anythings Possible BottleVtg Nos Sealed 2-deck Set Tammis Keefe Treasure Playing Cards W/ Jokers HorsesBicycle Lumberjacks, Hedge, Mazing Lot Of Three Decks Of Playing CardsGolden Nugget Playing CardsGerman B Dondorf Vintage Playing Cards - Spielkarten No 402 1931-1936 Tax StampVintage Coles Swap / Playing Card - Girl On Horse / Pony - Good ConditionBicycle Elves And Orcs, Amazing Adventures Lot Of Two Decks Of Playing CardsVintage Lenormand Fortune Telling Symbolic Foreign Language W/ Booklet Madison Players Deck By Theory 11- Sold Out And Rare!Bicycle Truth Garden Decks Of Playing Cards -black And WhiteBrand New Deck Virtuoso Playing Cards By The VirtsSet Of 12 Bicycle Playing Cards New But Have Minor Dents Printed By UspccLot Of Two 1977 Vintage Kem Arrow Poker Playing Cards W Red & Blue Travel CasesLisa Frank Collector's Edition Playing CardsBoxed Ltd Ed Erotic Print Society Playing Cards - Black Box Monica GuevaraOriginal Tally-ho/squeezers Playing Cards - Nib - 6 DecksIndependence Playing Cards Set - Continental And Crown Signed Display DecksBicycle Masters Decks Of Playing Cards- Blue And ShadowBicycle Allure, Genesis, King Of Kings- Four Decks Of Playing Cards By N. QuilesAlice In Wonderland Art Playing Cards Dodo Cheshire Cat Flamingo Dormouse HatterSingle Swap Playing Card Antique Square Corner Old Wide Vintage Rare UniqueRare Blue Bicycle 808 League Back Playing Card Deck - (1905 - 1925)The Independence Playing Cards Limited Edition Jackson Robinson KickstarterTiffany & Co Pink & Blue Argyle Playing Card Deck1950's Vintage Pinup Playing Cards By Artist Alberto Vargas Complete 54 CardsBrand New Deck Bicycle Persian Empire Royal Edition Playing CardsVintage Pin Up Girl Playing Cards - Complete - Nintendo ?Thirty One Gifts Icon Coin Purse "happy Camper" And Matching Manicure Nail FileBicycle Persian Empire Decks Of Playing Cards Original And Royal EditionsMaxpedition Tacfielddeck Tactical Field Deck Waterproof Playing CardsLot Of 5 Vintage Bicycle Decks Of Playing Cards Santa Fan Racer Rider Backs UsColes Swap Cards - Genuine Vintage -un Named - Cute Girl And KittenWhispering Imps Black Deck Of Playing Cards First EditionCircus Elephant & Clowns - Set Of 3 Linen Single Vintage Swap Playing Cards Rare Bicycle Gargolyes Playing Cards DeckBicycle Eclipse, Total Eclipse, Starlight Playing Cards- Astronomy Themed! Lot Of 4 Bicycle Decks- Platinum, Apocalyptica (autographed), Divine, Evolution Thriftchi ~ Vintage Congress Playing Cards No 606 Gold Edges - Moon FairyBicycle Black Tie Deck Of Playing Cards, Brand New!Vintage "soo Line" Ship Travel 2 Deck. Un-opened Playing Cards In Case. Nice!!!Coles Cards Holland Olden Days Poor Genuine Vintage Single Swap Playing Card *a*Bicycle 808 Playing Cards New Fan Back Sealed With Tax StampFederal 52 Part 2 Reserve Note Playing Cards / Bicycle / Rare / NumberedSmoke And Mirror V1 Playing Cards By Dan & DaveDan & Dave Mystery Deck Playing Cards Deck New Mint

Recent News: Playing Cards

Source: Google News

Mother still pushing for answers to daughter's disappearance from Newburgh ...
Courier & Press, September 2nd

Heather was never found. While state police have kept Heather's case alive, even including it on a deck of playing cards representing unsolved cases in 2012, Sarah Teague has been relentless. “I haven't been able to do much else for 19 years,” she said...Read more

LeRaysville Labor Day outlasts raindrops
Towanda Daily Review, September 1st

antique chairs, a set of ratchet tie-downs, a Disney princess lunch pail, a Cabbage Patch doll, an Amish comforter, a five-piece cheese set, brown and blue "Wyalusing" jackets and - for cat ladies and gents near and far - a 3-D "cats playing cards...Read more

Working With Multiple Manufacturers To Get Your Self-Published Project Delivered
Bleeding Cool News, August 30th

Right now, I'm working on my first project not in those categories—a USB drive shaped like a vintage Goodyear-Zeppelin airship design I hope to one day distribute digital copies of my books on. Here's the .... Now I've reached out to other playing...Read more

Motorcycle mania roars onto Vashon
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber, August 26th

On Sunday, more than 1,000 motorcyclists gathered in downtown Vashon for the Vintage Motorcycle Enthusiasts' 32nd annual Isle of Vashon TT. Islander and longtime member of the club, Jody Heintzman, said 750 people registered for the event, about...Read more

Henry H. 'Butch' Haines
Quad City Times, August 23rd

He was born April 21, 1943, in Davenport, the son of Nathan H. and Betty Lou Stahr. Most recently, he was employed with Scotty's Auction Service. Butch was a fond collector and enjoyed playing cards. Those left to honor his memory include his sister...Read more

Inez Martyn, 76
Staten Island Advance -, August 22nd

Mrs. Martyn was fond of dogs, and collected salt and pepper shakers, Betty Boob memorabilia and coins. In her leisure time, she enjoyed sewing, playing cards and bingo, solving crossword puzzles and shopping. She liked watching movies and eating ...Read more

Community club listings for the week of Aug. 24-30
Naples Daily News, August 22nd

The local chapter of the Antique Auto Club of America is the Naples/Marco Island group, which meets 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month Please check our website for meeting location. 239-352-7648. Aphasia Support .... the...Read more

Butler Greenwood's Plantation Parlor Goes to New Orleans
New York Times, August 14th

Anne Butler, 70, a descendant who has orchestrated the parlor's transfer to the museum, said in an interview that she remembers wearing vintage gowns to play dress-up as a child in the room. “My grandmother was the last .... A book due this fall...Read more