Even as we barrel further into the high-tech, always-online landscape of the 21st century, we continue to return to the simple pack of cards. A virtually limitless source of entertainment, playing cards can provide hours of time-wasting fun among friends or high-stakes competition on ESPN. And even as magicians find new ways to amaze their audiences, many continue to return to these thin slips of paper to devise some of the most mind-bending illusions ever seen.
Playing cards are so common in our daily lives that we don’t even really think about their evolution or the meaning behind the symbols printed on them. Thing is, that deck you found at a middle-America truck stop plastered with a cartoon mascot has thousands of years of human history behind it. Here are a few things you may not have known about one of the world’s oldest pastimes.
Like noodles, fireworks, and many other things we take for granted in modern Western society, the history of the playing card extends all the way back into ancient Chinese history. The first recorded use of playing cards that we’ve discovered is dated to around 9th century AD, in a diversion called the “leaf game”. The first recorded use of suits and numbers to designate between cards occurred in the year 1294, and the cards themselves were both the game pieces and the stakes. These “money cards” were easier to keep track of during games than paper currency, and actually had monetary value within society. Eventually, Chinese card games spread across the world thanks to international trade, with versions of the game making their way to the Middle East, Egypt, and Europe.
One of the earliest forms of what we know as the modern playing card originated from Egypt, and featured four distinct suits: polo-sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Polo, however, was an uncommon sport among Europeans, and when the deck found its way to Southern European territories, the polo-club was interpreted as a baton (like a police officer’s nightstick). The baton, along with the other three suits, became common in Italy and Spain, while Germany experimented with different suits, including shields, acorns, and leaves. Eventually, the French version of the deck developed in the 18th century, with its hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, becoming the worldwide standard.
So, there are many interpretations for what the symbols on a standard deck of cards actually means. One possible way to look at them is as a direct representation of a standard Gregorian calendar, along with all the ways it divides up time, seasons, and even individual days. The two colors – red and black – represent night and day. The four suits represent each of the four seasons. Twelve court cards represent twelve months in a year; throw in the ace, and you’ve got the thirteen lunar cycles. 52 cards equals 52 weeks, and add up all the numbers in a deck along with a joker, and you’ve got 365 days in a year. It all may be a coincidence, but it’s a hell of a coincidence, no?
While playing cards have been around for thousands of years, no one company has stuck around making them that long. That said, the United States Playing Card Company remains the longest-running, still existing manufacturer of cards. Founded in 1867 as a printing company, it eventually transitioned into making playing cards in 1881 (beating card and video game maker Nintendo to the punch by about eight years), and is currently responsible for some of the most notable brands in the world, including Bicycle, Hoyle, Bee, and more.
When German forces captured Allied soldiers, they’d often confiscate whatever contraband they had and shipped them off to POW camps. On the surface, a deck of cards looks like an innocent way for prisoners to pass the time (and keep their minds occupied on thoughts other than escaping). These cards, however, offered more than just a game of poker: there were secret maps hidden between each card’s two thin strips of glued paper, detailing escape routes for soldiers to take once they escaped their prison camps.
American and British forces worked with the United States Playing Card company to devise a way to hide hidden maps inside a deck of cards. The solution? Print one piece of a map on the inside of each card and glue the halves together with a solvent that vanished when submerged in water. Once all the map pieces are revealed, simply put them in order on a grid and you’ve got secret intel that wouldn’t be made public until decades after the war ended.
The Nine of Diamonds seems as normal as any other card in the deck, but the more superstitious players often refer to it as the Curse of Scotland. There are a couple of theories how this seemingly benign card got its name, and both of them are soaked in blood. The first takes place on the eve of the Battle of Culloden, where the Duke of Cumberland supposedly wrote down an ‘order of no quarter’ (aka ‘take no prisoners’) against the Jacobite insurrectionists on a Nine of Diamonds card. The second involves the the Glencoe Massacre; the coat of arms of Sir John Dalrymple, the Earl who ordered the massacre, is very similar to the card in question. However this card got its name, the term is often used when someone’s having an unlucky night at the card table, or when generally bad things are happening to Scotland as a whole.
Modern playing cards are often covered in a variety of ornate designs (like Bicycle’s famous two-wheeling angel), photos, famous paintings, and even advertisements. They weren’t always so fancy though – up until the mid 19th century, most playing cards were completely blank on one side.
For casual players, this wasn’t a huge deal, as many people would often use them to write notes for themselves or others. For gamblers, though, cards could be easily marked to give less-trustworthy players (read: filthy cheaters) an unfair edge. Playing card manufacturers started putting designs on the backs of cards (along with rounding out the edges) to help prevent cheating. What began as a competitive necessity has since blossomed into a whole industry, where every gift shop, cartoon character, TV show, and brand likely has their own themed deck of playing cards.
The Joker actually wasn’t a part of the standard deck of playing cards until it was introduced around the time of the American Revolution. It was developed for the game Euchre as a third trump card, beating out the two original trump cards in the game, and its name is thought to be derived from ‘juker,’ an alternative name for the game. The joker wouldn’t become the wild card we know it as until 1875, with the earliest reference to a variant of poker.
Because the Joker is a relatively recent innovation in the playing card world, there’s no standard design like there is for most of the other cards in a typical deck. As such, many card makers will often use the joker card to display their own special (often trademarked) artwork, giving each deck a unique flair beyond the card backs and faces. In fact, Jokers can vary so wildly between decks that many people actually see Joker cards as collector’s items, with the largest collection belonging to Donato de Santis of Italy, who owns over 8250 different Joker cards in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs.
Ever wonder why the Ace of Spades gets singled out with large, fancy designs while the rest of the suits (separate from the unique Joker) look like normal cards? It all stems back to the stamp duty, originally brought to England back during the 17th century. The stamp duty was a special marking that was required on all official documents, like invoices, deeds, and correspondence. In 1711, Queen Anne of England imposed a stamp duty on all manufactured playing cards.
In the early days, a single card – usually the Ace of Spades – was marked with an actual stamp. The design eventually morphed from stamps to prints, and in 1828, an elaborate design known as “Old Frizzle” was the standard way to note that the duty had been paid. Decades passed and the laws were made more lenient, allowing manufacturers to use whatever design they liked as long as the tax was paid, though many continued to incorporate grand artwork for the Ace of Spades. Many of these designs were even trademarked to prevent other card companies from stealing their designs. The stamp duty was discontinued in the 1960s, but many companies around the world continue to use the Ace of Spades to showcase stunning art alongside copyright and manufacturing information.
Standard decks of cards have had four suits for hundreds of years, but that hasn’t stopped more adventurous types from trying to experiment with the number and kinds of cards in a deck. One of the earliest widely-produced decks with additional suits was created by Hiram Jones called International Playing Cards, which included red crosses and black bullets in addition to the hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades found in a French deck. Decks have experimented with five, six, and even eight suits. The 8 Suits Playing Card deck adds red Moons, black Stars, red four-leaf Clovers, and black Tears, while the Toss Double Deluxe Deck contains blue Castles and Shields, gold Crosses and Oracles, five (!!!) Jokers, and two Null cards, all in addition to the original set of 52 cards. It really needs to be seen to be believed.