Evolution of Playing Cards: Things You Never Knew

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We all love playing cards, don’t we? In fact, most people are enjoying great games of rummy, poker, and bridge with their family during the lockdown. Playing cards not only help kill time but also boosts your cognitive skills.

Card games are very popular with all age groups. You might be familiar with playing cards and the rules of different card games. However, the modern deck you see today has undergone radical changes over the years. It has evolved into a deck of 52 cards after traveling across different countries of the world. Yes, you heard that right! Modern-day playing cards are highly influenced by different cultures and traditions across the globe. 

So, who invented playing cards? How did cards evolve over the years? How did they become so popular? What is the history of card games? 

We know these questions might pop out while you’re playing an online rummy game. To satisfy your inquisitiveness, keep reading the article.

The Origin of Playing Cards

The exact origin of playing cards remains dubious. However, there have been speculations about cards originating back in the 800s. Apparently, card games were found in ancient China during the Tang dynasty. A Chinese writer, Su E, writes in his book The Collection of Miscellena at Duyang about Princess TongChang (daughter of Emperor Yizong of the Tang Dynasty) playing a ‘leaf game’ with her husband’s family, the Wei Clan, in 868. 

Later in 1007, a scholar named Ouyang Xiu claimed that card games existed during the mid-Tang Dynasty. He also mentioned that papers were produced by then and replaced traditional scrolls. 

Another reference to playing cards has been made in the 11th-century Chinese text known as Kuei-t’ien-lu. The redacted version describes the printing of dominos cards during the Tang Dynasty. Furthermore, it is also believed that the design of modern Mahjong tiles is highly influenced by the earliest playing cards. By the 11th century, playing cards had become widespread in Asia.

Introduction to Europe

Playing cards entered Europe in the 14th century. It is backed by documentary evidence of the ban on cards in Bern, Switzerland, in 1367. Over time, cards became extensively popular in different European countries. Some countries like France had to pass a gaming ordinance that prompted high scrutiny of players. 

It is widely believed that the earliest playing cards in Europe were similar to those in the Mameluke deck (from Mamluk, Egypt). This deck consisted of four suits, namely Swords, Cups, Coins, and Polo Sticks. Every suit had ten ‘spot’ cards and three ‘court’ cards. A complete pack of Mameluke deck was discovered by Leo Mayers in 1939. It was found that this deck was printed back in the 12th or 13th century. 

Early Design Changes and Spread in Europe

By the late 14th century, playing cards were widely used across the European continent. Many documents mention cards dated from Spain (1371), Switzerland (1377), and Florence and Paris (1380). Also, a gaming ordinance was passed in Paris in 1369 that kept players in check. A reference to playing cards can be found in an account book by Charles, a treasurer working for Charles VI of France. It has a record of payment for painting three sets of card decks. 

The earliest European cards were hand-made and expensive. Later in the 15th century, some professional card makers started producing cards from woodcuts. The first woodcut card was printed in 1418. Almost all woodcuts were colored after printing, and after the 1450s stencils were used. 

In Germany, a personality that had great influence on German engraving appeared in the 1430s. He is widely known as the Master of the Playing Cards. His cards were engraved as opposed to the traditionally printed cards. Although engraved cards were unique and artistically sound, they were more expensive than woodcut cards. 

There were different variations of the suits of cards in 15th century Europe. Four suits were common. In Germany, Hearts, Bells, Acorns and Leaves were the standard suits. They are still used in Eastern and Southeastern German decks. In Italy and Spain, Swords, Batons, Cups and Coins were used as playing card suits. During this time, Tarot cards (which included extra trump cards) came into existence in Italy. 

The modern-day suits — Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, and Clubs — were invented in France. Clubs and Spades are probably replicated from German suits. Another important development in the 15th century was the replacement of court cards. The European switched them to represent royalties and attendants: king, chevalier and knave. In German card decks from the 1440s, the Queen replaced the King as the highest card. A 56-card deck consisting of a King, a Queen, a Knight and a Valet were commonplace. In the 16th century, France became the primary provider of playing cards to England. The Parisian design became standard in French cards.

Modern-day Playing Cards

England exported cards to different countries including the USA. The USA relied on English goods to meet the demand of playing cards. In the early 1800s, a man named Lewis I. Cohen started publishing playing cards in the USA after spending 4 years in England. He went on to invent the printing machine in 1845 that could print all face cards at once. With this invention, his business skyrocketed and his company, New York Consolidated Card Company, became public in 1871. The company introduced cornered indices to the English pack. 

The final evolution of playing cards includes the addition of the third-highest face card, the Joker. It was also known as the best bower, which was a popular trick game of Euchre in the mid-19th century. The Joker was invented in the 1860s and this trump card could beat both the highest and the lowest bower.

By the 19th century, the USA had become the largest producer of playing cards. Some well-known card manufacturers included Samuel Hart & Co. and Russell, Morgan & Co. (the latter went on to become the largest producer of modern decks). The legendary card decks include UPSCC’s Bicycle, Bee and Tally Ho. Bicycle cards dominated the market and are highly preferred for printing custom decks.

Conclusion

Can you imagine what life would be like without playing card games online? Well, that would be a nightmare. Card games became an integral part of our culture and prompted some significant changes to our lifestyle. The history of playing cards is diverse and it would be unfair to credit any one person or place for their invention. So, what will be the future of playing cards like? Will there be more innovations? Well, only time will tell! Until then, play modern-day card games like rummy and challenge your friends for online rummy games!