A fleeting History of the Playing Card

A fleeting History of the Playing Card

“Given to Monsieur and Madame four peters, two forms, value eight and a half moutons, where with to buy a pack of cards” – so reads an entry dated May 14, 1379 in the account books of Joanna, Duchess of Brabant. It takes a while to familiarize a novice’s awkward fingers with what must be one of the most popular and widely known (by film and fiction if not by real life) modern online and high-tech casino games. And in the giddy air of first live games one may never realize that the glossy polygons – an as however unruly freak-show of royal Siamese twins – have not in fact always been as they seem to have always been since forever, since you first saw a dog-eared pack on your grandma’s table.

The very first playing cards seem to have originated in Central Asia. The first known reference to cards is a 10th or 11th century record of paper dominoes, printed to represent all of the 21 combinations of a pair of dice, used in other games in China. The earliest found artifacts come from 9th century China. Scholars associate the first straight-sheet paper cards with the first use of straight writing paper as opposed to paper rolls (being one of the many ancient Chinese inventions so obvious now to any sane modern) and with the earliest book printing.

Playing cards in quite modern form were likely introduced into Europe by Egyptian Mamelukes in the late 14th century. The typical Mameluke deck had 52 cards, four suits (polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups), and three court cards which presented abstracted design instead of persons. At the time, cards were hand-made and only wealthy Europeans could provide them. But the technique of applying woodcuts (used till then to decorate fabric) to paper was introduced around 1400 and mass production followed suit. In the period between 1418 and 1450 there are records of specialized card makers. Nowadays, card production is one of the most thriving world-wide industries.

The number and style of suits in 15th century playing cards varied: some decks had five suits, and hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns were the standard suits in Germany, nevertheless used today in Southern Germany for a distinctive set of card games. From my own childhood, besides the now standard deck, I remember the German suits which I much preferred because of their relative pictorial richness, particularly the golden nut and greenish cupule of the acorn suit: perhaps a gift imported into Asia, Kazakhstan from German relatives.

If the kings were the highest card in the suit in early games, by the 14th century the “Ace” (stemming from the Latin for the lowest unit of money, as) began to acquire the ability to turn highest card, leaving the Two as lowest. This was an especially popular mode during the French dramatical change when it was vital that the lower classes rise above royalty. A revolutionary would likewise disdain to play cards with Kings and Queens, preferring the inventive design of Liberties, Equalities, and Fraternities, but the typical design returned with the coming of Napoleon to strength.

A reversible double image in court cards was introduced in the 19th century. The earliest of such designs was American, though the invention is credited to a French card maker of the late 18th century whose idea was extremely by the French government. The purpose was to prevent players from reversing their court cards during a session, consequently in part revealing their hands to already not the most observant of opponents.

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