We humans like to play games — with a ball, with the dog, with our spouses. We all play some kind of game at least once a day and have plenty of stuff in our closets that allows us to do this. These items can be simple or complex, and sometimes both.
Playing cards. There are always a few cards around that we can use to share a cup of tea or cake with our friends. Have you ever stopped to consider how playing cards got started? Here’s a link to help you think about how playing cards came about.
Although the evidence is not clear, it seems that playing cards have been around for at least 1,000 years. They could have originated in China, Europe, or may have been developed side-by-side in both countries. First indisputable evidence for playing cards is a 1377 manuscript by a German monk. His story described many card games and seems to have referenced a 52-card deck. Instead of the spades, diamonds and hearts we know today, early suits were coins and cups. The royalty cards represented kings, queens, and knaves. These latter became known as jacks. These suits originated in Italy. Maybe Egypt. No one quite knows.
However, the first cards were expensive luxury items that were hand-painted and out of reach for the average peasant. The popularity of playing cards grew as technology improved and Germany became a major producer. There were 48 cards in the deck, with many still being used today. The queen was replaced by a second knave. The two were designated the highest-value card and knocked the ace out of the deck.
France, a few years later took up the game and introduced the red and black cards in each suit. This enabled card manufacturing to be done via stencils instead of monotone woodcuttings. Production soared. Many of their royalty cards were inspired by real characters like Alexander the Great and Charlemagne.
The first playing cards were brought from France to England. There, further refinements were made. It was there that the suit names we use today were created, and the unique position of the ace-of-spades was established.
All aces of spades must be purchased from the Commissioner For Stamp Duties between 1828 and 1862 to ensure the correct tax was paid. These cards were often intricately designed and displayed prominently the maker’s name as well as the amount of duty to avoid counterfeits. Many details on royalty cards were embellished in this period. However, standardization in later centuries eventually discouraged this trend. These cards look very much like the ones sold by soldiers in the Spanish-American war.
Finally, we reach the United States of America. The majority of early playing cards discovered in the United States were brought over the Atlantic from England. However, Luis Cohen, an American who invented simultaneous color printing, established the New York Consolidated Card Company (New York Consolidated Card Company) in 1871. He popularized corner indices for easier playing. The Civil War saw the addition of jokers to the deck as premium wild cards, completing the evolution and modernization of the card deck.
You are playing with a piece history, regardless of whether you play blackjack, poker, or hearts, but it doesn’t matter what game you choose. Rare objects can boast such a rich history.
Mike Rivkin, his wife Linda, and their long-time Rancho Mirage residents are both Rancho Mirage residents. He was a highly-regarded catalogue publisher, and has published seven books. He is now the owner of Antique Galleries in Palm Springs. His column on antiques appears in The Desert Sun every Sunday. You can send Mike questions about antiques. Drop him a line at [email protected]