Everyone has seen a deck of playing cards in their lifetime. Playing cards depict someone riding a bicycle on the back with either a red or blue background are the decks most people are familiar with. However, playing cards didn’t always look this way. Playing cards are hundreds of years old and they have gone through changes since they were invented. Today, a normal deck of 52 cards has four suits. Two are red and two are black. Each suit has 13 cards and then there are two jokers in every deck. The jokers are usually removed before the game. Before playing cards arrived in America, they had to travel through several countries. The aspects that created a normal deck of cards were from the values of people in the countries these cards traveled through.
The history of playing cards is what we will be looking through. What we will be paying the most attention to is the countries of the world that changed a deck of playing cards over time. We will be going over changes from half a dozen countries so let’s get started.
Nobody knows exactly when playing cards were created. Every story that has been told about where they were created has almost no proof to back up that story. There is proof that playing cards first arrived in Europe near the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century. But these cards had to come from somewhere. Some people think they were imported to Europe but there is nothing to prove that. Another theory is that they were invented in Asia but there is no history to support that claim either.
There has been speculation that cards are older than the proof suggests. People have claimed that playing cards were around during the 800’s and there is evidence of people playing card games back then. If this proof is true then it would mean playing cards are as old as dominoes. There have been others that cards were originally what people would bet with like when we use casino chips instead of cash. So possibly playing cards came to Europe from Egypt. Also on these older playing cards, they had different suits which had similarities to cards in Italy from the 1300s.
So any speculation that cards existed before the 14th century somewhere besides Europe is just that, speculation. The next countries we will cover are Italy & Spain.
Italy & Spain
In a document dated 1377, a German monk talked about the arrival of cards with games that could be played using these cards. Around the turn of the next century, religious speeches looked down on games with cards like games that were played with dice and it is known by this time that a full deck of cards consisted of 52. The suits back then were swords, coins, clubs, and cups and the only difference from the cards in Egypt is they had polo sticks instead of clubs. These are the same suits found in present-day Italy and Spain.
Cards from the late 1300s do consist of a King, a Queen, and a servant. However, the servant could be interpreted as a Prince and was later changed to Jack so people wouldn’t confuse it for another King. The playing cards in Spain replaced the Queen with a Knight. The Spanish deck also doesn’t have the numbers 8, 9, or 10 which is why a Spanish deck only has 40 cards.
In Italy, cards were first created by being hand-painted and featured items that only the rich could afford. When more people discovered and liked playing cards, they were made cheaper so more people could afford a deck of cards. The next country that learned about these cards was Germany and it is claimed that soldiers helped these cards make it into Germany.
When cards arrived in Germany, they changed the suits of the cards to acorns, bells, hearts, and leaves. There was no Queen in the Italian deck but there were two different servants with one being higher than the other. Also, two was the highest card since there was no Ace so there was a total of 48 cards.
There were many different kinds of decks made and every kind of deck had its suits whether they were creatures or household appliances. The cards that had the first suits Germany chose were the most common although Switzerland modified a couple of the suits when they got playing cards.
But what was the biggest thing we got from Germany in terms of playing cards? They were able to produce playing cards to meet the high demands of everybody that wanted them. Germany would even ship their decks to countries that already had their decks of playing cards. As time went on, Europe would normally use the suits on German playing cards.
At the beginning of the 1400s, the French created the suits that we currently use today although they had different names for the four suits. There is nothing that proves or disproves that some of the suits in France were inspired by some of the suits used in Germany. France also wanted a King, Queen, and Servant as their character cards.
However, it was the country of France that gave two suits one color and a different color to the other two suits. The symbols were also much easier to design which sped up the manufacturing of card decks. When France started creating their cards and could do it faster than Germany, it was the French deck that would become the common deck in Europe.
What France started doing is providing names for the different Kings, Queens, and Servants in a deck of cards. These names were chosen from history like King David, Athena, and Lancelot and this started around the end of the 16th century.
The clothes that the Kings, Queens, and Jacks wear are the same clothes seen in playing cards today but no one knows where those clothes came from. There was a lot of variety in the decks of France but it was around the beginning of the 18th century when playing cards would be taxed that the outfits stayed what they were. There are nine different regions in France and what picture that appeared on the card was based on the region. When these cards arrived in England, the pictures on these cards would stop changing.
Cards were coming in from France and Germany to England but more cards came in from Germany because of the taxes on the decks of cards that came in from France. However, it was the suits on French cards that came in through England.
Although the suits were from the French deck, they were named after designs on the Italian deck. One possible reason for this is the suits used in Spain made it to England before the French suits. Whatever the reason, you can thank England for the decks consisting of clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts today.
There was a law in England that playing cards could not leave the factory they were created in until the taxes on those cards were paid. This meant the Ace of Spades would be hand stamped but to stop people from evading this tax, it was decided in 1828 that the Ace of Spades had to be purchased from a Commissioner and the name of the manufacturer along with the amount paid in taxes would be printed. After 34 years of this rule, people who created cards were allowed to create this card themselves.
The designs for the Kings, Queens, and Jacks were inspired by the cards in Germany. Germany would include accessories or characteristics for these characters but that ended when Thomas De La Rue was able to lower costs and raise production. When this happened, the details in older cards disappeared to the designs we are familiar with today.
When the United States started receiving playing cards, they came over from England. Some people who made cards would print the word “London” on the Ace Of Spades. There is also proof that Native Americans made their decks of cards with their suits.
No country before this had included the card that we refer to as The Jokers. From the creation of the joker, it was recognized as higher than every other card in the deck. The first time records show the Joker being used in a game is in 1875.
The inclusion of the Joker was the only change that came from Americans. However, many different companies in America produce playing cards today.
As you can see, the history of playing cards is not easy because they have been around longer than most people realize. Who will be the next country to change the deck of cards that will become standard? While we wait and see, we know decks share similar traits to playing cards of Europe during the 14000s and cards have been around for longer than half a millennium.
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