Before there were video games, our ancestors played cards. People have been playing cards since at least ninth-century China, when a Tang Dynasty chronicle described Princess Tongchang playing the “leaf game.” Cards entered Europe in the late 14th century, probably from Egypt. Barcelona archives record the earliest European mention of a naipero (playing-card maker), Rodrigo Borges from Perpignan, in 1380. The suits and face cards as we know them were standardized in France by the end of the 15th century and have changed little in centuries since.
But on close inspection, those early cards would look strange to us: They lacked the innovations of American cardmaker Samuel Hart, who essentially invented the modern deck 150 years ago. Born to a Philadelphia family of booksellers and stationers, Hart set up his own shop in 1844 and began making playing cards in 1849; his firm would ultimately merge with others to form the New York Consolidated Card Co.
Hart was the first to commercially produce cards with rounded corners and satin finishes. He’s also credited with printing the first Anglo-American deck with corner and edge indices indicating card values, so players could hold their cards in a tight fan. His company popularized this innovation with its “Squeezers” decks (named because a player could squeeze his hand together) in the early 1870s.
Some sources also credit Hart with introducing the joker, the 53rd (and usually also 54th) card in the standard deck. The game of euchre was enjoying a boom in the US in the 1860s, and required an extra trump card. The name joker may have been derived from jucker, a German spelling of the card game euchre. By the 1880s, the joker’s depiction as a court jester—possibly inspired by the fool card in the tarot deck—had become standard, along with its role as a wildcard in poker.
Playing cards’ use in gambling dates to their invention—the first Chinese cards, in fact, may have been actual currency. The designs on early Chinese cards also echoed the game of dominoes, and in turn the tiles of mahjong likely owe their look to playing cards. Chinese “money cards” had four suits, depicting various groupings of coins.
Cards next migrated to the Islamic world, even though that religion strictly prohibits gambling. By the time of the Mamluk sultanate in 13th-century Egypt, the deck contained 52 cards in four suits—cups, swords, coins and polo sticks—with 10 number cards and three “court” cards: king, deputy king and under-deputy. In keeping with the Islamic prohibition against depicting images of people, even those “face” cards showed abstract designs.
When playing cards first arrived in Europe, the suits were translated as chalices, swords, coins and batons (because the polo stick was as yet unfamiliar). Variations of this scheme still rule in Adriatic Italy, in Spain and Mediterranean Italy (where it’s cups, swords, coins and clubs), and in Latin America. Germany, with its early printing dominance, popularized the suits as hearts, acorns, (rounded) bells and leaves. The French system of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs—and a simple red and black color scheme—originated about 1480. More stylized and thus easier to reproduce, this playing card structure came to dominate the English-speaking world as well.
The court cards initially represented king, knight and foot-servant—all male, echoing the male dominance of European courts. Even today, traditional decks of Italian, German and Spanish cards don’t have queens. The gender barrier may have first been broken as the 52-card deck was expanded into the 78 cards of the tarot. The knave didn’t become the familiar jack until indexes became popular: With K already taken as a corner abbreviation for king, Kn was potentially confusing and required an extra letter’s width, so jack was borrowed from the English card game All Fours. Gamblers’ needs to keep their hands private also inspired reversible, two-faced court cards; cards with a single face and suit sign often had to be reversed in the hand, giving away that a player held a face card.
For many years the backs of cards were blank, which caused another problem for gamblers as marks of wear became telltale. Less serious card players saw the blank backs as ready sources of paper, using cards for invitations, love notes and IOUs. Manufacturers began printing designs on the backs in the latter 18th century, later expanding to souvenir decks with scenic photos.
Almost as soon as playing cards became popular, authorities began banning and then taxing them. In 1423, St. Bernadino of Siena preached against the evils of cards in Bologna, inspiring a public bonfire of thousands of decks. The first printed mention of playing cards in English is a 1462 Parliamentary ban on their use except during Christmastime. Henry VIII later fretted that card-playing was distracting his archers from practicing.
Soon monarchs turned from banning to taxing cards. In 1628, England’s Charles I granted a royal charter to the Worshipful Co. of Makers of Playing Cards—with a duty of six pence per deck. To ensure compliance, customs officials held the ace of spades until the tax was paid. George III’s Stamp Act of 1765, which so riled American colonists, levied a one-shilling tax per deck. But Americans were little different, as George Washington restricted his soldiers’ card playing and Massachusetts celebrated independence by passing a tax on cards in 1785.
But Americans loved cards. The popularity of poker—whose lineage traces to a 16th-century game called la prime, and to the 18th-century English game of brag—grew with soldiers in the US Civil War. Col. Jacob Schenck, the US ambassador to England, taught poker to Queen Victoria in 1871. By the 1920s, poker was America’s favorite card game.
- French playing cards were associated with historical or legendary figures, with the kings representing Charlemagne (hearts), David (spades), Caesar (diamonds) and Alexander (clubs). Various names were attached to the queens, while the knaves included Lancelot (clubs) and Hector of Troy (diamonds).
- The 52 cards have been associated with the number of weeks in a year, and the 13 cards in each suit with the number of lunar months. The four suits correspond to the number of seasons.
- Mothers in 18th-century Netherlands who abandoned their children would leave half a playing card with the infant, to later reclaim by showing the other half. Those not intending to return left a whole card.
- During the French Revolution, the court cards of kings, queens and jacks, deemed too royal, were replaced with liberties, equalities and fraternities.
1462 | English Parliament bans card-playing except at Christmas
1601 | Miguel de Cervantes writes about 21, a precursor of blackjack
1628 | Charles I issues a royal charter for card-making
1700 | College of William and Mary bans card games
1743 | Edmund Hoyle publishes his first rules for whist
1864 | Samuel Hart introduces corner indices
1871 | Hart’s firm produces the “Squeezer” deck
1881 | US Playing Card Co. first produces Bicycle cards
1925 | Harold Stirling Vanderbilt introduces modern contract bridge