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a brief history of De la Rue's playing-cards

a brief history of De la Rue's playing-cards

Thomas de la Rue was born in a small hamlet in Guernsey called Le Bourg in 1793, the seventh child (of nine) of Eleazar and Rachel de la Rue. At the age of ten he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law Joseph Antoine Chevalier, a master printer in St Peter Port who produced the Gazette de l'Île de Guernsey, the first printed newspaper on the island. During this period Thomas gained a thorough knowledge of printing. In 1818 he moved to London with his family and set up shop initially as a straw hat manufacturer, but he soon diversified into bookbinding and the embossing of leather, and then into paper manufacture. By around 1828 his interests had moved to playing cards and he began to put everything he had learnt into practice. De la Rue introduced letter-press printing and certain other ‘improvements’ into playing card production and was granted a patent in 1831. He produced his first playing cards in 1832 and over the years came to be recognised as the inventor of the modern English playing card.

One of De la Rue's earliest pack of playing cards c.1832

Above: one of De la Rue's earliest packs of playing cards c.1832, printed by letter-press but imitating traditional woodblock printing. The court figures are full-length. The 'Old Frizzle' Ace of Spades carries the duty of one shilling at the top and has the text "By His Majesty's Royal Letters Patent" printed at the bottom which had been granted to Thomas de la Rue by King William IV for 'certain improvements in making or manufacturing and ornamenting playing cards.' This Ace, with the extra legend, was registered in August 1832, whereas before the patent was granted a normal 'Old Frizzle' Ace was used. The Aces of Spades were printed in the Stamp Office at Somerset House and an account of the numbers of Aces was kept there by the authorities.

De la Rue's new fancy designs, c.1840-65

Above: a redrawn set of single-ended court cards with more intricate patterns on the clothing, printed typographically, which became the basis for all later double-ended courts. In this case the cards are in the slightly smaller Piquet size, with Continental style suit symbols.

Up til this time playing cards had been printed from woodblocks and hand-coloured using stencils. De la Rue's ‘improvements’ included quicker drying coloured inks, improved glazing technology and the use of enamelled paper. Learn more →.   An article in Bradshaw's in April 1842 reported that “The whole of Messrs De la Rue's establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business.” Between 1856 and 1868 the De la Rue output of playing cards rose from 93,060 packs in 1856 to 265,048 packs in 1868.

Above: 'Pigmy' playing cards with 'Dexter' indices, c.1890.

In 1844 Thomas de la Rue employed the graphic designer Owen Jones who in the ensuing 20 years produced 173 outstanding back designs for De la Rue ranging from fruit-and-flower themes to Chinese and Arabesque. Owen Jones also designed playing card backs for Lawrence & Cohen (USA) and his designs were imitated by other manufacturers. From 1840 until 1856 playing cards remained the firm's chief money maker and this provided a financial basis for any new fields of activity that De la Rue wished to enter. In any publicity material playing cards, their most lucrative product, received pride of place, and in 1853 Charles Dickens extolled the firm's excellence in an article called ‘A Pack of Cards’ which included a history of playing cards and De la Rue's part in it. Thomas de la Rue became known as ‘the father of the English playing card’.

Standard double ended pack c.1860

Above: a standard double-ended pack manufactured by De la Rue in c.1860… no indices, square corners. As in the examples shown above, the 'Old Frizzle' Ace of Spades refers to De la Rue's patent, granted in 1831. Click here to see more cards c.1900

De la Rue's Patent Ivory Playing Cards, c.1900

Above: De la Rue & Co's “Patent Ivory Playing Cards” in their tax wrapper, with the “King Henry the VIII” wrapper showing beneath, c.1900.

Besides manufacturing playing cards and card games, the firm also printed railway tickets and visiting cards for which he used his enamelled playing-card paper. De La Rue became the principal printer of fiscal, inland revenue and postage stamps and banknotes for the UK and colonies, and over the years the best engravers and miniature designers worked for De La Rue.

In the 19th century, England was the principal exporter of playing cards to Russia and the name of De La Rue figures prominently in this connection. In 1842 Thomas De La Rue's youngest brother Paul was appointed superintendent of the Russian royal playing card monopoly and the Russian establishment became an important customer of De la Rue, and was the firm's first overseas trade... learn more →.   American and Belgian court card designs have been influenced by De la Rue, and for example, Lawrence & Cohen also enjoyed the services of Owen Jones, one of De la Rue's graphic designers. De la Rue opened a New York office and a Parisian office and during the period 1867-70 De la Rue published two non-standard packs specially designed for the French market →. See also: “International Playing Cards”, 1874.   De La Rue also manufactured packs for Denmark and Iran during the 1930s.

De La Rue jokers De La Rue Advertising pack for Manchester Evening News

Above: Assorted playing cards made by De La Rue. 'Rufford' packs were made especially for Boots the Chemist, c.1930-55.

In 1921 Charles Goodall & Co. were absorbed by De La Rue leaving only one competitor in the market: Waddington's. Playing cards had become more popular during World War I and there was now a great demand. The Goodall plant in Camden Town became a subsidiary of De la Rue and their well-known brand names were maintained by De la Rue. However, the duplication of efforts was a drain on profits and this was a disappointment to shareholders. At the same time the General Strike and the depression exacerbated the Company's condition. During the early 1930s De la Rue helped out by making cards for Waddingtons during the Wills gift scheme, where miniature cards were tucked into every packet of ten Goldflake or Capstan cigarettes which could be exchanged for full-sized packs, and the firm's playing card profits began to pick up.   See also: Mardon Son & Hall →

Film Star Playing Cards by Thomas de la Rue & Co., Ltd for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Above: Film Star Playing Cards by Thomas de la Rue & Co., Ltd for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1933  see more →

In 1940 the old De La Rue printing works at Bunhill Row in London was destroyed by air raids. After the war, the printing of De La Rue's playing cards was undertaken by Waddington's in Leeds. In 1963 the two companies joined forces and became The Amalgamated Playing Card Co. on a 50-50 basis, but in 1969 De La Rue sold out to Waddington's, who then became Britain's leading playing card manufacturer.

Back designs by De la Rue

Above: assorted nineteenth century back designs by Thomas de la Rue & Co., Ltd. See also: Owen Jones.

Thomas De La Rue (1793-1866)

Thomas De La Rue (1793-1866)

Thomas De La Rue (1793-1866)

Thomas De La Rue (1793-1866), pioneer printer of the Victorian era, an historic figure for playing card collectors and philatelists.
(Click to view full portrait)

Ace of Spades c.1862 - c.1950 Ace of Spades c.1957 Ace of Spades for Lawrence & Cohen, c.1862 Alice in Wonderland card game, c.1900 Animal Grab card game, c.1900 Pigmy playing cards with 'Dexter' indices, c.1890 De la Rue's special trade mark

Above: "Pneumatic" playing cards were another of De la Rue's patented innovations.

Advertising for Vactric Vacuum Cleaners Swastika design playing cards, mid-to-late 1920s

Above: memories of a former playing card cutter who worked for De la Rue c.1880-1920.

Picart le Doux Joker c.1957

De La Rue's “Cheery Families” designed by Richard Doyle

The aura of domesticity which surrounded Queen Victoria and her Consort spread down the social scale, and card playing was one of the pleasures which could be shared within the large Victorian family circle. In the peaceful days before radio and television, card games were the unrivalled way of passing the time.   Learn more →

Cheery Families, De La Rue, c.1890

Above: Cheery Families children's card game designed by Victorian artist and illustrator Richard Doyle, manufactured by De La Rue, London, c.1890.   See more →

The company that started life producing straw hats and playing cards almost two centuries ago has become a world leader in high security printing and payment systems technology. Thomas De La Rue International Ltd specialised in the manufacture of banknotes and other security documents, printing, currency counting machinery and money dispensers. It also has interests in the design and sale of banknote printing machinery. Click here to visit De La Rue's Corporate History website.

On Monday, 30th November, 1970, the entire De La Rue collection of playing cards was sold at auction by Sotheby's for £12,000 to the Fournier collection, Spain.


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