Livonians were amongst "the godless hosts of heathen swarming o'er the northern sea" along with Viking, Scandinavian and Icelandic pirates. Latvia was Christianised during the 13th century, and has been ruled successively by Poland, Sweden and Russia. Playing cards in Latvian are called Spēlu Kārtis. Latvians were apparently introduced to playing cards by the Swedes, because the word for court cards Kungs comes from the Swedish Kung (which means King). The meaning of Kungs in Latvian is Gentleman or Sir.
A 36-card Madame Lenormand type cartomancy deck was published in Latvia in 1876 by J. Schablowsky of Jelgava, titled Game of Happiness. The illustrations were in black and white and a Gothic typeface was used for the divinatory meanings printed on each card. The cards were decorated with astrological and zodiac symbols in the margins and featured a miniature playing card in the top left-hand section of each card.
Ordinary playing cards with Latvian costumes were published for the first time in Riga in March 1918 supported by the government of Kaiser's Germany with the intention of involving the Baltic area in Germany's political agenda see more →. In November 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed an independent democratic state. Just two days later – November 20, 1918 - eminent Latvian doctors, lawyers, engineers and public officials signed a protocol founding the first Latvian Red Cross Society (see further below). The best self-affirming Latvian National playing card designs were produced just after independence, during the period 1921-1942. The first national Latvian pack was designed by graphic artist Prof. Rihards Zarinš in 1921 see more →.
From 1919-1921 there were no tax stamps on Latvian playing cards. Regulations passed by the Cabinet of Ministers in 1922 decreed that only the Latvian Red Cross had legal rights in Latvia to import, produce or sell playing cards. Packs were to be wrapped inside special wrappers with the Latvian Red Cross insignia and/or a tax stamp on the Ace of Hearts. This regulation was in force until the German occupation in 1941.
Over the years around 20 different original packs have been produced in Latvia by different graphic artists. In addition a number of Russian type packs have been published with Latvian company's advertisements on the reverse.