“Historical Characters” playing cards printed by Waddington’s for Thermawear Ltd, 1994
Rick Davidson's “Origins” playing cards is an inspired, present-day re-design of the standard Anglo-American deck
Playing cards designed by Hans Sebald Beham (1500–1550)
Anonymous archaic Spanish Suited pack, c.1720
After the development of printing at the end of the 15th century, Rouen became an important centre for card-making whose influence extended far afield. Cards from Rouen are significant because they became the model from which our English pack subsequently evolved.
Soon after their first appearance in Europe we hear of playing cards being banned by the authorities. They brought with them anti-social behaviour on account of the dishonest characters, gamblers and card-cheats who were drawn to the less-reputable gaming houses.
Over the years the origin of Blackjack, like many other games, has eluded researchers for a long time and which continues to be hotly debated to this day.
The court cards in English packs of playing cards derive from models produced by Pierre Marechal in Rouen around 1565. A pack of such cards is preserved in the museum at Rouen.
While card rooms and private gaming clubs may have been around for hundreds of years, the earliest known European casino of the type gamblers know today is probably the Casino at Monte Carlo.
The Gothic age, from the 13th - 15th centuries, saw fundamental economic and religious changes. The centre of gravity shifted from the land to the towns. A new form of economy evolved, based on production for sale and exchange, in which merchants and craftsmen played increasingly important roles.
Out of an apparent void, a constellation of references in early literature emerge pointing to the sudden arrival of playing cards, principally in Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy around 1370-1380.
The format of the pack - suit symbols, numeral cards, court hierarchy - has served many secondary purposes beyond a gaming device.
Luxury hand-painted packs were only available to a few, who enjoyed them privately or with select company. The printed or mechanically-produced versions, cruder in design and execution, were viewed simultaneously by larger audiences but were prone to deteriorate more rapidly.
The idea of suit symbols may have originated with Chinese 'Money' cards. However, the suits that made their way into Europe were probably an adaptation of the Islamic cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks.
The first European references to playing cards date from the 1370s and come from Catalonia (Spain), Florence, France, Sienna, Viterbo (Italy), southern Germany, Switzerland and Brabant. Most of these refer to 'a recent introduction'.
A cluster of early literary references refer to the game being introduced by 'a Saracen', 'the Moorish Game' etc.
Prohibitions of card playing and denunciations by preachers demonstrate their widespread use for gambling. It was a pastime that attracted card sharps, gamblers, cheats, swashbucklers and rogues... living by their wits. The emotional outbursts and bad behaviour upon losing were seen as immoral.
This page is a quiz to test your knowledge of the early history of playing-cards.
With the onset of the Renaissance in Italy, the new spirit of Humanism was spreading through Europe bringing a change of form and direction. The design of playing cards reflected these changes, in their style and thematic content.
Online casinos appeared shortly after the internet became a more mainstream tool for the public to use
By about 1500 three main suit systems had evolved: Latin (including Italian, Spanish and Portuguese); Germanic (German and Swiss) and French (which has become the 'Anglo-American' suit system).
Imagery on many early playing cards resembles the stock repertory of animals, plants, birds and flowers which recurs almost identically in the marginal drollery, miniature illustrations and trompe l'oeil of widely divergent manuscripts, and in sculpture.
Cards from a pack of an early form of north Italian playing cards, with the swords back-to-back and curved outwards. Believed to be Venetian, dated 1462.
The first reliable evidence that playing cards were being used in Italy is from 1376, when a game called 'naibbe' is forbidden in a decree, with the implication that the game had only recently been introduced there.
The costumes and details of this pack are in the spirit of "The Heroic Period of Irish History".
Italy is said to be the birthplace of the tarot, which according to playing-card historians was originally a card game invented in the fifteenth century.