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U. S. A.

Playing Cards from U.S.A.

Indian Chiefs, 1899

The earliest playing cards to reach America were brought by the Spaniards  learn more →   Legends tell how sailors with Columbus, who were inveterate gamblers, threw their cards overboard in superstitious terror upon encountering storms, but later, on dry land, they regretted their rashness and so had to make new cards for themselves out of leaves. Cards of deerskin or sheepskin, painted after the manner of the old Spanish cards, have been found among the Indians of the Southwest  learn more →

Most of the early North American Colonists were British subjects who depended on playing cards imported from England to play with. Cards found their way into Puritan New England and a Plymouth Colony record of 1633 states that several persons were fined two pounds each for card-playing. In 1656 there is a Plymouth Colony law fixing the penalty for card-playing at forty shillings for adults; children and servants ‘to bee corrected att the discretion of theire parents or masters and for the second offence to bee publickly whipt.’ In the same year, in New Amsterdam, playing at tric-trac during the time of the divine service is prohibited.

Jack of Hearts

“The heathen Chinee”. This title was given to the Jack in the Far West when the game of Euchre was played, after the story of a Chinese gambler who cheated by concealing the card up his sleeve.

Playing cards and card playing have both remained contentious subjects since the early days of puritan American settlers. However, new technology can now provide a safe and convenient place for card players to congregate. Legalization of online card games in general and poker specifically is progressing across different areas of the country.

In most colonies a ship from England would bring supplies of almost everything which required some skill in manufacture. During the 18th century playing cards were sold by stationers, Post Offices, etc., and advertised in newspapers. Around this time playing cards were frequently used for secondary purposes such as invitations, admission cards or visiting cards, and some of the earliest cards have survived in this manner.

Cards Made in U.S.A.

The Steamboat Brand

Above: The Steamboat Brand.

26th Yankee Division

Above: 26th Yankee Division, 1933.

Willis W. Russell Card Co, Milltown, New Jersey

Above: Willis W. Russell Card Co, established 1905.

Norwood #85

Above: Norwood #85, c.1909.

Smart Set 400

Above: Smart Set 400 Series appealing to the social ranks of New York’s high society.

Above: Carnival Playing Cards, New Orleans, 1925.

Above: Anheuser-Busch 1899.

Above: Russell, Morgan & Co.

Above: Parker Brothers.

Ace of Spades by Jazaniah Ford, c.1824

Above: picturesque Ace of Spades by Jazaniah Ford, c.1824, in honour of General Lafayette's visit to America. The engraved Ace shows a portrait medallion of Lafayette with an eagle, boughs of bay and oak, the flag, cannon and the maker's name.

Above: Andrew Dougherty, 1848-1930

Above: Charles Bartlet (c.1845-1860)

Above: Hard-a-Port tobacco insert cards, c.1890

Above: Circus No.47, 1896

Above: Congress No.606

Above: President Suspender, c.1905

Above: “Zoom” Airplane card game by Whitman Publishing Co., 1941

The actual manufacture of playing cards in North America is reckoned to have begun during the second half of the 18th century, although it is possible that general printers or bookbinders were producing cards before then. Edward Ryves began business making paper hangings in Philadelphia, and also advertised playing-cards in 1774. James Robertson, Jazaniah Ford, born in Milton (Massachusetts) in 1757, Amos Whitney, born in 1766, Thomas Crehore, born in 1769 and James Y. Humphreys of Philadelphia were early card-makers.

To begin with there was little difference between the early home-produced decks and those imported from England  (see example →) although gradually American Aces of Spades became more picturesque than the standard English duty Aces. In addition, the English royal crown at the top of the Ace was replaced by an American eagle, with further patriotic iconography embellishing the design. Some examples of cards manufactured by the early pioneers are represented here:

Lewis I. Cohen (1832-1860)Andrew Dougherty (1848-1930)Samuel Hart (1849-1871)Charles Bartlet (c.1845-1860)Thomas Crehor c.1850Strauss & Trier c.1860Union P. C. Co (c.1870-90)Lawrence & Cohen (1864-71)Perfection P.C.Co (1885-94)Globe Card Co (1874-80)New York Consolidated Card Company (1871-1930)Continental Card Co., (1874-1880)Russell & Morgan Co., (1881-1894)National Card Co., (c.1886-1894)Standard Playing Card CoU.S.P.C.C.Victor MaugerWinters Art Lithographing Co., Chicago, 1890sKalamazoo P.C.CoRussell P.C.CoAmerican Bank Note CoCard Fabrique Company

Early playing cards in the traditional design had full-length court cards and no corner indices. This made them harder to read when the cards were fanned in the hand. Gradually attempts were made to overcome this problem, with various patented innovations leading to the standard double-ended playing cards we are familiar with today. American card-makers first introduced the Joker sometime during the 1860s followed shortly after by the introduction of indices, along with various technical improvements in the finished surface of playing cards which were all introduced during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Standard cards aside, the non-standard cards of the United States have been many and varied. The large and growing number of advertising decks, Transformation Cards, Political and Patriotic cards, Historical decks, Tarot and Fortune Telling cards, Tobacco insert decks. Railroad Souvenir decks, Pictorial decks, Exposition and World's Fair cards, children's card games and other Novelty playing cards are the true strength of North American playing card production. It would be impossible to fully represent them all, but a tiny sampling is shown here.

Over the years the pressures of competition and other market forces have led to many smaller manufacturers being taken over by larger ones. The outcome is that the United States Playing Card Company is now the largest manufacturer in the United States, and has inherited many brands previously owned by smaller manufacturers. At the same time there is a vibrant constituent of emerging new designers who are producing innovative designs in many different styles.

If any collector wishes to contribute images of early American cards to these pages, hi-res scans will be appreciated and acknowledged.


Dawson, Tom & Judy: The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards, U.S. Games Systems Inc., 2000

Hargrave, Catherine Perry: A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming, Dover Publications, New York, 1966

Heriaud, Maxime: The Early Makers, Clear the Decks, Newsletter for 52plusJoker, vol.XXIX, No.4, Dec 2015.

Starling, Rod: The Art and Pleasures of Playing Cards, Xlibris Corporation, 2008, 2010

We are grateful to Rod Starling for generously sharing knowledge and images of cards and from his collection.

Last Updated July 22, 2016 at 07:49pm


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