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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

Welcome to the World of Playing Cards community! Here we celebrate the cultural heritage and history of playing cards, and the many ways in which they bring people together. Playing cards have been shared and enjoyed for centuries for everything from games and gambling to fortune-telling, magic and conjuring. Today they continue to be a popular and educational pastime for people of all ages and backgrounds.

We invite you to explore this exciting and vibrant aspect of our social history with us and see how things have changed over the years. Whatever your interest in cards, you'll find something interesting here. If you wish to make a contribution just get in touch

Explore Archives

National Geographic Nature

National Geographic Nature playing cards, 2006.

Editors' Picks

Mercury One-2-One Situations
Mercury One-2-One Situations

Mercury ‘One-2-One Situations’ playing cards published by Mercury Communications.

Pelaco
Pelaco

‘Pelaco’ playing cards with Aboriginal characters by Sands & McDougall, Australia, c.1930.

Jacob Bagges AB
Jacob Bagges AB

Playing cards published by Jacob Bagges AB Stockholm, close copies of Dondorf designs.

Litografías Industrias Madriguera
Litografías Industrias Madriguera

Pictorial trade cards were becoming popular throughout Europe so that tea, tobacco, chocolate or even beef extract were the commodities most associate...

Artists & Designers


The History of Playing Cards

Scene of people playing cards

Playing cards arrived in Europe the late 14th century and rapidly became a part of popular culture. Antique playing cards are like a visit to the local museum and evoke images of past eras and ways of life and also demonstrate archaic technology or production methods. So what do the oldest surviving playing cards look like?


Progressive Whist Cards

Progressive Whist Cards

There are references to “progressive whist” or “whist drives” during the 19th and early years of the 20th century but this form of the game came into its own during the 1920s and 30s.

Lombardy (or Milanesi) pattern

Lombardy (or Milanesi) pattern

The origins of the Lombardy pattern probably lie in the early 19th century when it was a full-length design. It has some affinities with the French Provence and Lyons patterns which are now obsolete.

Prisoners of War

Prisoners of War

Hand-made playing cards by French prisoners of war in Porchester Castle, Hampshire, c.1796.

Heraldic playing cards

Heraldic playing cards

Reproduction of Richard Blome’s Heraldic playing cards, 1684, presented to lady guests at WCMPC Summer Meeting in 1888.


35: More Design Copies

35: More Design Copies

Here I want to take another widely copied design and see how individual variation by the copier can take the original design through a lot of changes. I shall take the three USPCC designs: US3 (wide), US3.1 (bridge) and US4 (wide). To the best of my knowledge these are no longer used in the US, except perhaps for special productions, as in the retro market.

9: Standard English Cards From Latin America: Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela

9: Standard English Cards From Latin America: Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela

A continuation of the survey of designs used in Central and South America.

57: China 3

57: China 3

A third and final look at some Chinese cards.

31: The Not-So-Minor Cardmakers of the 19th Century - Part 2

31: The Not-So-Minor Cardmakers of the 19th Century - Part 2

This page continues the presentation of examples of the major English cardmakers of the 19th century.


United Kingdom

Round the World

Round the World

Round the World card game published by Pepys, 1961.

King Christian of Denmark

King Christian of Denmark

In 1935 a souvenir pack of playing cards to celebrate the King's 65th birthday was commissioned from the British firm of De La Rue.

United States of America

New York Consolidated Card Company

New York Consolidated Card Company

The New York Consolidated Card Company was formed in 1871 by the merging of Lawrence & Cohen, Samuel Hart & Co and John J. Levy.

World’s Fair Souvenir

World’s Fair Souvenir

One of a series of Columbian Exposition Souvenir Playing Cards published during 1892-94 celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas.


Spain

Canary Islands Souvenir

Canary Islands Souvenir

Canary Islands Souvenir by Heraclio Fournier, c.1970.

America

America

“America” playing cards designed by Teodoro N Miciano, 1960.

Latin America Conosur

Pasatiempos Gallo

Pasatiempos Gallo

Following their acquisition of Clemente Jacques y Cia in 1967, the playing card business was taken over by Pasatiempos Gallo S.A., which in 1990 became Pasatiempos Gallo S.A. de C.V.

Amos del Universo

Amos del Universo

“Amos del Universo” card game published by Litografía Goicochea Hnos, S.A., Lima, Peru, c.1980.


Japan

Japanese Playing Cards

Japanese Playing Cards

Japanese playing cards include: 'Awase' or 'matching pairs' cards and Portuguese or Spanish-derived 'Dragon' type cards.

Mos Burger

Mos Burger

Advertising deck for Mos Burger, one of the largest hamburger chains in Japan, 2015.

China

Hokkien Four Colour Cards

Hokkien Four Colour Cards

The characters on the cards are written one way for red and yellow, and another for green and white. They are: 將 士 象 車 馬 包 兵 for white and green; 帥 仕 相 俥 傌 炮 卒 for red and yellow.

Titicaca ® Playing Cards

Titicaca ® Playing Cards

Each card in this novelty deck, subtitled “Funny Card”, carries information about a prestigious or popular brand.


Explore Collecting Themes

Advertising Collecting Themes

advertising playing cards

Closely following the development of visual advertising in general, such as on labels, packaging and posters, advertising playing cards are used in pubs and cafés and are a popular publicity item. Some packs are widely distributed, others are more exclusive. In some cases single cards are collected from inside the advertised product to complete a full set.


Coricidin Demilets

Coricidin Demilets

Coricidin Demilets pharmaceutical playing cards, 1967.

Esveco Specialities B.V.

Esveco Specialities B.V.

Alto Imaging Group playing cards manufactured by Esveco Specialities B.V., c.1990s

Alfred Marks

Alfred Marks

Alfred Marks Recruitment Consultants publicity playing cards published by Astra Games

Philips Sept Familles

Philips Sept Familles

“Philips Sept Familles” promotional happy families game from the 1970s


Art & Design Collecting Themes

Design Caricatures Abstract Cartoon Celtic Deco Jugendstil Renaissance Rococo Surrealism

The playing card calls for artistic treatment and although the constrained size imposes some limitations there is an almost bewildering wealth and variety of designs in playing cards and their tuck boxes. The serious player requires design to be unobtrusive so that aesthetic considerations remain in the background. However, with modern manufacturing technology more eye-catching designs are becoming popular as gifts, collectibles and for their attractive appearance.


Les Mousquetaires

Les Mousquetaires

Philibert "Les Mousquetaires" Playing Cards, designed by Albert Dubout (1905-1976).

Kalevala

Kalevala

Kalevala playing cards by Sunish Chabba and Ishan Trivedi inspired by ancient Finnish mythology.

Vaivorykste

Vaivorykste

Vaivorykštė ('the Rainbow') playing cards manufactured in Lithuania by Spindulys, 1930s. The deck has been reprinted by Fournier (Spain, 2004) and also in Lithuania.

Desafio Football Caricatures

Desafio Football Caricatures

“Desafio” playing cards with football player caricatures, c.2000


Playing Cards Icon Card Games Collecting Themes

Games Childhood Currency Educational Happy Families Pepys Games Logo Jaques Faulkner Quartet Snap Spelling
Schwarzer Peter Cards

The games we play mirror the world we live in, like popular art. There was a time when friends and family played indoor games by the fireside and enjoyed countless hours of pleasure and amusement. Children don’t play card games so much because they prefer computer games, the ultimate excitement. Antique and vintage card games offer documentary evidence, as well as nostalgic memories, of the social interaction, fashions and stereotypes of bygone days and are a study in social anthropology.

French card games are mostly Jeux des Sept Familles. German games are often pleasing on the eye, and they seem to favour quartet games. USA love quartets of world worthies like authors, painters, composers. Games are not simply an escape from the real world, they are also educational and provide a place to process what it all means.


Most Laughable Thing on Earth

Most Laughable Thing on Earth

The Most Laughable Thing on Earth, or, A Trip to Paris published by H. G. Clarke & Co., London, c.1870.

District Messenger

District Messenger

District Messengers were uniformed young men wearing little pill-box hats and mounted on bicycles who fulfilled urgent tasks and were paid by the mile

Union Jack

Union Jack

Union Jack card game published by C.W. Faulkner & Co., c.1897-1902.

My Word

My Word

My Word “The last word in card games” designed by Michael Kindred and Malcolm Smith, published in 1980 by Waddingtons.


Oracle, Divination & Tarot Collecting Themes

The art of interpreting divine omens - augury or reading karma - have since ancient times been integral to political, civic and religious life.

More recently, Cartomancy and modern esoteric tarot packs have been produced in a wide variety of conceptions and involve use of imagination and intuition to assess one’s thoughts and feelings from the view point of the symbolic images and numbers. It is possible for an object to be construed as a game in one context, and as something other than a game in a different context.

Tarot, originally a 15th century card game, has evolved into a popular system of personal mysticism, self-exploration and spirituality   more


Housewives Tarot

Housewives Tarot

The ‘Housewives Tarot’ designed by Paul Kepple & Jude Buffum, published by Quirk Books, 2004.

Playing Card Oracles - Alchemy Edition

Playing Card Oracles - Alchemy Edition

Playing Card Oracles - Alchemy Edition - by Charles J. Freeman and Ana Cortez

Tarocco Piedmontese by Fabrica de Naipes La Primitiva, Bs Aires

Tarocco Piedmontese by Fabrica de Naipes La Primitiva, Bs Aires

Tarocco Piedmontese by Fabrica de Naipes La Primitiva, Defensa 125, Buenos Aires c.1890.


Transformation Collecting Themes

Two Pips Icon The best-known fantasies with playing cards are the ‘Transformation’ cards. Hand-drawing ‘transformations’ onto a pack of ordinary playing cards, with the suit symbols forming part of the overall composition, became a popular pastime 200 years ago and a test of skill in drawing. A great deal of ingenuity is required in their design. The earliest printed sets were published at the start of the 19th century, often published in the form of an almanac or sometimes known as ‘metastasis’, and these became a fashionable and entertaining novelty.

In the strict sense of the word ‘Transformation’ the pips should be in their standard positions and form part of, or fit into, the overll image portrayed on the card.


Carl Arnold Transformation

Carl Arnold Transformation

Transformation playing cards designed by Carl Johann Arnold (1829-1916), the court artist for King Friedrich Wilhem IV of Prussia

Transformation Playing Cards, 1811

Transformation Playing Cards, 1811

Transformation playing cards, first published in 1811, in which each card bears a picture in which the suit marks are concealed within the design. This artistic exercise began as an 18th century parlour game and pastime.


Magic & Conjuring Collecting Themes

Magic Poker Cards

Magic Poker Cards

“Magic Poker Cards” are often found inside Christmas crackers along with party hats, puzzles and jokes...

Conjuring and Magic

Conjuring and Magic

The art of mystifying people is very old indeed. The first conjurers were priests who obtained power over simple minds by performing magical tricks which appeared to have a supernatural origin.

Portuguese Conjuring Playing Cards

Portuguese Conjuring Playing Cards

Portuguese Conjuring Playing Cards, c.1850.

Catalogue of Magic Card Tricks

Catalogue of Magic Card Tricks

Gamagic Catalogue of Magic Card Tricks, c.1940. Everyone is familiar with playing cards, which makes them a ready medium for magical performance.

Recent Changes

Circular Coon Cards
Circular Coon Cards

Circular playing cards in a round tin titled: Sutherland's Circular Coon Cards published by Hartley Bros Pty Ltd, Australia, late 19th century.

Donald’s Circular Snap
Donald’s Circular Snap

Donald’s Circular Snap published by Pepys, 1951.

National Geographic Nature
National Geographic Nature

National Geographic Nature playing cards, 2006.

Portuguese Conjuring Playing Cards
Portuguese Conjuring Playing Cards

Portuguese Conjuring Playing Cards, c.1850.

Vier-Erdteile c.1870
Vier-Erdteile c.1870

Dondorf's Luxus-Spielkarte “Vier-Erdteile” (“Four Continents”) was first published in c.1870 and has been re-published in several editions, variations and formats since then.

Kinder-Karte
Kinder-Karte

First published in c.1870, children are presented in these miniature Patience cards disguised as Kings, Queens and Jacks. The Kings' crowns are slightly over-sized for their heads and the children are wearing false beards.

Four Continents Patience
Four Continents Patience

Dondorf's 'Four Continents' Patience, c.1910.

Playing Cards by J J Nunes
Playing Cards by J J Nunes

Playing Cards by J J Nunes, Lisbon, Portugal