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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.

Alf Cooke’s Playing Cards

Alf Cooke was an important producer of playing cards and card games in the UK during the period 1920-1970.

Brief History of Alf Cooke’s Playing Cards

British Playing Cards • Universal Playing Card Company Limited • Alf Cooke Limited

Alf Cooke 1866 - 1970

Above: a selection of Alf Cooke’s playing cards ~ click any card to see more.

Alf Cooke was an important producer of playing cards and card games in the UK during the period 1920-1970. The company had been founded in 1866 by Alf Cooke, in Leeds, as a general printer. During the years 1920-25 playing cards were produced under the name of ‘British Playing Cards’ with unusual court card designs which may have been a forerunner of ‘Universal Playing Card Company Limited’ who commenced producing playing cards in c.1925. There is some stylistic similarity between the two.

With a growing range of products including ‘Crown Point’ and ‘Club De Luxe’, the Universal Playing Card Co. Ltd became the sole supplier of playing cards to Woolworths under the ‘New Bond’ and ‘Pictorial’ brand names. They also produced standard and luxury sets with gold edges for the stationery and cigarette card markets, including the stationer and importer L.G. Sloan. The court cards were printed in either 3 or 4 colours, red, yellow and black, or with the addition of blue,  see example →

early Pictorial Series with Bridge Scoring table, 1920s

Above: early ‘Pictorial Series’ with Bridge Scoring table, 1920s. Image courtesy Matt Probert.

Advertising Deck for Grant's Whisky by Universal Playing Card Co. Ltd, 1932-1934

Above: narrow sized advertising deck for Grant's Whisky by Universal Playing Card Co. Ltd, 1932-1934. Image courtesy Matt Probert.

During the 1930s an attractive range of cards was produced for Scandinavian countries including Denmark, Iceland and Romania.

Warburg's Luxus Bridgekort designed by Barbara MacDonald and printed by Universal Playing Card Co. Ltd in c.1930.

Left: four court cards from A/S Emil Jensen's “Warburg's Luxus Bridgekort” designed by Barbara MacDonald and printed by Universal Playing Card Co. Ltd in c.1930.


Alf Cooke Ltd, Crown Point Leeds factory seal

Alf Cooke Limited’, with ‘Universal Playing Card Co’ as a subtitle, appeared on the Aces of Spades from around 1955 onwards, until the business was taken over by the Amalgamated Playing Card Company Ltd, that was then a subsidiary part of Waddingtons, in 1971. The stock and machinery were transferred to Waddingtons and the production of Alf Cooke playing card brands and court card designs ceased. Over the years, Alf Cooke Limited produced a colourful range of standard English playing cards with many art-deco style pictorial back series, fortune-telling and tarot cards, as well as card games for children and adults.

1930s belle New Bond Playing cards, c.1936
New Bond Playing Cards, c.1965 Pictorial Playing Cards, c.1965
Coronation Souvenir, 1953 De Luxe Quality Playing Cards, c.1935
Crown Point Works, Leeds

Above: Crown Point Works, Alf Cooke's playing card factory in Leeds (UK) which is now a listed building.

General view of the Playing Card department

Above: general view of the Playing Card department.

Universal Playing Card Co. Ltd also published packs specially prepared for magicians and conjurers. These packs included cards of slightly different sizes, packs with multiple copies of the same card, cards with backs or faces on both sides, etc.

special pack of playing cards for magicians

Above: special pack of playing cards for magicians in which half the cards in the pack are identical Sevens of Spades.   see more

Aces of Spades and Jokers 1925-1970

Aces of Spades, c.1925-1970

Above: the commonest Alf Cooke Aces of Spades: Universal Playing Card Co. Ltd (1925-55); Universal Playing Card Co. (1930-50); 3. Alf Cooke Limited (1955-70). There are no cut & dried date lines, as the various aces and jokers can be found occurring at different times in different combinations, along with small changes in the plates and miniature pip shapes in the corners over the years. There are several other Jokers but they were manufactured for Scandinavian countries (which have the word 'Joker' instead of 'The Joker'), and also 'single pip' aces of spades, i.e not ornamental.

Above: another anonymous ace of spades with the 1935 Bridge Scoring card. Courtesy Matt Probert.

Above: special aces with brand advertising.

Above: special ace of spades for British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd produced by Alf Cooke, 1960s. Courtesy Matt Probert.

Above: Alf Cooke produced a range of quality cards in telescopic boxes with the brand "Park Lane" in the late 1950s and 1960s with glamour models on the back. These were described as having a "plastic finish" or later "Superior plastic finish". Images courtesy Matt Probert.


Other Productions

Romany Fortune Telling Cards, 1935 Romany Fortune Telling Cards, 1935 Thomson-Leng Tarot Cards, 1935

REFERENCES

Goodall, Michael: ‘Alf Cooke Ltd: Printer and Playing-Card Maker’ in The Playing-Card, journal of the International Playing-Card Society, Volume 31 No.4, Jan/Feb 2003, pp.157-170.

Lodge, Ken: The Standard English Pattern (second revised and enlarged edition), Bungay, Suffolk, 2010

Thanks to Matt Probert for additional research. Universe No.100 Playing Cards Five 'O One Playing Cards Romanian Playing Cards Icelandic Chess Playing Cards Danbrit Playing Cards

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

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