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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.

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.

Sutherland’s 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. These early circular playing cards, along with an early example of ‘The Joker’, depict persons of foreign heritage in an uncomplimentary manner. Possibly made during a time of segregation, the set was presumably seen as humorous and socially acceptable in those days. The imagery of watermelons and flamboyant dress provides documentary evidence of popular culture, social history, stereotypes, ethnicity and national identity from that time and also illustrates how attitudes have changed.

Sutherland's Circular Coon Cards, c.1880

Above: Sutherland's Circular Coon Cards, c.1880. 53 circular cardboard playing cards, full deck and a joker, printed on one side in cream and navy or red with picture of African American man in stylized period costume. Contained in circular gold enamelled metal tin, with cover showing African American child eating watermelon within a spade motif. The lid of the tin reads "Circular Playing Cards / Sutherland Circular Coon Cards / As Black as the Ace of Spades / New York / Copyright / Sole Proprietors / Hartley Bros Pty ltd / 148 Swanston St. Melbourne".   Images courtesy Linda Johnson. Descriptive details from Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia →

Laughter and ridicule prevailed in the post-Civil War period and the first half of the twentieth century. These attitudes became embedded in the media artifacts of the time. In the early part of the twentieth century the desire to make insulting fun of black people was expressed by the so-called “coon card” craze. In addition to demonstrating historical change, this material can reinforce a more positive concept of multicultural society today.

See also: Master PW Circular Playing CardsPekka-PeliCir-q-lar Playing CardsHoechst FestalPharaoh Palmier PokerEl Negrito Pedro

Sutherland's Circular Coon Cards, c.1880
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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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