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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.

Belgian Playing Cards

Belgian cardmakers have been actively designing and exporting playing cards since the 14th century.

Belgian cardmakers have been actively designing and exporting playing cards since the 14th century. Some of the earliest documentary evidence about playing cards in Europe emanates from Belgium: accounts for money spent on playing cards; money lost whilst playing at cards, etc. This can partly be explained by the large number of paper manufacturers established in the area since the 14th century.

Cardmakers were usually regulated by the guild of painters in their area, and numerous accusations, complaints, orders and protections are recorded relating to cardmakers seeking to protect their monopolies over the years. There were also complaints of counterfeit goods of inferior quality with forged trade marks being smuggled into neighbouring France (Cremers, 1994).

Local areas of production emerged, such as Tournai, Namur, Liège, Amsterdam, Brussels & Dinant. Antwerp was a centre of playing card production in the 16th century. An intriguing deck featuring an obsolete Portuguese pattern with dragon aces survives by Gilis van den Bogarde dated 1567 here

Gilis van den Bogarde, Antwerp 1567

Above: cards by Gilis van den Bogarde, Antwerp 1567. These had a major influence on several styles of Japanese playing cards, after cards were introduced by Portuguese merchants.

A wrapper dated 1676, with the coat-of-arms of the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs, by Jean Constant Remy, Namur here

Other Belgian cardmakers include Nicolas Bodet in Brussels, Gerard Bodet in Liège, J.-B Galler and François-Jean Vandenborre in Brussels, E.A Daveluy in Bruges, the Dubois firm in Liège. Belgian playing card designs were largely subjugated to local variations of French and German patterns, including tarot cards. What has become known as the standard Belgian pattern replaced earlier patterns in around 1900.

Since the nineteenth century playing cards became the most spectacular offshoot of the Turnhout printing industry. The principal card makers in Turnhout were: Brepols (1826-1970), Van Genechten (1856-1970), Glénisson (1837-99), Mesmaekers (1859-1968), Biermans (1875-1970), La Turnhoutoise (1881-1960), all of which eventually all merged into Carta Mundi (1970-present).

These manufacturers tended to offer a similar range of cards and were in close competition with each other. Some of the most common or ‘standard’ patterns associated with Belgian cardmakers are the following:

During the nineteenth century Belgian manufacturers exported worldwide, extending their markets by producing “Chinese” cards for export to South-East Asian countries including Java, Sumatra, the Celebes, Thailand and possibly China as well.


Carta Mundi

After almost 200 years Turnhout is still a world centre for playing card production and Carta Mundi - a symbolic name indeed! - takes care that Turnhout playing cards will always "turn up trumps"...


Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart

Welcome to the Museum of the Playing Card!

In 1983 the Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart was established in Turnhout, housed in a former Mesmaekers annex. The museum contains historic manufacturing machinery, numerous exhibits with plenty of information and is well worth a visit.


In its technical presentation and the aesthetic aspect imparted to it, a playing card remains a faithful reflection of the period which produced it.

Above: double-ended provincial variant of the 'Paris' pattern which had spread to the Low Countries from Northern France, manufactured in Belgium, woodblock & stencil printing technology, c.1780-1810.

assorted Belgian playing cards, 19th century

Above: assorted Belgian playing cards, 19th century: a) English style by Mesmaekers,   b) Daveluy, 1870,   c) Spanish-suited card,   4) Brepols & Dierckx & Son, c.1865.

Above: assorted playing card designs, 20th century, by Biermans  see more →

Belgian pattern manufactured by Brepols for De Beukelaer’s Biscuits, c.1950

Above: Belgian pattern manufactured by Brepols for De Beukelaer’s Biscuits, c.1950.

BG Bouw Dutch Building Company publicity deck manufactured by Carta Mundi, c.1980

Above: BG Bouw Dutch Building Company publicity deck manufactured by Carta Mundi, c.1980.


REFERENCES

Autenboer, Dr Eugeen van: The Turnhout Playing Card Industry 1826-1976, Aurelia Books, Brussels 1976

Cremers, Filip: Kaartenmakers in Wallonië - Cartiers en Wallonie, Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart, Turnhout, 1994

Turnhout: National Museum of the Playing Card

Carta Mundi website (includes a history section).

Anonymous Delft earthenware, 19th century

See also: Brepols & Dierckx 'Bongoût' with Scenic Aces for Brasil, c.1885Jeu de Cartes Estétique Nº1World War I Commemorative, 1919Biermans Scenic Aces for Brasil, c.1920A Todos Alumbra, c.1920Dilkhus, 1922Philips Arlita, 1925Brepols Scenic Aces for Brasil, c.1930L'Union Fait la Force, 1945Renée Sturbelle, 1947Low-VisionBrussels Euro Joker Club 1998SupermanCarta Mundi Trumps Car SeriesCarta Mundi Dutch patternCarta Mundi Spanish patternP&O European ShippingP&O Stena ShippingFake Blanchard duty Ace of Spades.

Card Players by Theodoor Rombouts

Above: detail from Card Players by Flemish painter Theodoor Rombouts, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

card players at Loenhout, c.1950s

Above: card players at Loenhout, c.1950s.

Belgian beer labels

Connotations of playing cards and jokers from Belgian brewery.

We are born and all live in Turnhout. Turnhout is the playing card city of Belgium. We have the national playing card museum and of course the worldwide leader of playing card production, CartaMundi. So it was logical for us to work with playing card names for our beers. Het Nest Brouwerij

Beer labels, Het Nest Brouwerij, 2021

Above: playing card-themed beer labels, Het Nest Brouwerij, Turnhout, 2021. Turnhout is, of course, the city of 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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Belgian Playing Cards

Belgian Playing Cards

Belgian cardmakers have been actively designing and exporting playing cards since the 14th century.