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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.

Portuguese Type Playing Cards made in Belgium

Portuguese type pack with ‘dragon’ aces made in Belgium by Mesmaekers Frères, Turnhout, c.1875-1900

Later Portuguese Type - ‘Naipes Finos’ made in Belgium for export to Brazil, c.1880

Portuguese type pack with ‘dragon’ aces made in Belgium by Mesmaekers Frères, Turnhout, c.1875-1900 Portuguese type pack with ‘dragon’ aces made in Belgium by Mesmaekers Frères, Turnhout, c.1875-1900 Portuguese type pack with ‘dragon’ aces made in Belgium by Mesmaekers Frères, Turnhout, c.1875-1900

Above: later Portuguese type pack with 'dragon' aces, 48 cards, stencil colouring, made in Belgium by Mesmaekers Frères, Turnhout, c.1875-1900, probably for export to Brazil; lithographed engraved outlines, stencil coloured. By this date, various Belgian and German exporters of the Portuguese type misrepresented the female 'Sota' (Maid) as a crowned queen: her true rank was below the horseman. Also the small dog has disappeared from the Maid of clubs.

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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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Dragon Fight card game by Playmobil ®, 2014.

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A gorgeous deck of cards featuring the dragon art of Kerem Beyit and printed by the United States Playing Card Company.

Flutter Met St George

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‘St George and the Dragon’ game made by Chad Valley for Flutter Met Games, 1930s.

Earth Dragons and Other Rare Creatures

Earth Dragons and Other Rare Creatures

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Portuguese pattern

Portuguese pattern

19th century Portuguese pattern, re-printed from original woodblocks.

Malta

Malta

The so-called ‘Dragon Cards’, with winged monsters on the four Aces, are an enigmatic aspect of early playing card history.

27: Cards at Strangers’ Hall, Norwich

27: Cards at Strangers’ Hall, Norwich

There is a very interesting collection of playing cards held at the Strangers' Hall Museum in Norwich.

Francisco Flores

Francisco Flores

Playing cards in this style have been discovered in various parts of the world, suggesting that they were exported or carried there by early explorers or merchants.

Portuguese Type Playing Cards made in Belgium

Portuguese Type Playing Cards made in Belgium

Portuguese type pack with ‘dragon’ aces made in Belgium by Mesmaekers Frères, Turnhout, c.1875-1900

Portuguese Type Cards made in Belgium

Portuguese Type Cards made in Belgium

Portuguese Type Playing Cards made in Belgium, c.1878.

Early Spanish/Portuguese type

Early Spanish/Portuguese type

Fragment of a sheet of archaic Spanish-suited 'Dragon' playing cards found during restoration of a house in Antwerp built between 1559 and 1574

Portuguese Type Playing Cards c.1860

Portuguese Type Playing Cards c.1860

10 cards from a pack of later Portuguese ‘Dragon’ type cards from c.1860, with the Maid of batons about to club a dog.

Portuguese Playing Cards

Portuguese Playing Cards

The Real Fábrica de Cartas de Jogar was founded in 1769, by Royal Charter of King José, under the master craftsman Lorenzo Solezio, brother of Félix Solesio who ran the Spanish Real Fábrica at Macharaviaya.

16th century cards discovered in Peru

16th century cards discovered in Peru

Fragments of playing cards and 2 dice were unearthed in a 16th century rubbish tip adjacent to a Spanish house in the lower Rimac Valley in Peru, providing evidence of games played by early Spanish settlers.

Unsun Karuta

Unsun Karuta

Unsun Karuta うんすんかるた Japan c.1780.

Tensho Mekuri - Japan

Tensho Mekuri - Japan

Tensho Mekuri cards hand-made by Patricia Kirk, 2003

Japanese Playing Cards

Japanese Playing Cards

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