The Ace of Spades in most English, American and standard English packs made in other countries is usually highly decorative, in contrast to, for example, the same card in standard Paris pattern packs. The reason for this is assumed to be that in the 18th and 19th centuries the Government of the day collected tax revenues on playing cards by making the card-makers buy their aces from the Stamp Office, which were printed by the Government. To reflect their official status, and to avoid forgery (though this was less successful in the early days), the ace was decorative. The tax was introduced in 1711, but at that time cards were merely stamped on a particular card, not necessarily the AS. In 1765 the system of buying the AS from the Stamp Office was introduced. For a detailed account of the different forms of the ace and taxes, see John Berry's Taxation on playing-cards in England from 1711 to 1960, IPCS Papers 3, 2001. Here I'll give an example of each type with the dates they were used and follow Berry's numbering system. There were also special aces for exported cards, as these were exempt from tax in this country.
Each new ace represents an increase up until the tax was at 2/6d per pack at the height of the Napoleonic wars (for details, see Berry's section 1, page 3). Ace A6 (1820-28) was the same as A5 except that George IV replaces George III, though both types continued to be used during this period. The tax was reduced to 1/- (one shilling) in 1828 and a new, more elaborate ace was produced, sometimes unappropriated to any particular maker and often rather lightly printed.
7: A7, Old Frizzle. 1828-62; 8: A8, Export, 1765-1828; 9: A10, Export, 1828-62, here unappropriated from a Whitaker pack; 10: Export to the Isle of Man only, 1828-62, always unappropriated, again from a Whitaker pack; 11: a fake Blanchard A1 AS, probably as late as 1820; 12: another tax-avoidance trick, using another ace and converting it, here an AH, though I also have examples of ACs. A9 is the George IV version of A8 (1820-28).
There were also small-size aces for the so-called piquet packs, though only one Old Frizzle of this size is known, made for Hunt & Sons (for details, see John Berry's book).
The AS is also known as the Death Card. The usual explanation is that if you were caught forging the AS, or even owning aces not assigned to you, you were taken to court by HM Government. If you were found guilty, you would be sentenced to death by hanging. This happened to Richard Harding in 1805, and again in 1838, when Henry Wheeler was found guilty, although in this case it is suggested that the sentence was commuted to transportation.
After 1862, when the tax was reduced to three pence per pack, there was no longer any requirement to indicate this or to have a fancy AS. However, it would appear that the tradition was so important to the card industry, and maybe even card-players, that ornamental aces of spades continued to be made, in many cases being registered as trademarks. This tradition was copied by American and other foreign card-makers right up to the present day. I have illustrated various ASs on the pages of this blog, but I'll present a selection of the more interesting ones here.
The following are from different makers of the post-Frizzle period, as indicated. In this square-cornered format they cover the period from 1862-90. The De La Rue ace, designed by Owen Jones, lasted a lot longer in slightly different versions, right up until 1957, when the silhouette AS was introduced.
The duty on American cards was collected via a paper stamp (for details, see Dawson & Dawson, The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards, 2000). There was no requirement for a decorative AS. Here are a few examples from the 19th century.
From other countries
The rest of the world copied the tradition, even though they had different ways of collecting the tax. Here are a few examples from the 20th century. Even today, cheap Chinese cards have decorative ASs.
Member since May 14, 2012View Articles
I'm Ken Lodge and have been collecting playing cards since I was about eighteen months old (1945). I am also a trained academic, so I can observe and analyze reasonably well. I've applied these analytical techniques over a long period of time to the study of playing cards and have managed to assemble a large amount of information about them, especially those of the standard English pattern. Read more...
“Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne” cover historical events, both honourable and treacherous, during the period 1702 to 1704.
Hall & Son
In standard English packs the Ace of Spades is associated with decorative designs. This is a historical survey of why this should be.
Dubois card makers from Liège in the Walloon Region of Belgium.
PLAYING CARDS: A Secret History
This deck was inherited from ancestors, it has has a family history surrounding it. Details of the lives of previous owners make it all so fascinating.
Video by Art of Impossible. In this video you will get a short overview of the most important historical facts about playing cards and their history.
Archaic Spanish-suited deck with 48 cards made in Toledo in 1584.
Gambling and Vice in the Hours of Charles V: card-playing in the local tavern
A facsimile of an early 19th century French-suited deck from the collection of F.X. Schmid.
Genoese pattern with Pictorial Aces for Brazil by Brepols, Turnhout, c.1920.
Reproduction of Richard Blome’s Heraldic playing cards, 1684, presented to lady guests at WCMPC Summer Meeting in 1888.
Facsimile of “Le Jeu de la Guerre” designed by Gilles de la Boissière in 1698.
Corner Indices were a major innovation in playing card production.
Baraja Carlos IV, Félix Solesio en la Real Fábrica de Macharaviaya, 1800.
A presentation of the main characteristics of the wood-block courts of the heart suit.
This is a presentation in a more straightforward fashion of the work done by Paul Bostock and me in our book of the same name.
Some further material relating to cards from nineteenth and twentieth century periodicals.
Facsimile of patriotic 1878 Tyrolean playing cards published by Piatnik in 1992.
Here are a few early advertisements relating to cards from newspapers 1684-1759 and a number of later 19th century documents of interest.
Hand-made playing cards by French prisoners of war in Porchester Castle, Hampshire, c.1796.
A continuation of the development of the off-spring of the Paris patterns and a few examples of how the French regional figures have inspired modern designers.
A great many regional patterns were exported from France and subsequently copied elsewhere. Some of them became local standards in their own right.
Continuing our look at the figures from the regional patterns of France.
On page 11 I illustrated several examples of the regional French patterns from Sylvia Mann's collection; this is a more in-depth look at the figures of these patterns ("portraits" in French).
Facsimile of Tarot de Marseille by Iohann Christoph Hes, Augsburg, c.1750.
Notgeld - Emergency Money - was in rare cases issued on playing cards.
There are some interesting packs from Goodall in the last quarter of the 19th century.
1st edition of famous Bicycle Playing Cards printed by Russell & Morgan Printing Co., Cincinnati, 1885.
Primiera Bolognese by Modiano, c.1975
Facsimile edition of Swiss suited deck first published by Johannes Müller in c.1840.
Archaic Navarra pattern produced for the Pamplona General Hospital Monopoly by Pedro Varangot in 1786.
Navarra pattern produced for the Pamplona General Hospital Monopoly in 1682.
“Money Bag” pattern by Hermanos Solesi, late 18th c.
Illustrated playing cards featuring comical engravings and rhymes about saints, c.1740.
Navarra pattern by an unknown cardmaker with initials I. I., 1793.
Anonymous archaic Spanish Suited pack, c.1760
Geographical playing cards sold by Henry Brome, second edition, c.1682.
French suited German engraved cards c1610 to 1650,