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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.

3: 20th/21st Century Variants including some from China

I expect most collectors ignore cards made in China for export. It's true that many of them are close copies of American models, but there are also some interesting, even peculiar, redrawings of the standard English pattern.


I expect most collectors ignore cards made in China for export. It's true that many of them are close copies of American models, but there are also some interesting, even peculiar, redrawings of the standard English pattern. And the quality of the cards themselves has improved a great deal in recent years. So here is a selection of some finds from the last ten years or so. For a more detailed treatment of Chinese variants, see pages 54-57.

C1.2 is a redrawn version of C1.1 with both four-colour and three-colour versions. It has been oddly elongated.

US3.1 (bridge size) has long been a favourite for foreign makers to copy, either unturned or turned. A recent (turned) one has basically the same designs for the clothing, but the faces have been redesigned in the style of those of Fournier. They were imported into the UK by John Lewis.

There are numerous copies of Whitman's courts (US5.1), especially in very cheap packs, but again a recent version has been produced for Emirate Airlines. The QC has been redesigned.

A much odder version has been produced with retro backs, sold in a tin. The queens all wear odd head-dresses that make them look like samurai warriors!

Finally, the Arrco courts (US9) have been redesigned for a pack with a 3D readable back, also sold in a tin.

And there is a wide-size version in four colours, sold in the local Co-op supermarkets.

Now who says Chinese cards are boring?!


Here are some recent versions of the standard English pattern by makers not well known to me.

Tactic cards from Finland. The courts are a copy of Piatnik's.

Below is a (holed) casino pack by SNP, Australia. This is a wide-size version of the one illustrated in my book on page 321, incorrectly labelled Dealer's Choice. The pack is actually called Player's Choice.

Global Trade, Germany, redesigned courts, current:

A new design from Thailand. It has echoes of Chinese designs, e.g. the hairstyles of the kings, the open hand of the KD, but no particular model that it's a copy of.

Above: Thai Playing Card Factory, 2010

For copies of Goodall's design from Thailand, see page 22 of the blog. For more on Thai cards, see:

A recent acquisition has shown me a connection between two other packs I had and hadn't realized that they were basically the same design. The oldest example is also illustrated on page 35, a poker pack called Lexington by Angel of Japan, with all the suit signs on the right.

Above: Angel, c.1960

The recent acquisition is another poker pack by Angel from 2004, but all the courts are turned back again with the suit signs on the left.

Above: Aristo Club by Angel, 2004

The design is coloured differently, but the outline is the same. Note, in particular, the odd attribute held by the JS, and the blank top to the KC's orb with a small antenna on it! I then realized that another pack I had for Thai Airlines, this time in bridge format, is a squashed-up version of the Aristo courts, though it's earlier and has a Hong Kong AS. Note the JS's attribute again.

Above: Anonymous with Hong Kong AS, c.2000

What the relationship between card manufacture in Hong Kong, China and Japan is, I don't know, but I have other examples of their using the same designs. It may simply be a matter of copying by scanning.

Extreme redrawings

If it's oddities you like, here's a selection of weird versions of the English pattern. In some cases several of the court figures are mixed up. These examples show how difficult it is to place a clear dividing line between even standard and non-standard designs. Several of the designs below have characteristics of standard English courts, but not necessarily in the right order!! (This is a reference for British readers to the Morecambe and Wise show!)

Above: Games & Print Services, c.1995

The JC is basically the JH, KD = KC, KC = KH, and there are non-traditional figures such as the right-facing, profile KH. The firm seems to have had some connection with Richard Edward in the early days, as the joker is the same in both makers' packs at this time. These courts were quickly replaced by the courts used in the EPCS anniversary pack, which were then replaced by the more traditional figures.

There is a Swedish firm called MirrorCard who produce a pack with three redrawn courts from a Chinese version of Whitman's courts (KC/QH/JD): the same for each suit with different suit signs on the clothing.

In the 1970s Capitol Carte of Italy produced its own elaborate version of the courts with one or two changes, e.g. the orb held by KH, the QS's fan and the QC's mirror.

In c.1980 the Spanish firm, Heraldica Castanyer, had an odd design, again with a few changes, e.g. KH in right profile, unusual hairstyles on the queens and the jacks all hold strange-looking weapons.

In the 1970s Europrint Editore of Italy produced an advertising pack with just three court designs in different colours; the jacks look as though they're holding fountain pens!

Copag may have produced the otherwise anonymous pack for a South American firm of jewellers with facetted suit signs in c.2000. Some court figures are mixed up: QD = QH, JC = an odd JD, JD = JC.

The French firm, Leconte, produced a five-suit game called Ami in 1999 with a very elaborate version of the English courts plus an extra suit. It was printed in Italy.

In the 1950s Handa produced a very mixed-up set of courts in the style of those of Universal. The examples below are from a 40-card Hombre pack.

Masenghini also introduced some novel and idiosyncratic features into their revised design of the 1980s: besides the profile KC, the queens are particularly non-standard, though the QS does have her sceptre.

And finally for now, in 1981 Müller produced a pack for Ilford films in which the queens and jacks are made to look like continental court figures.


By Ken Lodge

Member since May 14, 2012

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​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...