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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.

16: European Standard Playing Cards

A brief survey of the different types of standard cards to be found in Continental Europe.

There are many standard patterns in Europe that British people only come across when they are abroad (unless they are collectors), so I thought it would be useful to illustrate a number of these to help with identification. Since I no longer collect such packs, it's thanks again to Rex Pitts for supplying most of the scans.

There are basically three suit systems in Europe: French (spades, hearts, clubs, diamonds), German (leaves, hearts, acorns, bells), Italo-Spanish (swords, cups, clubs, coins). I illustrate each below.

French Type

Above: French in an 18th century pack of the Burgundian pattern (no longer extant); from Sylvia Mann's collection

German/Swiss Type

Above: German in a Four Seasons pattern (reproduced by Piatnik)

Above: A selection of German and Swiss suited cards

Note that the Swiss suits are different from the German ones in two of them: shields, flowers, acorns and bells.

Above: Swiss Jass cards

Italo-Spanish Type

Above: Italo-Spanish in a Catalan pattern pack made in France

The Italian swords and clubs are often interlaced, whereas the Spanish ones are separated. The interlacing comes from the traditional tarot suit arrangements, though not all Italian regional patterns have this feature.

Bolognese pattern

Neapolitan pattern

Above: Three sword cards from a Spanish non-standard pack

The Piacentine pattern with double-ended courts

And a selection of Spanish-suited cards (Neapolitan card in the centre)

All these systems of suit signs are used in the various standard regional patterns, a few of which I illustrate on other pages. The most comprehensive treatment of standard patterns is to be found in Sylvia Mann's All cards on the table/Alle Karten auf dem Tisch (1990, Jonas Verlag).

The English names of the French suit-signs are a strange mixture: pique is replaced by the borrowing of the equivalent Spanish suit-sign spade; cœur is translated directly as heart; trèfle is replaced by the translation of the equivalent Spanish suit-sign club; and diamond is anybody's guess (the French carreau means 'a paving tile').

To finish this post I'll illustrate a few more of the French-suited standard patterns.

Austrian pattern A with large crowns; oddly the box refers to "Französisches Bild", the name used in Germany for the Berlin pattern (see next item)

Berlin pattern, the North German version of the old Paris pattern


An earlier version by Lattmann, c.1900

Another early version by Stralsunder Spielkarten Fabriken

A version of the standard Berlin pattern (französisches Bild) by Stralsunder, c.1925. Note that the indices are a hybrid of English and German: K D J!!!

The Belgian version of the Paris pattern; this one was made by Artex, Budapest, with English indices. The same pattern is found in Genoa.

Dutch standard pattern; several of the courts are derived from the old Paris pattern

For some examples of earlier European standards with French suit-signs, see page 11. For further examples, see page 25.

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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...

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