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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.

Chromolithography

Colour lithography was invented in 1798 by a Bavarian actor and playwright named Alois Senefelder (1771-1834). It is based on the principle that oil and water do not mix.

Playing card printed by chromolithography, c.1850

Right: mid-nineteenth century children's playing card in which the black outline drawing has been printed by lithography and the coloured areas applied by hand with a paint brush, c.1850   see more →

Printing of Playing Cards :: Chromolithography

It is based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. The process involves the artist drawing the design directly onto a highly polished lithographic stone (carboniferous limestone) using a greasy, acid resistant pigment. When the stone is then placed in a weak acid the uncoloured areas are etched by the acid, leaving the painted areas intact and ready to be used as a printing surface. For multi-colour printing, several stones would be prepared, one for each colour. Gradations of colour were achieved by applying hundreds of tiny dots of each colour on their respective stones, so that when each stone was printed onto the paper the resultant area would be printed with multiple dots of different colours which to the human eye would appear realistic. But if a magnifying glass is used to examine the printed areas, the presence of irregular, multicoloured dots will indicate that the card was printed by the chromolithographic method. Furhermore there will be no “ink squeeze” as with letterpress printing.

Playing card printed by chromolithography, Goodall & Son, London, c.1897

Above: 'Historic' playing card printed by chromolithography, Goodall & Son, London, c.1897, showing the irregular, multicoloured dots which indicate that the card was printed by the chromolithographic method   see more →

This process, known as chromolithography, was one of the more popular methods of printing playing cards during the 19th century and at its height produced very high quality colour prints. It continued to be used until the late 1930s to produce inexpensive, “cheap and cheerful” colour images and zinc sheets eventually replaced the heavier and more expensive limestones. The B. Dondorf factory in Germany was especially famous for its beautiful chromolithography playing cards, and Spanish, French, Belgian, Swiss, British and American firms also used this process for playing card production.

Advertising playing Cards for Chocolates El Barco designed by E. Pastor, Valencia, Spain, c.1895

Above: chromolithographed advertising playing cards for Chocolates "El Barco" designed by E. Pastor and manufactured by Simeon Durá, Valencia, Spain, c.1895.  See more →

See also:   Amos Whitney's Factory Inventory   Design of Playing Cards   Make your own Playing Cards   Letterpress Printing   Manufacture of Cardboard   Manufacture of Playing Cards, 1825   Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee, 1897   The Art of Stencilling.

Further reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromolithography

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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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