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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.

Naipes del Salitre

Playing cards recovered from the Northern Chile saltpetre workers. The cards are mostly from Spanish 'Cadiz' pattern decks, and several manufacturers can be identified.

Playing cards recovered from the saltpetre workers from Northern Chile, 1850-1940.

“En el norte de Chile hay dos historias que marcaron una época importante, la historia del salitre que data de 1850 hasta 1940, esto significó un asentamiento de miles de personas que vivían en situaciones precarias y su forma de pago mensual era con fichas, estas eran de vaquelitas, y solamente se transaban en la misma oficina salitrera. En el año 1900 fuerón abolidas por el gobierno chileno y el pago a los trabajadores era con moneda nacional, pues bien para entretenerse lo hacian através de los naipes los cuales yo los he estado coleccionando por varios años, estos tienen fecha de 1867 hacia adelante. La segunda importante sería la guerra del pacífico entre Chile y Bolivia.” - Chilean collector.

Playing cards recovered from saltpetre workers from Northern Chile, 1850-1940

Above: assorted playing cards recovered from the rubbish bins in the old saltpetre works in Northern Chile. The workers endured hard living conditions and their main form of recreation was playing cards. The cards shown here are mostly from Spanish 'Cadiz' pattern decks, and several manufacturers can be identified. Inscriptions on the cards include: "M.L.R.", "Armanino", "Fabrica del Tigre", "Naipes Finos El Gallo", "Olea Cadiz", "Tipografía y Litografía de Olea, Comedias 10 y 12, Cadiz" and "Naipes Tipolitograficos de Rodolfo de Olea Cadiz". This indicates a preponderance of cards imported from Spain and Italy.


Right: cards from a pack manufactured by Goodall & Son, Ltd, London, commemorating the Centenary of Chilean Nitrate of Soda (Saltpetre) production, 1930.

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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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