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Latin American Playing Cards

Playing cards had been introduced to the Americas with explorers such as Columbus or Cortés, whose fellow countrymen were keen gamblers. Cards were imported from Spain since the 16th century. Local production usually imitated Spanish cards.

Playing Cards in Central and South America

Playing cards had been introduced to the Americas with explorers such as Columbus or Cortés, whose fellow countrymen were keen gamblers. On his first voyage, Columbus discovered San Salvador Island, Hispaniola (now occupied by the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Cuba, and on his second voyage, Puerto Rico and Jamaica (1493). The following year, the Catholic Monarchs and John II of Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas to apportion the rights to future discoveries, drawing a line along the meridian 370 degrees west of Cape Verde Islands and granting Portugal all of the territory to the east of that line and Spain all of the territory to the west of it (1494).

By 1576 the Spaniards began to establish playing card monopolies in their South American dependencies from which they gathered revenues for the Spanish crown. The first of these was in Mexico and another important one was the Royal Factory at Macharaviaya. Revenue from the tax on both imported and locally manufactured cards was a significant addition to the Spanish treasury.

The precolumbian civilisations left an impressive memory of their everyday life which is still visible today, in their food and clothing, their everyday and ceremonial utensils, how their leaders looked, the images of their gods and some inkling of their customs, rites, beliefs and knowledge. Much of this appears in the many Aztec, Inca or Maya themed decks, as well as gaucho decks. Native Indian cards are a curious spin-off and the Apaches in particular, but also other tribes and ethnic groups made their own cards modelled on the Spanish pack.

More recently, in Latin America juntas and dictatorships have prevailed in many countries, but by the end of the 20th century authoritarianism had retreated and democracy moved forwards: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico and El Salvador developed multi-party systems and their economies changed, all of which affects the types and quality of playing cards found there today.

During the 18th and 19th centuries Italian card makers such as Pedro Bosio, Agostino Bergallo and Giuseppe Cattino supplied Spanish-suited playing cards to Spanish colonies in South America. During the 19th century the main market of the Cadiz naiperos was exporting to Latin America and the Philippines, as well as the many Spanish-speaking inhabitants of the United States. In 1903, for example, 76,060 decks were exported to U.S.A. Cards were also exported from Belgium and various European manufacturers such as Fournier, Comas, DondorfGoodallGrimaudMüller  USPCC and C.L. Wüst. These were usually in the Cadiz pattern. For example, Dougherty manufactured Spanish-suited cards for sale in Mexico and South America beginning in 1882.


South American pack by Wüst, late 19th century - © The Trustees of the British Museum 1896,0501.309

South American pack by Wüst, late 19th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: cards depicting indigenous people of Brazil, Peru and Mexico, published by Conrad Ludwig Wüst, late 19th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum 1896,0501.309


You can click the countries on the map...

Spanish playing cards from c.1500-c.1800

Above: Spanish playing cards exported to new Spanish colonies from c.1550 onwards. Cards like these would have been in use for the first 200-300 years or so after the first Spanish settlers arrived. (click the images to see more)


Further References

Sanz Tapia, Ángel: Culturas Precolombinas, Ajuntament de L'Hospitalet, 1994.

British Museum: uncut sheet illustrating the costumes of South America

Argentina Chile Colombia Cuba Dominican Republic Ecuador El Salvador Galapagos Islands Guatemala Honduras Mexico Panama Paraguay Peru Uruguay Venezuela Dragon Cards by Francisco Flores Spanish National Cards by Felix Solesio
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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. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.


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