a brief history of De la Rue’s playing-cards
Thomas de la Rue (24 March 1793 – 7 June 1866) was born in a small hamlet in Guernsey called Le Bourg in 1793, the seventh child (of nine) of Eleazar and Rachel de la Rue. At the age of ten he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law Joseph Antoine Chevalier, a master printer in St Peter Port who produced the Gazette de l'Île de Guernsey, the first printed newspaper on the island. During this period Thomas gained a thorough knowledge of printing. In 1818 he moved to London with his family and set up shop initially as a straw hat manufacturer, but he soon diversified into bookbinding and the embossing of leather, and then into paper manufacture. By around 1828 his interests had moved to playing cards and he began to put everything he had learnt into practice. De la Rue introduced letter-press printing and certain other improvements into playing card production and was granted a patent in 1831. He produced his first playing cards in 1832 and over the years came to be recognised as the inventor of the modern English playing card.
Up til this time playing cards had been printed from woodblocks and hand-coloured using stencils. De la Rue's improvements included quicker drying coloured inks, improved glazing technology and the use of enamelled paper. Learn more →. An article in Bradshaw's in April 1842 reported that The whole of Messrs De la Rue's establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business. Between 1856 and 1868 the De la Rue output of playing cards rose from 93,060 packs in 1856 to 265,048 packs in 1868.
In 1844 Thomas de la Rue employed the graphic designer Owen Jones who in the ensuing 20 years produced 173 outstanding back designs for De la Rue ranging from fruit-and-flower themes to Chinese and Arabesque. Owen Jones also designed playing card backs for Lawrence & Cohen (USA) and his designs were imitated by other manufacturers. From 1840 until 1856 playing cards remained the firm's chief money maker and this provided a financial basis for any new fields of activity that De la Rue wished to enter. In any publicity material playing cards, their most lucrative product, received pride of place, and in 1853 Charles Dickens extolled the firm's excellence in an article called A Pack of Cards¹ which included a history of playing cards and De la Rue's part in it. Thomas de la Rue became known as the father of the English playing card.
Right: during the period c.1870-1890 indices were being introduced on playing cards. Packs are sometimes found with hand-written indices where players have improvised in interesting ways.
Besides manufacturing playing cards and card games, the firm also printed railway tickets and visiting cards for which he used his enamelled playing-card paper. De la Rue’s card games were of the highest quality and tended to be expensive. De La Rue became the principal printer of fiscal, inland revenue and postage stamps and banknotes for the UK and colonies, and over the years the best engravers and miniature designers worked for De La Rue.
In the 19th century, England was the principal exporter of playing cards to Russia and the name of De La Rue figures prominently in this connection. In 1842 Thomas De La Rue's youngest brother Paul was appointed superintendent of the Russian royal playing card monopoly and the Russian establishment became an important customer of De la Rue, and was the firm's first overseas trade... learn more →. American and Belgian court card designs have been influenced by De la Rue, and for example, Lawrence & Cohen also enjoyed the services of Owen Jones, one of De la Rue's graphic designers. De la Rue opened a New York office and a Parisian office and during the period 1867-70 De la Rue published two non-standard packs specially designed for the French market →. See also: “International Playing Cards”, 1874. De La Rue also manufactured packs for Denmark and Iran during the 1930s.
In 1921 Charles Goodall & Co. were absorbed by De La Rue. Playing cards had become more popular during World War I and there was now a great demand. The Goodall plant in Camden Town became a subsidiary of De la Rue and their well-known brand names were maintained by De la Rue. However, the duplication of efforts was a drain on profits and this was a disappointment to shareholders. At the same time the General Strike and the depression exacerbated the Company’s condition. During the early 1930s De la Rue helped out by making cards for Waddingtons during the Wills gift scheme, where miniature cards were tucked into every packet of ten Goldflake or Capstan cigarettes which could be exchanged for full-sized packs, and the firm's playing card profits began to pick up. See also: Mardon Son & Hall →
In late 1940 the old De La Rue printing works at Bunhill Row in London was destroyed by air raids. So from 1941 onwards the printing of De La Rue’s playing cards was undertaken by Waddington’s in Leeds. During this period of close cooperation, packs of cards were produced containing components of both companies. For example, a standard De la Rue brand pack with a De la Rue ace of spades and joker might also contain Waddington’s courts, and so on. The two companies joined forces and became The Amalgamated Playing Card Co on a 50-50 basis, but in 1971 De La Rue sold out to Waddington's, who then became Britain's leading playing card manufacturer. See When Three Brands Merge►
De La Rue's Cheery Families designed by Richard Doyle
The aura of domesticity which surrounded Queen Victoria and her Consort spread down the social scale, and card playing was one of the pleasures which could be shared within the large Victorian family circle. In the peaceful days before radio and television, card games were the unrivalled way of passing the time. Learn more →
The company that started life producing straw hats and playing cards almost two centuries ago has become a world leader in high security printing and payment systems technology. Thomas De La Rue International Ltd specialised in the manufacture of banknotes and other security documents, printing, currency counting machinery and money dispensers. It also has interests in the design and sale of banknote printing machinery. Click here to visit De La Rue's Corporate History website.
On Monday, 30th November, 1970, the entire De La Rue collection of playing cards was sold at auction by Sotheby's for £12,000 to the Fournier collection, Spain.
Member since February 01, 1996View Articles
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.
Limited edition gift set issued to mark the American Bicentennial, 1776-1976, produced by John Waddington Ltd and the Bristol Pottery for the British American Bicentenary Group, 1970.
Souvenir pack made for the Malta Tourism Authority, Malta, c.2000.
Nursery rhyme playing cards by Waddingtons, Leeds, UK, 1975.
South Park characters and famous one-liners, by Carta Mundi for Hasbro Int. Inc., 2001.
A five-suited set of playing cards published by Fleet and Case Games Ltd., Rainham, Kent, UK, c.1980.
52 selected views of Scotland by De La Rue (Waddingtons) for GlenAlan Ltd, Glasgow, Scotland, c.1960s.
Publicity items for a group of entertainers, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, UK, 1911.
Cards made by John Waddington Ltd. for the Madras Club, Chennai (formerly Madras), India, c.1930.
54 different personalities from the city of Inverness published by the Highland Hospice.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme covers from 1956 to 2016 published by Winning Moves UK Ltd.
Images from the Ministry of Defence Cape Wrath Training Centre, Sutherland, Scotland. Published 2010.
Celebrating the work of Andreas Vesalius in the quincentenary year of his birth.
Great Britains’s Olympic gold medallists from 1964 to 2004 published by the British Olympic Association.
Celebration of the work of David Kindersley, stone letter-carver and typeface designer. Published by the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop, Cambridge, UK, 2015.
Pack celebrating the rugby world champions of 2003. Produced by MMcardz.
Standard French designs adapted for children. Made by France Cartes for La Grande Récré, c.2016.
A recreated of the original 1876, No. 18, Triplicate deck by A. Dougherty by Michael Scott in 2014.
Triangle Playing Cards by Michael Scott.
Complete re-design of traditional pack into what the publishers considered to be ergonomically efficient.
Pack designed by Jean David (1908-93) for El Al Airlines. The courts are named after Biblical characters.
Luxury packs of cards have been produced since the 15th century, a trend that is very popular among collectors today.
“Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne” cover historical events, both honourable and treacherous, during the period 1702 to 1704.
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Comic Fortune-Telling Cards published by Reynolds & Sons, c.1850.
Comic Question & Answer cards by Josh. Reynolds & Sons, circa 1850.
Myriorama of Italian scenery, 1824.
Hand-drawn Transformation cards, c.1870.
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Sergeant-Major card game devised by W.G.Smith
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Multum in Parvo published a range of indoor games during the period from 1884-1927.
The founder of Ariel Productions, Philip Marx, was a prolific publisher of children’s books and comics towards the end of and just after the Second World War.
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Crazy People children’s card game illustrated by caricaturist and graphic artist Walter Trier, c.1950.
Panko (Votes for Women) suffragette card game published by Peter Gurney Ltd, c.1912.
Anonymous Snap game, 1930s.
Panto People published by E. S. & A. Robinson, c.1930s.