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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.

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Harry Margary

6 Articles

The Beggars’ Opera

The Beggars’ Opera Playing Cards were first published in 1728. The cards carry the words and music of the songs from Gay’s opera, which was intended as a parody of current Italian works. The music was taken from many popular tunes of the day.

The Beggars’ Opera

South Sea Bubble

The South Sea Bubble Playing Cards were first published in London by Thomas Bowles in 1720. The cards bear satirical portrayals of the speculators involved in the South Sea Bubble of 1720, providing a unique contemporary record of the feverish atmosphere of the time, as well as the fashions of dress.

South Sea Bubble

Knavery of the Rump, 1679

The Knavery of the Rump playing cards, first published in 1679, are a satirical portrayal of Oliver Cromwell's Government. The illustrations on the cards provide a rare visual impression of the times.

Knavery of the Rump, 1679

Transformation Playing Cards, 1811

Transformation playing cards, first published in 1811, in which each card bears a picture in which the suit marks are concealed within the design. This artistic exercise began as an 18th century parlour game and pastime.

Transformation Playing Cards, 1811

Marlborough’s Victories

Marlborough’s Victories playing cards, first published in 1707, depict Marlborough's campaigns and the personalities involved.

Marlborough’s Victories

Fortune-Telling Cards

These Fortune-Telling cards, first published as early as 1690, were possibly the first pack of cards ever made specifically for the purpose of fortune-telling.

Fortune-Telling Cards