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Classification of Numeral Card Designs in French-suited packs

Published June 26, 2024 Updated June 29, 2024

The classification of numeral cards in French-suited packs, covering various pip designs in over 400 packs from English, American, and French origins, and highlighting both historical and modern patterns.

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In the standard French-suited pack, the so-called ‘numeral’ cards are simply the 1 (Ace) to 10 of each suit. They are more naturally referred to as pips or pip-cards, spots or spot-cards. Here we will look into the classification of packs according to these numeral cards. This has the potential to be the dullest possible endeavor, but fortunately there are some surprises in store. This research involved classifying pip designs in 400 or so standard packs, mainly English and American but including 20 or so packs from France.

The set of numerals below come from a pack by Jean Gisaine of Dinant sur Meuse circa 1745[1]. These are completely typical for numerals of the French regional cards and for the few earliest English cards we know of. The smaller numerals (i.e. 1-6) follow similar – and simpler – patterns that readers would find familiar.

Above: numeral Cards from a pack by Jean Gisaine c1745. Pips arrangement ‘FC’.

What can we say about these? Firstly, that all the pips (or suit signs) are oriented the same way. Thus, each card has only one correct orientation, which is also the case for the one-way full-figure court cards in the same pack. Secondly, we note that some choices have been made: in the seven, the middle column has its only card at the top, whereas the nine has it at the centre. The nine is curious in that it is perhaps not the most obvious choice; five pips at the top and four below would seem more typical of the way the other numerals are set out.

The defining feature here is that the pip signs in the centre column are all aligned at the midpoint of the four nearest pips. It is proposed to call this arrangement ‘FC’, the F designating full length cards and the C showing centred pips.

This may make more sense given a contrast. There is just one other common full-length arrangement which became the most typical for English cards from around 1770 and until the arrival of double ended cards around 100 years later (illustrated below). While at first sight the arrangement is very similar, note that the pips in the centre column have been moved away from their central positions and towards the edge of the card; the blue lines added to the seven show where we might have expected the pip to have been placed.

It is proposed to call this arrangement ‘FE’ meaning full length cards with their central pips closer to the card edge.

Above: English cards by Henry Hart c 1770. Pips arrangement ‘FE”.

While these two arrangements cover possibilities for full-length pip cards, there are exceptional packs in which full-length courts are combined with double ended pip cards. The set by J Y Humphreys illustrated below is believed to have been made around 1816[2]. It is very early by American standards and truly remarkable in that symmetrical double ended pip cards are introduced here decades before fully two-way cards emerge. One must pause to wonder how Humphreys’ fortune might have changed had he also made two-ended court cards?

Like many makers, Humphyreys’ started out with the idea of rotational symmetry: this is most easily appreciated by noting the dotted red lines added to the images. The basic idea is that the card should look the same when turned around for the even numbers and nearly the same for the odd numbers. This arrangement is designated ‘DS’ for double ended and symmetrical. As we are describing cards and not mathematical objects, the near-symmetry can be accommodated. We will see that there are different arrangement that use symmetry, but it is not proposed here to give them individual designations, which would most likely be too detailed and potentially confusing.

Above: American Cards by J Y Humphreys, c 1816. Pips arrangement ‘DS’.

Before moving on, we note that the first English double-ended cards by Ludlow and Wheeler (c 1801) used symmetrical pip designs similar to the Humphreys set. Several other American makers also use this curious mix of full-length courts and symmetrical pip cards.

The English firm of Bancks Brothers also experimented. Their choice of left-right symmetric cards gives a highly unusual effect (see illustration). Note also that the nine is a curious design in that the three top pips are aligned and the equivalent three at the bottom are not. Bancks brothers had been the dominant manufacturer – with a Royal warrant – but by the 1860s their workshop faced fierce and ultimately unstoppable competition from the factories of De La Rue and Goodall.

Above: a symmetric design from Bankcs Bros. after 1862. A variation of ‘DS’.

The set by Bancks is helpful to us in one way: looking at the top end of any of these cards, the mix of directions fails aesthetically. The cards look confusing. This is surely why the two-ended designs did not follow the logic of symmetry, looking the same when turned around.

The type of design that did make a lasting impression first appears on cards by Thomas Crehore from around 1820[3]. Here there is emphasis on having all the pips the same way at the top of the card. Anticipating the other variations, the key card to check is the seven. In the Crehore set, this has four pips up and three down and we designate this arrangement ‘D43’ meaning double ended and four versus three.

Above: cards by Thomas Crehore c 1820. Pips Arrangement ‘D43’

This arrangement of pips was quickly copied by other American makers and remains a standard – more obviously, of course, combined with two-way court cards. The English were slower to change and did not fully switch to double-ended designs until the 1870s.

Above: De La Rue cards from c1870. Pip arrangements are ‘D52’.

The less obvious choice for the seven has five pips up and two down. This we propose to designate as ‘D52’, and this has become far more common than ‘D43’. Surprisingly, the eight has five pips up and three down. In spite of its apparent arbitrariness, ths ‘D52’ arrangement is more-or-less the modern standard. Perhaps the compromise of having more pips aligned, creating an obvious preferred orientation, is more aesthetically acceptable.

While these two arrangements cover the majority of cards, there are exceptions. Ken Lodge’s Blog on wopc.co.uk gives a number of examples where the maker probably was unaware of any tradition. There are inevitably some strange mixtures, like the Samuel Hart cards shown. These could be designated ‘DM’ – double ended and mixed in type.

Above: Samuel Hart Cards c 1870. Proposed designation ‘DM’. Note that spades and clubs are ‘D52’ while the hearts are ‘D43’. The diamonds can always be interpreted either way!

With double ended designs established in the 19th Century, there was little change until the 21st. In bridge matches it is possible to use the standard design for signalling - for example a pair of players might agree that playing a card upside-down is a request for a change of suit to be led next. Both Piatnik and Cartamundi produced fully symmetrical cards intended for bridge use. The suggested designations is ‘DSS’ indicating Double-ended with ‘supersymmetry’ (with apologies to theoretical physics).

Above: contemporary fully symmetric cards from Piatnik (two cards to the left) and Cartamundi (two cards to the right) designated ‘DSS’.

Time and time again, innovations in card design come up against the card players’ preference for the known patterns. These fully symmetric cards are not to everyone’s taste and some bridge players have found that the Aces in these sets can be hard to distinguish (particularly in poor light). It is now clear that these innovative but awkward designs are not going to become a new standard.


References

  1. Sylvia Mann Alle Karten auf den Tisch/All the Cards on the Table, Jonas Verlag 1990 - see pack 130.
  2. The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards, Tom and Judy Dawson, print edition 2000. This pack is designated U29.
  3. The Hochman Encyclopedia as above, the set illustrated is type U4.
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11 Articles

By Paul Bostock

Member since May 07, 2024

Paul has been a collector of playing cards since his early teenage years, the mid 1970s. In the last 20 years or so he has specialised in standard English cards and their story. His collection, including many other English Standards, are featured on his website plainbacks.com. Paul is currently editor of Clear the Decks, the Journal of 52 Plus Joker, the American club for playing card collectors, and is a member of the IPCS Council, an EPCS member and a Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing cards, a City of London livery company.


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