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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.

Dames de France

“Dames de France” published by J-M Simon based on originals by Armand Gustave Houbigant, Paris, c.1817

Armand Gustave Houbigant (1789-1862) created a new set of playing cards in c.1816 based on realistic historical characters, intending to relieve players from the boring official “portraits” of the time. The court cards represent the dynasties of Charlemagne, Saint Louis, Francis I and Henry IV. Several versions of Houbigant’s cards were produced in varying degrees of quality, including an edition to commemorate the wedding of the Duke of Berry in 1820. These in turn inspired further imitations and a new genre of playing cards featuring historical costumes.

cards from an early edition designed by Armand Gustave Houbigant (1789-1862), Paris, c.1817

Above: court cards from an early edition designed by Armand Gustave Houbigant (1789-1862), Paris, c.1817, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
The Bibliothèque Nationale has several different editions available for viewing; search for ‘Houbigant’ using the above link.

A modern facsimile edition based on original prints was published by J-M Simon titled “Dames de France” with the addition of four corner indices, a joker and a decorative back design. See the Explanatory Card

“Dames de France” published by J-M Simon

Above: cards from the modern edition titled “Dames de France” published by J-M Simon, including a special Joker and four indices on each card. Images courtesy Matt Probert.

Houbigant's designs were also copied by other manufacturers, as seen in the children's miniature set shown below, from c.1821. Another more recent facsimile was published by Heraclio Fournier S.A.

miniature cards based on the designs by Armand Houbigant, 1821

Above: uncut sheet of miniature playing cards published by Le Vasseur based on the designs by Armand Houbigant, 1821. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, PET FOL-KH-34 (B, 7)

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By Matt Probert

Member since March 02, 2012

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I have adored playing cards since before I was seven years old, and was brought up on packs of Waddington's No 1. As a child I was fascinated by the pictures of the court cards.

Over the next fifty years I was seduced by the artwork in Piatnik's packs and became a collector of playing cards.

Seeking more information about various unidentified packs I discovered the World of Playing Cards website and became an enthusiastic contributor researching and documenting different packs of cards.

I describe my self as a playing card archaeologist, using detective work to identify and date obscure packs of cards discovered in old houses, flea markets and car boot sales.

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