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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.

The Book of Trades by Jost Amman, 1588

The Book of Trades by the prolific German Renaissance artist Jost Amman (1539-91). Suits are books, printers' pads, wine-pots and drinking cups.

Woodcut by Jost Amman

Jost Amman, “Book of Trades”, 1588

Following in the wake of Italian art, the German Renaissance developed a new form of medieval knightly culture. Imaginative decks of playing cards were produced by Jost Amman, Schäufelein, Schön and Peter Flötner...

cards from the Book of Trades by the prolific German Renaissance artist Jost Amman (1539-91)

Above: cards from the Book of Trades by the prolific German Renaissance artist Jost Amman (1539-91). Suits are books, printers' pads, wine-pots and drinking cups. Some of the images had already appeared in books published prior to the cards, along with moralising verses beneath each card. The deck promotes industry and learning over idleness and drunkenness.

"Indulging their fancy, they [German card-makers] varied the signs according to every capricious notion: unicorns, dogs, rabbits and apes, monkeys and lions, parrots and peacocks, stroll or fly or flutter through the cardboard world. Packs appeared with suits of pinks, of columbines, printers' inkpads, vases, drinking cups, books, combs, fishes, crowns, bellows, frying-pans, shields, alms-houses and knives; some were circular."  Roger Tilley 'Playing Cards', p. 35.

The artist's humour is discernible in almost every card, where little groups of figures decorate the numeral cards. Jost Amman's cards influenced several later cardmakers. Below are two recent facsimiles   read more

The Book of Trades by Jost Amman (1588) published by Lo Scarabeo, 2004 The Book of Trades by Jost Amman (1588) published by Lo Scarabeo, 2004 The Book of Trades by Jost Amman (1588) published by Lo Scarabeo, 2004

Above: cards from facsimile edition “The Book of Trades” by Jost Amman (1588) published by Lo Scarabeo, Torino, Italy 2004. This modern edition contains 2 jokers and six extra information cards  see more →

The Book of Trades by Jost Amman (1588)

Above: the four cards designated by the Roman numeral 'X' are female. Are these 'Queens' or female pages? German decks, like Spanish ones, do not usually contain Queens. The Kings are mounted on horseback. If these ladies are Queens then we have an Italian or French element to account for. But in Spanish decks the 10s are 'Sotas' and sometimes female. Cards from the limited edition facsimile deck published by Edizone Il Meneghello, Via Fara 15, Milano, Italy.