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German playing cards

Card-playing rapidly became popular in medieval Bavaria and German printers were quick to supply the goods.

Above: Stuttgart luxury cards, c.1430

Above: Master of The Playing Cards

Hofamterspiel c.1460

Above: Hofamterspiel c.1460

South German Engraver, c.1495

Above: South German Engraver, c.1495

Above: Hans Beham, c.1523

Above: Peter Flötner, c.1545

Above: Johann M. Backofen, c.1800

Above: Joseph Losch, c.1800

Above: Bergmannskarte, c.1816

Above: Schiller Deck, c.1818

Above: Anti-Napoleon Deck

Above: Verkehrte Welt Tarock, c.1850

Above: Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908)

Above: Princely Hunting pack, c.1445

Thomas Murner, 1507

Above: Thomas Murner, 1507

Above: Jost Ammon, 1588

C.L. Wüst (1811-1927)

Above: C.L. Wüst (1811-1927)

Bernhard Dondorf (1833-1933)

Above: B. Dondorf (1833-1933)

Above: Victory deck by Friedrich Gotthelf Baumgärtner, Leipzig, 1815

Above: Fortune Telling Deck by Industrie Comptoir, Leipzig c.1818

Above: Narren-Karte by Christian Heinrich Reuter, Nürnberg, c.1860

Above: Johann Jegel's Historical Deck, c.1850

Above: T. O. Weigel, 1885

Above: “Graf Zeppelin Round the World Flight”, 1930

Throughout their long history the quantity and quality of German cards has been outstanding. Card playing caught on rapidly in medieval Bavaria and German printers were quick to respond to the demand with a prodigious range of output which now can be regarded as an early example of popular art. German packs were produced with a variety of suit symbols and great freedom of design. learn more →

archaic German cards by Heinrich Hauk, dated 1585

Above: archaic German cards by Heinrich Hauk, dated 1585. The suit symbols are: acorns, bells, birds and flowers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University: GER sheet 249

Suits were divided into two colors, green and red. The pips of one green suit were acorns, and of the other, leaves. The red suits were, and still are, hearts of the conventional shape and hawk bells. Germans have varied their pips perhaps more than any other people.

Bohemian playing cards of the German type manufactured by Georg Kapfler and dated 1611

Above: archaic German-suited playing cards manufactured by Georg Kapfler, dated 1611.

Probably spreading northwards across the Alps, card playing reached Basle in 1377. In the same year the Dominican monk Johannes von Rheinfelden from Basle wrote an allegory on the pack of cards. Cards are mentioned in the archives of Nuremberg between the years 1380 and 1384. From 1392 there are many references to playing cards in the guild books and registers of German towns. The names of both card-makers and card-painters are recorded, many of whom were women. To begin with most cards were made in the south in cities such as Augsburg, Munich, Nuremberg and Ulm. During the second half of the fifteenth century a succession of masterly German engravers practised their art and engraved playing cards reached a zenith. Many of these packs have survived as precious objets d'art - see more →. During the sixteenth century wood-block playing cards evolved so that miniature burlesque scenes decorated the lower half of each card.

Master PW Circular Playing Cards, c.1500
Engraved Playing Cards, Germany, 1617
Geistliche Karten, Augsburg, 1718

Playing cards in Germany first appeared with several different archaic suit systems involving a variety of everyday objects including flowers, animals, hunting equipment or coats of arms. Gradually standardisation occurred and today the German national suit marks are: Hearts (Herzen), Bells (Schellen), Leaves (Laub) and Acorns (Eicheln). In a true German pack a second Knave is substituted for the Queen, the two Knaves being called Obermann and Untermann (abbreviated into Ober and Unter), and the 2 (Daus) takes the place of the Ace.

It was not until the late 17th century that packs with French suits were made and during the eighteenth century German card-makers excelled with their imaginative and artistic approach to card design. The existence of several German states and their varying fortunes is reflected in the different patterns still used in these areas today. But just as these states have become engulfed in the whole, so the cards are doing the same thing and regional differences are disappearing. German-suited cards are now in the minority, and if standard English cards are not used, then the Berliner or North German pattern is the most prevalent.

playing cards by I. Schenck, Nuremberg, XIXth century

Above: playing cards manufactured by I. Schenck, Nuremberg, XIXth century  more

Stuttgart PackPrincely Hunting PackMaster of the Playing CardsHofämterspielHans Beham, 1523Heinrich Hauk, 1595I.M.F. Engraved Cards, 1617Thomas MurnerPeter FlötnerEarly German Engraved CardsThe South German EngraverBook of TradesMaster PW Circular Cards, c.1500Geistliche Karten, Augsburg, 1718Johann Jobst ForsterOld Bavarian patternJoseph Losch, c.1800Joh. Matheus Backofen, c.1800‘Prague’ or ‘Bohemian’ patternSaxon pattern‘Victory Deck’, c.1815Anti-Napoleon Deck, c.1815Bergmannskarte, c.1816Cartomancy Deck, c.1818C. A. Müller “Antike Götter”, c.1830C.L. WüstSchiller Deck, C.L. Wüst, c.1830Wüst Swiss Album PatienceC.L. Wüst: Brazil Scenic AcesBourgeois TarotMlle Lenormand Cartomancy CardsNorth German patternVerkehrte Welt Tarock, c.1850Johann Jegel's Historical Deck, c.1850Bavarian Military CardsBavarian patternT.O.Weigel: Luxus Skatkarten, c.1860Narren-Karte by C. H. Reuter, c.1860Neue Deutsche Spielkarte, c.1883Deutsches Schützenfest 1884Liebig Beef Extract, 1891Prussian PatternB. DONDORF (1833-1933)F. A. LATTMANNWilhelm Busch Comic Card GamesOtto Tragy Jugendstil SpielkartenBadische SpielkartenfabrikWalter ScharffSinalco advertisingBambi playing cardsSchmid Argentina S.A.Pajarito SkatVeltins SkatFussball SkatSchwäbisch Hall, c.1975Financial TimesBosco playing cards made for Perú> • Birkel Schwarzer Peter Circus gameKlipp Klapp Karten, 2004British Channel Island Ferries


Thanks to Klaus-Jürgen Schultz (https://spielkarten-sammlung.de) and Barney Townshend for contributing many packs from their collections to this site. If you would like to contribute some antique or interesting items please use the Feedback & Enquiries form in the footer below.

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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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.


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