History of Playing Cards - 4

Is a pack only for playing games?

Talia from the Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465

It is debatable whether some early pack of cards were actually intended for play at all. Some were made just to look at, admire and study;  see example → or even for the self-indulgent, narcissistic enjoyment of the super-rich who could afford illuminated cards adorned with gold. They were more than just a plaything, people could read the symbols and inscriptions, draw analogies or see meaning.

Man's mind likes to categorise and classify experience… the elements, cardinal points, lunar cycles, virtues, heavenly spheres, temperaments, taxonomies and hierarchies. Playing cards are convenient to use as a practical 'mnemonic' or device for representing life's basic facts, a memory aid or teaching tool, a means of condensing knowledge. The subject can be anything from botany to heraldry, from cosmology to geography. For instance, a set of educational cards was invented in 1507 by Thomas Murner, a Franciscan monk. Political satire has also been an inspiration for playing cards.

Satirical Playing Cards by Peter Flötner, Nuremberg, c.1545

Above: cards from a satirical pack designed by Peter Flöttner of Nuremberg, c.1545. The backs of the cards contain the vocal scores for German songs. Cards from the facsimile edition published by Ferd Piatnik & Söhne, Vienna, 1993.

Italian Minchiate card
Heraldic playing cards: a knowledge of the arms and blazons of royalty and aristocracy was an important part of a respectable education
Robert Morden's Playing Cards, 1676

The format of the pack - suit symbols, numeral cards, court hierarchy - has served many secondary purposes beyond a gaming device. It can be used for predicting the future, teaching heraldry, as a pocket map, and in the case of the tarot, it has almost become a popular religion. This is also the origin of quartet and Happy Families games which have educational benefits.

reverse of seventeenth century playing card used for secondary purpose

Until the latter end of the 18th century playing card backs were left plain white. The problem with this was that card backs became easily marked during play, and would thereby become recognisable by an opponent. It was expensive to buy another new pack, so spoilt cards would be returned to the workshop for cleaning. Some playing card manufacturers began to print repeating geometric patterns of stars or dots on the reverse of the cards to minimise this problem, but until then the white backs of playing cards were often used for secondary purposes, from currency to visiting cards to library classification cards...

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Last Updated April 09, 2018 at 07:19pm


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Playing cards have enormous educational value, with a long history and many diverse types and graphical styles from around the world... View More →

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