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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.

Iceland’s Waterfalls

“Iceland” playing cards with scenic aces designed by Guðmundur Thorsteinsson were first published in 1923

Iceland’s Waterfalls “Mugg’s cards”

Icelandic playing cards with scenic aces designed by Guðmundur Pétursson Thorsteinsson (Muggur, 1891-1924) were first published in 1923 by Bjarni P. Magnusson, Reykjavik, as “Islensk l'Hombre spil No.1”. Guðmundur Thorsteinsson was an Icelandic artist and film actor who had studied at the Royal Painting Academy in Copenhagen. In his pack of cards the four Jacks are dressed as workmen, fishermen or farmers, and the Queens and Kings are dressed in traditional Icelandic costume while the Kings also hold royal insignia. All social strata are represented. The Aces show picturesque scenes from different parts of Iceland (click the aces to see up-side-down).

“Iceland's Waterfalls” playing cards designed by Gudmundur Thorsteinsson (1891-1924)

Above: “Icelandic” playing cards designed by Gudmundur Thorsteinsson and first published in 1923. Reprinted in 1977 by V.A.S.S. Leinfelden as “Icelandic”. The indices are in Icelandic language: K = Kungur (King), D = Drottning (Lady), G = Gosi (Jack). The Joker is a small devil and the back design shows Gullfoss waterfall (pink or green). Gudmundur Thorsteinsson's works are characterized by a dreamlike and playful quality - see example. The influence of impressionism can be seen. Images courtesy Rex Pitts.

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By Rex Pitts (1940-2021)

Member since January 30, 2009

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Rex's main interest was in card games, because, he said, they were cheap and easy to get hold of in his early days of collecting. He is well known for his extensive knowledge of Pepys games and his book is on the bookshelves of many.

His other interest was non-standard playing cards. He also had collections of sheet music, music CDs, models of London buses, London Transport timetables and maps and other objects that intrigued him.

Rex had a chequered career at school. He was expelled twice, on one occasion for smoking! Despite this he trained as a radio engineer and worked for the BBC in the World Service.

Later he moved into sales and worked for a firm that made all kinds of packaging, a job he enjoyed until his retirement. He became an expert on boxes and would always investigate those that held his cards. He could always recognize a box made for Pepys, which were the same as those of Alf Cooke’s Universal Playing Card Company, who printed the card games. This interest changed into an ability to make and mend boxes, which he did with great dexterity. He loved this kind of handicraft work.

His dexterity of hand and eye soon led to his making card games of his own design. He spent hours and hours carefully cutting them out and colouring them by hand.

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A masterpiece in the genre of tourist souvenir decks, “La Suisse Historique” Swiss Cantons souvenir designed by Melchior Annen in c.1920.

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Attractive deck by the Portuguese maker Maillard, c.1885 with scenic aces and German-style courts

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Niagara Falls Souvenir

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Iceland’s Waterfalls

Iceland’s Waterfalls

“Iceland” playing cards with scenic aces designed by Guðmundur Thorsteinsson were first published in 1923

Islenzk Spil

Islenzk Spil

This historical Icelandic deck was first published in c.1930 and shows the native Icelandic Vikings of some thousand years ago rendered in a romantic naturalistic style.

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C. L. Wüst Scenic Aces for Brazil.

Swiss Scenic Ace Souvenir Cards, c.1850

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Swiss Scenic Ace Souvenir Cards, c.1860

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Souvenir pack with Scenic Aces made by J. Müller (Diessenhofen), c.1860. The courts are conventional figures based on French designs.