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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.

Ainu culture

A terrific deck of cards made by Nintendo c.1979 with original designs on every card showing the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan.

The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan. Traditional Ainu culture was quite different from Japanese culture, with roots stretching back more than 10,000 years. It is still alive and vibrant today. The Ainu are traditionally animists, believing that everything in nature has a kamuy (spirit or god) on the inside. Never shaving after a certain age, the men had full beards and moustaches   Wikipedia →

Ainu playing cards by Nintendo, 1979 Ainu playing cards by Nintendo, 1979

Above: Ainu playing cards by Nintendo, 1979. 52 cards + 2 jokers. There are two different decks of Ainu cards; this deck is sometimes referred to as "Ainu I" to distinguish it from the second deck, sometimes referred to as "Ainu II." The court card designs are different in the two decks. Images courtesy Rex Pitts.

Ainu Group

Above: a group of Ainu people.

See also: Smithsonian National Museum of National History

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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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Korchma Taras Bulba

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The first of two decks designed by Ukrainian illustrator Vladislav Erko for “Korchma Taras Bulba” restaurant which serves traditional Ukrainian cuisine

Folk Cards

Folk Cards

Folk Cards designed by Krystyna Gruchalska-Bunsch for Lot Polish Airlines, 1962.

Irish Legendary

Irish Legendary

Irish Legendary deck featuring figures in the Legends of Ireland, designed by Rachel Arbuckle, 1990.

Chinese Costumes

Chinese Costumes

Chinese Costumes from the Winterthur Collection, published by Fournier, 1984.

Ethiopian

Ethiopian

Ethiopian playing cards designed for the Ethiopian Tourist Organization by Afewerk Teklé.

Maya Deck

Maya Deck

The Maya Deck produced by Stancraft for Hoyle, 1976.

Neerlands Glorie

Neerlands Glorie

Neerlands Glorie Kwartetspel published by Hausemann & Hötte N.V, Amsterdam, 1945.

Tonalamatl

Tonalamatl

Baraja Tonalamatl Mexican Aztec playing cards based on the prehispanic Codex Borgia manuscript.

National Misfitz

National Misfitz

National Misfitz published by C.W. Faulkner & Co c.1900.

Many Folk Misfitz

Many Folk Misfitz

Many Folk Misfitz published by C.W. Faulkner & Co., c.1906.

Casais Portugueses

Casais Portugueses

Matching game by Majora, Lisbon, c.1970, featuring figures in national dress from Portuguese provinces and colonies

Ethiopian Air Lines

Ethiopian Air Lines

Ethiopian Air Lines playing cards designed by Melles Habtezghi with courts wearing regional costumes, c.1969.

Naipes Criollos

Naipes Criollos

“Naipes Criollos” Gaucho playing cards, 1995.

Naipes Cardón

Naipes Cardón

Naipes Cardón designed by Mario Luis Rivero depicting traditional Argentine culture and identity, 2002.

Deutsche Geschichte

Deutsche Geschichte

German History Quartet published by Otto Maier Verlag Ravensburg, c.1930-35.

Characters of “The Water Margin”

Characters of “The Water Margin”

Characters from the Chinese novel “The Water Margin” - 水滸撲克.

Roman Empire

Roman Empire

Roman Empire playing cards designed by G. Wyatt for Green Board Game Co Ltd., 2011.

Folklore No.169

Folklore No.169

Austrian Folklore deck first published by Piatnik in 1934.

Happy Families of the World

Happy Families of the World

Happy Families of the World published by Pepys Games, 1963.

Garuda Indonesia

Garuda Indonesia

Souvenir playing cards from Garuda Indonesia Airlines, the national airline of Indonesia.

Native American Warriors

Native American Warriors

Native American Warriors from the Wild West Series published by SPCC, 2018.

Banana Leaf Cards

Banana Leaf Cards

English Standard pack hand drawn & coloured on banana leaf, c.1820.

Far East

Far East

Far East playing cards with designs by Isabel Ibáñez de Sendadiano, c.1980.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Souvenir playing cards from the culturally diverse southwestern Pacific island of Papua New Guinea.

Mongolian Mask Dancing

Mongolian Mask Dancing

Mongolian Religious Mask Dancing playing cards, c.2010

Trinidad Carnival Playing Cards

Trinidad Carnival Playing Cards

“Allfours Carnival Playing Cards” designed by Gabby Woodham, Trinidad, 1995

Story Magazine

Story Magazine

Dutch singers, TV and theatre artist playing cards for “Story” magazine, 1978.

African Art

African Art

“African Art” Playing cards by John J. Beckvermit III, 1994

Sheba by Omega Concepts Ltd, 1972

Sheba by Omega Concepts Ltd, 1972

Sheba playing cards illustrated by Brent Bailer and published by Omega Concepts Ltd, 1972

Fair Play cross cultural playing cards

Fair Play cross cultural playing cards

“Fair Play” cross cultural playing cards illustrated by Canadian artist Stephen B. MacInnes.

East African Playing Cards

East African Playing Cards

East African Playing Cards by Heraclio Fournier S.A., 1957.

Cartas Precolombinas

Cartas Precolombinas

Spanish playing cards with Pre-Columbian designs from Argentina, 2001.

Eastern

Eastern

“Eastern” playing cards dedicated to ethnic Buryat culture, 2015

Baraja Gaucha

Baraja Gaucha

“Baraja Gaucha” fantasy deck designed by Mateo Tikas Plechas for Argentina, 1998.

Ancient Civilisations

Ancient Civilisations

Ancient Civilisations playing cards designed by Celedonio Perellón, produced by Heraclio Fournier, 1973.

Les Artisans Tunisiens

Les Artisans Tunisiens

“Les Artisans Tunisiens” Jeu de Sept Familles published by Éditions de la Mediterranée, Alpha S.A., Tunis

Naipes ‘Charabon’

Naipes ‘Charabon’

Naipes ‘Charabon’ - depicting the Gaucho as a national hero, Montevideo, 1983.

Four Races

Four Races

“Four Races” playing cards designed by Latvian artist Vilnis Rasa in 1989.

Gaucho Naipes

Gaucho Naipes

‘Gaucho’ Spanish-suited deck, anonymous manufacturer, made in Argentina, 2001.

Naipe Criollo Caraí Pujol

Naipe Criollo Caraí Pujol

‘Naipe Criollo Caraí Pujol’ with Gaucho designs by Julio F. Parada Seifert capturing the spirit of Argentine country life, 2005.