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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 Joker Card

The 'Joker' is believed to have been invented by American Euchre players who, when modifying the rules sometime during the 1860s, decided that an extra trump card was required.

... the ‘wild-card’, the card of opportunity

Joker notice in Euchre deck The extra “Joker” card is believed to have been invented by American Euchre players who, when modifying the rules sometime during the 1860s, decided that an extra trump card was required. Originally he was called “The Best Bower” and then later “The Little Joker” or “The Jolly Joker”. It was around this time that other innovations and improvements started to appear, such as rounded corners replacing square and various types of corner indices.

These Jokers, or extra cards, were first introduced into American packs around 1863, but took a little longer to reach English packs, in around 1880. One British manufacturer (Chas Goodall) was manufacturing packs with Jokers for the American market in the 1870s.

early American Jokers

Above: early 'Bower' cards and Jokers by American manufacturers produced during the 1870s-1880s. Many of the images resemble clowns or jesters, not always ‘Jolly’; sometimes they appear slightly sinsiter!

early Jokers by the firm Charles Goodall & Son, London, (1821-1921)

Above: early Jokers by the firm Charles Goodall & Son, London, (1821-1921) produced during the 1870s-1890s. Victor Mauger soon issued their own Joker →

De la Rue’s Silhouette Aces of Spades and Coloured Jokers

According to Websters 1880 edition, Bower derives from the German Bauer (a peasant), so called because in Euchre the knave or jack of the trump suit is the highest card, known as the Right Bower, and the knave was depicted in German cards as a peasant. The second-highest trump card was the Left Bower, and this was the knave or jack of the same colour as the trump suit.

Then requiring an additional trump card we get the Imperial Bower etc.

Jokers keep the pack full of tricks. The Joker card is capable of almost anything or almost nothing, depending on the rules of the game. It has been suggested (Dianne Longley, 1999) that “the Joker is the ‘wild-card’, or the card of opportunity, not unlike the ethos of opportunity and individuality that has been the driving force behind America's pursuit of greatness.” Perhaps the Joker is so named because he is "a trickster", and the Imperial Bower trumped all other cards, thus taking the trick.

Some historians have seen the Joker as a descendant of the Fool of Italian tarot cards, and in some 19th century tarot sets the Fool was depicted as a harlequin or buffoon. However, Matt Probert disputes this, pointing out that in early European Tarot cards the "Fool" is depicted by a foolish man, and the popular depictions of the "Joker" are of characters connected with tricks, such as a jester, clown or card magician (none of which are "fools"), which makes more sense given the Joker's ability to take tricks in card games.

Some early Jokers were specially designed, along with special Aces of Spades, as part of the company’s brand identity. Hence they can also be an aid in identification. Many collectors are primarily interested in certain cards such as Aces of Spades, Jokers, court cards, unique backs, etc., and hence the Joker card has also become a collector's item in it’s own right...

There is also more contemporary history wherein the joker has become iconic in other ways, as in beer labels, clowns, films, tattoos and other areas of popular culture.

3 cards from Peter Wood’s “Jest Jokers” deck comprising 54 different Joker designs, made into a full pack of cards

Above: 3 cards from Peter Wood’s “Jest Jokers” deck comprising 54 different Joker designs, made into a full pack of cards  see more

More Jokers...

In many cases the jokers are removed and binned by the players. Amateur poker schools will often open a new deck, throw the jokers in the bin, and then play with the deck. However, some are undoubtedly removed by joker collectors who later on may well sell the jokers separately.

Some images link to page showing complete pack.


Argentina



Uruguay


U.S.A.


Spain


Italy



Belgium


Hong Kong


John Waddington Ltd, Leeds & London, (c.1922-1995)

John Waddington

Above: Originally a general printer, John Waddington first produced playing cards in 1922. The lcross-legged joker was used until the late 1930s. In 1941 they took over the printing of De la Rue's playing cards when the latter's factory was bombed.

De la Rue, London, (1832-1969)

De la Rue Jokers

'Rufford' was a trademark for cards manufactured for Boots the Chemist, c.1930-55.


Special Joker and Ace of Spades, c.1912

Above: Early non-standard Joker and Ace of Spades by The London Playing Card Co. (alias Goodall) for Sanderson Bros & Newbould Ltd, c.1912.

Special Joker for Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers, c.1924

Above: Special Joker and reverse design issued on behalf of 'Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers', De la Rue c.1924. The back design has the signature 'G.L.S. 1924'.

Special Joker for Duckham's motor oil, c.1925

Above: Special Joker and reverse design for Duckham's motor oil, manufactured by De la Rue for Goodall, c.1925. The De la Rue standard Joker has been adapted for the purpose.

Special Joker for The Manchester Evening News, c.1927

Above: Special Joker and reverse design for The Manchester Evening News, by De la Rue, c.1927. The cartoon is signed 'A. Paxton Chadwick 27'

Special Joker for Knight's Royal Primrose soap, c.1926

Above: Special Joker, Ace of Spades and reverse design for John Knight's Royal Primrose soap, by De la Rue, c.1926. The caption on the Joker reads 'You should see me on Sunday!'

During the 1940s and 1950s, Waddington's were printing De la Rue and Goodall cards as well as their own. Each pack was manufactured with the ace of spades of each maker on the sheet, but with the same courts and jokers, so that packs could be made up for each firm and sold under their respective brand names (e.g. 'Crown', 'Viceroy' or 'No.1').

Special Joker for 3M Company.

Above: Special Joker and reverse design for The 3M Company.

Mardon, Son & Hall, Bristol, (c1930-35)

Mardon, Son and Hall

Above: A division of Imperial Tobacco, they appear to have made cards almost exclusively for the cigarette token market, which flourished during the 1930s. Some advertising packs can also be found, e.g. Players Navy Cut cigarettes. A reciprocal arrangement may have existed with Waddingtons regarding playing card production during the early 1930s.

Berkshire Printing Company, (1930s)

Berkshire Printing Co.

A little-known manufacturer who produced some standard and advertising packs during the 1930s, and may have been involved in the cigarette token market with Waddingtons during the early 1930s.

Porterprint, Jarvis Porter, (c1935-70)

Anderson's/Porterprint/Jarvis Porter Jarvis Porter Special Joker, c.1960

Best known for their crossword game Kan-U-Go, Porterprint also produced packs for Anderson's of Edinburgh during the 1930's (left-hand joker), as well as standard advertising packs for breweries and other firms. The special joker (right) is for Brickwoods, The Portsmouth Brewery, c.1960. From c1950-60 Porterprint also published Ba-Ka-Ree, a card game with extra jokers and extra special aces in the pack.

Simon Wintle, (1987)

Jokers by Simon Wintle

Above: Jokers from the replica of 17th century English playing cards, printed from woodblocks and hand coloured using stencils, designed and produced by Simon Wintle in 1987. Of course these "jokers" are anachronistic since jokers did not exist in 17th century packs.

Woodpecker Press Ltd., (c1988-89)

Woodpecker Press

Apparantly successors to Astra Games (see above), this firm had a relatively short life and produced standard and advertising packs.

Games & Print Services, Essex, (1997-2001)

Games and Print Services

Games & Print Services produce all types of playing card, as well as game and other cards.

Richard Edward Ltd, London, (1997-2001)

Richard Edward Ltd

Based in London, this firm produces standard and advertising playing cards, as well as a range of other printed products. The earlier Joker has been superceded by the right-hand design, which is based upon Goodall's joker and has been re-coloured. The firm is currently re-designing its court cards, including new versions of the Goodall joker.

Catherine Kelly, Dublin, (1999)

Catherine Kelly's Joker

Above: Catherine Kelly created this Joker as part of a special design project entitled Safe as Houses".

Picart le Doux Joker c.1957

 

 

Woodpecker Press - see below

 

 

Catherine Kelly's Joker - see below

 

 

The Joker

 

 

Toker-Joker

 

 

2000Pips Joker

 

 

Chile Chuckles

 

 

Self-Nurture Joker

 

 

Universal Playing Card Co. Joker, 1930s

 

 

Special Joker for L.G.Sloan Ltd, London, 1930s

FURTHER REFERENCES

Matt Probert: Chinese Jokers

Phil Neill: The-History-of-the-Joker-Card

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

View Articles

Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

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