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Latvian Playing Cards

The best Latvian playing cards were produced just after independence, during the period 1921-1942.

Playing Cards from Latvia

Latvijas Spēļu Kārtis

Livonians were amongst "the godless hosts of heathen swarming o'er the northern sea" along with Viking, Scandinavian and Icelandic pirates. Latvia was Christianised during the 13th century, and has been ruled successively by Poland, Sweden and Russia. Playing cards in Latvian are called Spēlu Kārtis. Latvians were apparently introduced to playing cards by the Swedes, because the word for court cards “Kungs” comes from the Swedish “Kung” (which means “King”). The meaning of “Kungs” in Latvian is “Gentleman” or “Sir”.

A 36-card Madame Lenormand type cartomancy deck was published in Latvia in 1876 by J. Schablowsky of Jelgava, titled “Game of Happiness”. The illustrations were in black and white and a Gothic typeface was used for the divinatory meanings printed on each card. The cards were decorated with astrological and zodiac symbols in the margins and featured a miniature playing card in the top left-hand section of each card.

Ordinary playing cards with Latvian costumes were published for the first time in Riga in March 1918 supported by the government of Kaiser's Germany with the intention of involving the Baltic area in Germany's political agenda  see more →.   In November 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed an independent democratic state. Just two days later – November 20, 1918 - eminent Latvian doctors, lawyers, engineers and public officials signed a protocol founding the first Latvian Red Cross Society (see further below). The best self-affirming Latvian ‘National’ playing card designs were produced just after independence, during the period 1921-1942. The first ‘national’ Latvian pack was designed by graphic artist Prof. Rihards Zarinš in 1921  see more.

Latvia’s First ‘National’ Pack

Rihards Zarinš, 1921

Above: the first Latvian pack designed by graphic artist Prof. Rihards Zarinš and printed by Latvijas Vertspapiru Spiestuve in 1921   See more.

From 1919-1921 there were no tax stamps on Latvian playing cards. Regulations passed by the Cabinet of Ministers in 1922 decreed that only the Latvian Red Cross had legal rights in Latvia to import, produce or sell playing cards. Packs were to be wrapped inside special wrappers with the Latvian Red Cross insignia and/or a tax stamp on the Ace of Hearts. This regulation was in force until the German occupation in 1941.

In 1923 a competition was announced for a new Latvian pack. The winner of this competition was the silversmith Stefans Bercs and this pack became the most popular in Latvia  see more.

Latvia’s Second ‘National’ Pack

Stefans Bercs, 1923

Above: Latvian pack designed by Stefans Bercs, printed by Ernst Platesa Lithography, Riga, 1923 onwards, with the Latvian Red Cross tax stamp on the Ace of Hearts. The artist's name appears on the King of Hearts as 'S. Beriz'.  see more.

Possibly the most valuable Latvian pack is the one designed by Alfreds Scwedrevitz in 1936, the “Fifth National Latvian” pack...   see more →

Cards designed by Alfreds Scwedrevitz, 1942

Above: the “Fifth National Latvian” pack, designed by Alfreds Scwedrevitz in 1936   see more →

Over the years around 20 different original packs have been produced in Latvia by different graphic artists. In addition a number of Russian type packs have been published with Latvian company's advertisements on the reverse.

See also:   Rihards ZarinšStefans BercsReinholds KasparsonsKarlis KrauzeAlfreds ScwedrevitzBlack PeterKarlis PadegsOrija Nr.20Zole VodkaLāčplēsis - Latvia ArtPrivātā

See article by Jānis Mētra in The Playing Card, vol.32, no.1, July-August 2003, and also: Latvian Playing Cards by Jānis Mētra, Riga, 2006.

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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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