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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.

Conjuring and Magic

The art of mystifying people is very old indeed. The first conjurers were priests who obtained power over simple minds by performing magical tricks which appeared to have a supernatural origin.

Conjuring & Magic Cards 18th century gambler-fortune teller

The first magicians were those who attained a special knowledge of healing and poisonous herbs; or perhaps the magi were the priestly caste of ancient Persia and the wise men who visited the infant Jesus have been translated using the Graeco-Latin term ‘Magi’. The art of mystifying people is very old indeed. The first conjurers were priests who obtained power over simple minds by performing magical tricks which appeared to have a supernatural origin. Elizabeth I enjoyed watching card tricks and in 1602 paid an Italian magician 200 crowns for performing tricks such as “telling of any card that is thought, or changing one card from another though it be held by any man never so hard under his hand”.

Conjuring with playing cards gradually became popular as a form of entertainment. A professional magician today will admit that their tricks are based upon illusion and sleight of hand, or to be more correct: “Magicians also use psychology, misdirection, lateral thinking and down-right skulduggery!(Thanks to Justin Monehen, Magic Consultant, Marvin’s Magic).

18th century Trick Cards

Above: five hand-painted conjuring cards, probably late 18th century. The first card reads "I Jonathan Hocus Pocus the art of conjuring teach.” Conjuring in those days consisted of a variety of simple magic tricks (“To Pass Balls Through Cups”), astonishing feats (“To Cook An Omelet In A Hat”), and macabre pranks (“How to Cut Your Arm Off, Without Hurt or Danger”).

Magic Cards, 1772
Naipe trucado del siglo XVIII. Dibujo a tinta sobre pergamino

Conjurer’s cards were often divided diagonally, so that one half of each card shows a figure, whilst the opposite half appears like a normal pip card.  The cards shown above left were designed by W. Tringham in London (1772). The instruction card reads: "Instructions for useing the Cards. The Method of showing them is by keeping ye first card (which is a conjuror) allways at the front & turning the others Upside down, which will discover either figures or pips…"  By a mixture of false shuffling and sleight of hand, the cards can be fanned out and made to appear to change from figures to pips. The right-hand card is 18th century Spanish, ink on parchment, courtesy Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Left: Special Magic pack for conjurers, made in Portugal, c.1850.

(Click on images to see more)


Double-ended Spanish-suited conjuring cards, c.1890

Above: double-ended Spanish-suited / Art-Nouveau conjuring cards, unknown manufacturer, c.1890. (Click to see reverse)


Alf Cooke, Magic Cards, c.1955

Left: Magician’s playing cards, made by Alf Cooke Limited (Universal Playing Card Co.), Leeds & London, c.1955.   The pack comprises 48 cards, plus 1 joker: 24 cards are normal cards, and 24 cards are identical sevens of spades, slightly shorter in height, so that various card tricks can be performed by clever shuffling and flicking of the card corners.  Reverse: blue pattern.   see more

According to Keith Bennett (www.kbmagic.com) it "was not made as a trick pack by Alf Cooke, but would have been made into a trick pack by a magic dealer. Alf Cooke did however supply cards in two fractionally different sizes at one point in order to facilitate the manufacture of trick packs; they also made cards with backs on both sides as well as faces on both sides and partly blank cards".

See also: similar pack made by De la Rue, 1950s. The deck has 26 aces of spades and 26 normal cards. Look closely at the bottom of the Ace of Spades and note where it is trimmed.

“Monotone” Playing Cards, c.1952

Monotone Playing Cards for Magic Tricks, manufactured by USPCC, c.1952

The deck contains 48 ordinary playing cards, 24 of which are the King of Clubs cut slightly shorter than the rest of the deck, specially for performing magic tricks, as in the example above.

The box reads “The United States Playing Card Co. Cincinnati, O. U.S.A.” (Click box to zoom).

Monotone Playing Cards for Magic Tricks, manufactured by USPCC, c.1952

The image on the back of the box and the back of the cards is a scene with a fortune teller and a client in red/cream. The teller appears to be reading the client’s palm.

Images by kind permission Rebecca Strang.

• See also: Fox Lake 'Svengali' deck, c.1960Studhard’s “Stripmark” Magic playing cardsRidley’s Magic Cards, 2011Protea ‘Svengali’ trick cards →

Hanky Panky Magic Cards

‘Secret Magic Cards’ published by Hanky Panky Toys Thailand Ltd, 2006

Above: ‘Secret Magic Cards’ with marked backs published by Hanky Panky Toys Thailand Ltd, 2006   see more

Harry Potter Magic Cards

Harry Potter Playing Cards for Magic Tricks, made in Belgium by Carta Mundi

Above: 'Harry Potter' Playing Cards for Magic Tricks, made in Belgium by Carta Mundi. The set includes an instruction booklet describing 12 different card tricks which can be performed using these cards. All images (c) Warner Bros.

Sharks magic deck for Drummond Money-Coutts

Sharks was a "limited edition" (short production run, available at very few outlets) magician's pack produced for DMC of England. The pack is of high quality linen finish card with two identical jokers, a blank faced card and a double-backed card presumably as extra props for card magic. The king of diamonds is also rather custom!

Sharks magic deck for Drummond Money-Coutts

Above: Sharks magic deck for Drummond Money-Coutts. Image courtesy Matt Probert.

Gamagic Catalogue of Magic Card Tricks, c.1940

Gamagic Catalogue of Magic Card Tricks, c.1940

Above: Gamagic Catalogue of Magic Card Tricks, c.1940   more

Les Cartes Vivantes, 1905

Ace Transposition By Enzo Koté

Enzo Koté is a magician from Venezuela with more than 35 years in the world of magic.


NOTES

In the Italian Renaissance an early magic book saw the light. The work of Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli (1445-1517) ‘De viribus quantitatis’ (On the power of numbers, c.1496-1508), contains the first reference to card games, as well as instructions to carry out juggling, swallowing fire, dipping hands in molten lead or making coins dance.

Luca Pacioli, 'De viribus quantitatis', (c. 1496-1508), manuscript contained in codex no. 250 of the University Library of Bologna. It consists of three parts: «I Delle forze numerali cioè i aritmetica. II Della virtù e forza linearale et geometrica. III De documenti morali utilissimi». Mainly mathematical in content, it also includes a series of sleight of hand games. As Gilberto Govi points out in Saggio delle opere di Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, 1872, p. 22, the magic games that Luca Pacioli cites in his manuscript, are largely Leonardo's inventions.

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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.

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