The World of Playing Cards Logo
Published February 06, 2022 Updated April 16, 2022

72: The Ace of Spades

In standard English packs the Ace of Spades is associated with decorative designs. This is a historical survey of why this should be.

Aces Frizzle Ace Garter Ace History Tax Add to Collection

The Ace of Spades in most English, American and standard English packs made in other countries is usually highly decorative, in contrast to, for example, the same card in standard Paris pattern packs. The reason for this is assumed to be that in the 18th and 19th centuries the Government of the day collected tax revenues on playing cards by making the card-makers buy their aces from the Stamp Office, which were printed by the Government. To reflect their official status, and to avoid forgery (though this was less successful in the early days), the ace was decorative. The tax was introduced in 1711, but at that time cards were merely stamped on a particular card, not necessarily the AS. In 1765 the system of buying the AS from the Stamp Office was introduced. For a detailed account of the different forms of the ace and taxes, see John Berry's Taxation on playing-cards in England from 1711 to 1960, IPCS Papers 3, 2001. Here I'll give an example of each type with the dates they were used and follow Berry's numbering system. There were also special aces for exported cards, as these were exempt from tax in this country.

Above: From top left to bottom right: 1: an export stamp on a Blanchard pack, c.1760; 2: A1, 1765-76; 3: A2, 1776-89; 4: A3, 1789-1801; 5: A4, 1801-28; 6: A5, 1804-28

Each new ace represents an increase up until the tax was at 2/6d per pack at the height of the Napoleonic wars (for details, see Berry's section 1, page 3). Ace A6 (1820-28) was the same as A5 except that George IV replaces George III, though both types continued to be used during this period. The tax was reduced to 1/- (one shilling) in 1828 and a new, more elaborate ace was produced, sometimes unappropriated to any particular maker and often rather lightly printed.

7: A7, Old Frizzle. 1828-62; 8: A8, Export, 1765-1828; 9: A10, Export, 1828-62, here unappropriated from a Whitaker pack; 10: Export to the Isle of Man only, 1828-62, always unappropriated, again from a Whitaker pack; 11: a fake Blanchard A1 AS, probably as late as 1820; 12: another tax-avoidance trick, using another ace and converting it, here an AH, though I also have examples of ACs. A9 is the George IV version of A8 (1820-28).

There were also small-size aces for the so-called piquet packs, though only one Old Frizzle of this size is known, made for Hunt & Sons (for details, see John Berry's book).

The AS is also known as the Death Card. The usual explanation is that if you were caught forging the AS, or even owning aces not assigned to you, you were taken to court by HM Government. If you were found guilty, you would be sentenced to death by hanging. This happened to Richard Harding in 1805, and again in 1838, when Henry Wheeler was found guilty, although in this case it is suggested that the sentence was commuted to transportation.

After 1862, when the tax was reduced to three pence per pack, there was no longer any requirement to indicate this or to have a fancy AS. However, it would appear that the tradition was so important to the card industry, and maybe even card-players, that ornamental aces of spades continued to be made, in many cases being registered as trademarks. This tradition was copied by American and other foreign card-makers right up to the present day. I have illustrated various ASs on the pages of this blog, but I'll present a selection of the more interesting ones here.

English

The following are from different makers of the post-Frizzle period, as indicated. In this square-cornered format they cover the period from 1862-90. The De La Rue ace, designed by Owen Jones, lasted a lot longer in slightly different versions, right up until 1957, when the silhouette AS was introduced.

1: De La Rue; 2: Goodall, used in Chancellors and Premiers; 3: Goodall for London PCCo., from 1880; 4: Hunt, later firm.
5: Perry & Co., stationers, 1865-69; 6: James English, Peerless; 7: Reynolds & Co., after take-over by Goodall; 8: early Woolley.

American

The duty on American cards was collected via a paper stamp (for details, see Dawson & Dawson, The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards, 2000). There was no requirement for a decorative AS. Here are a few examples from the 19th century.

1: Anonymous, probably Crehore, c.1845; 2: Eagle Card Co., c.1867; 3: Lawrence & Cohen, c.1870; 4: Hart, c.1870: both 3 & 4 are from a Samuel Hart bazique set.
5: Dougherty, c.1848; 6: Union PCCo., c.1880; 7: United States Printing Co., c.1894; 8: USPCC, c.1899.

From other countries

The rest of the world copied the tradition, even though they had different ways of collecting the tax. Here are a few examples from the 20th century. Even today, cheap Chinese cards have decorative ASs.

1: Piatnik, c.1946, later taken over by OTK, Prague; 2: Speelkaartenfabriek Nederland, c.1930; 3: Dondorf, c.1910; 4: F X Schmid, a copy of Goodall's AS, c.1925.
5: Grimaud, c.1900 onwards; 6: Indian PCCo., c.1940; 7: Willis, New Zealand, c.1900; 8: Sands & McDougall, c.1895.

avatar
137 Articles

By Ken Lodge

Member since May 14, 2012

​I'm Ken Lodge and have been collecting playing cards since I was about eighteen months old (1945). I am also a trained academic, so I can observe and analyze reasonably well. I've applied these analytical techniques over a long period of time to the study of playing cards and have managed to assemble a large amount of information about them, especially those of the standard English pattern. About Ken Lodge →


Related Articles

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

A limited edition art print of the 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Hearts

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Hearts

A limited edition art print of the Jack of Hearts 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Queen of Clubs

Woodblock and Stencil Queen of Clubs

A limited edition art print of the Queen of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil King of Diamonds

Woodblock and Stencil King of Diamonds

A limited edition art print of the King of Diamonds 1984 woodblock joker.

Why our playing-cards look the way they do

Why our playing-cards look the way they do

Analysis of early playing card designs: origins, suit differences, standardization, technological ad...

Introduction to Collecting Themes

Introduction to Collecting Themes

Playing cards can be broadly categorised into standard and non-standard designs, with collectors app...

2021 Le Monde Primitif Tarot

Le Monde Primitif Tarot

Facsimile edition produced by Morena Poltronieri & Ernesto Fazioli of Museo Internazionale dei Taroc...

1986 Artist’s Aces of Spades

Artist’s Aces of Spades

Artist’s Aces of Spades deck published by Robert Billingsley, USA, 1986.

75: Early American cards

75: Early American cards

An overview of some of the early cards made in the United States.

1450 Early German playing cards

Early German playing cards

Some early examples of popular German playing cards from the XV and XVI centuries.

1650 The Parisian Tarot

The Parisian Tarot

The “Parisian Tarot”, early 1600s, with imagery and design synthesizing several influences.

1890 Belgian Souvenir playing cards

Belgian Souvenir playing cards

made in Germany by C.L. Wüst

73: Fakes, Forgeries and Tax Evasion

73: Fakes, Forgeries and Tax Evasion

When there are official taxes to pay, people will find a way to avoid paying them - often illegally....

1930 Oude Kunst (Old Art) playing cards with Wüst courts

Oude Kunst (Old Art) playing cards with Wüst courts

made for export to the Netherlands.

1921 Art Nouveau Whist playing cards from a small Dutch factory

Art Nouveau Whist playing cards from a small Dutch factory

The factory probably only produced playing cards for a few years in the 1920's

Russian Playing Card History - From the Beginnings to 1917

Russian Playing Card History - From the Beginnings to 1917

An in-depth review of the history of card-playing, gambling, legislation, manufacture and taxation o...

1798 Russian Playing Card Monopoly

Russian Playing Card Monopoly

The Russian Playing Card Monopoly was established in March 1798 with all revenue going to support th...

1880 Isle of Man playing cards made by Glénisson of Turnhout

Isle of Man playing cards made by Glénisson of Turnhout

Two souvenir packs with different court cards made by Glénisson for the Isle of Man, c.1880.

1870 Isle of Man playing cards by De La Rue & Goodall

Isle of Man playing cards by De La Rue & Goodall

Two different versions of Isle of Man playing cards from 1870 and 1914.

1870 Isle of Man souvenir playing cards by Goodall & Son.

Isle of Man souvenir playing cards by Goodall & Son.

Two antique packs with scenic aces illustrating places on the Isle of Man.

1760 Trappola cards from Prague

Trappola cards from Prague

15 Trappola playing cards possibly made by Johann Ziser of Prague, c1760.

1890 Copies of Wüst House pattern playing cards

Copies of Wüst House pattern playing cards

both by Christian Heinrich Reuter of Nuremberg, Germany

1915 Unnamed Scenic aces of Rio de Janeiro

Unnamed Scenic aces of Rio de Janeiro

Cards made by C.L.Wüst of Germany for Brazil

1900 Wüst playing cards with International scenic aces
1900 Decorated pip cards from C.L.Wüst

Decorated pip cards from C.L.Wüst

Several Wüst patience packs with special pip cards

Languedoc pattern

Languedoc pattern

The old Languedoc pattern was known at the beginning of the seventeenth century, if not before.

1785 Pierre Roiné Aluette

Pierre Roiné Aluette

Archaic form of Aluette published by Pierre Roiné, Nantes, c.1785.

1880 Dutch costume playing cards from an unknown maker

Dutch costume playing cards from an unknown maker

Another pack of Dutch costume playing cards c.1880.

1613 Portuguese-suited cards

Portuguese-suited cards

Portuguese-suited cards with dragon aces, made in Italy, 1613.

Antoine de Logiriera

Antoine de Logiriera

Archaic Spanish-suited playing cards published in Toulouse by Antoine de Logiriera (1495-1518).

1915 Playing cards for the Bombay Market

Playing cards for the Bombay Market

An interesting pack of playing cards with illustrated Indian aces made "Specially for the Bombay Mar...

1860 Dutch costume playing cards

Dutch costume playing cards

Dutch costume playing cards made for the Dutch market in the second half of the 19th century.

1705 Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne

Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne

“Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne” cover historical events, both honourable and treacherous, during t...

Hall & Son

Hall & Son

Hall & Son

72: The Ace of Spades

72: The Ace of Spades

In standard English packs the Ace of Spades is associated with decorative designs. This is a histori...

Dubois

Dubois

Dubois card makers from Liège in the Walloon Region of Belgium.

Playing Cards: A Secret History

Playing Cards: A Secret History

Playing Cards: A Secret History

A. Camoin & Cie

A. Camoin & Cie

This deck was inherited from ancestors, it has has a family history surrounding it. Details of the l...

History of Playing Cards explained in 5 Minutes

History of Playing Cards explained in 5 Minutes

Video by Art of Impossible. In this video you will get a short overview of the most important histor...

1584 Toledo, 1584

Toledo, 1584

Archaic Spanish-suited deck with 48 cards made in Toledo in 1584.

1500 Gambling and Vice in the Middle Ages

Gambling and Vice in the Middle Ages

Gambling and Vice in the Hours of Charles V: card-playing in the local tavern

“Deck with French suits”

“Deck with French suits”

A facsimile of an early 19th century French-suited deck from the collection of F.X. Schmid.

1920 Brazil Pictorial Aces

Brazil Pictorial Aces

Genoese pattern with Pictorial Aces for Brazil by Brepols, Turnhout, c.1920.