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Published May 12, 2023 Updated June 05, 2023

Instructive and Educational Playing Cards

Playing cards with an educational and instructive purpose first trended in mid-17th century France, inspiring imitations on a growing number of topics such as Arithmetic, Fortification and Military Science, Geometry, Grammar, Heraldry, Cartography, Biographies, Mythology, History, Political Satire, and so on.

1644 France Henry le Gras Stefano Della Bella Education Geography Myths & Legends Royalty Add to Collection

In the mid 1640s a Frenchman by the name of Jean Desmarests (1596-1676) and the well-known and prolific Florentine engraver Stefano Della Bella (1610-1664) produced four memorable series of instructive cards which were sold by Henri le Gras in Paris in 1644. These packs had a big influence on contemporary cardmaking and were the inspiration for educational playing cards published in several other countries over the next century.

frontispiece to Le Jeu des Fables series; at centre, Cupid seated with his bow and arrows, leaning on a stone on which the title appears; with the main Olympian gods on clouds above and Neptune riding in his chariot in the sea behind to left. 1644 Etching. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Above: frontispiece to Le Jeu des Fables (1644). Cupid is seated with his bow and arrows, leaning on a stone on which the title appears; with the main Olympian gods on clouds above and Neptune riding in his chariot in the sea. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Asset number 66224001

“Le Jeu des Fables”

The first of these instructive and educational cards was entitled “Le Jeu des Fables ou de la Metamorphose” and depicted the gods, demi-gods, goddesses and heroes of antiquity, illustrative of the mythology of the ancients, accompanied by a succinct summary at the lower part of each card, in clear cursive script. These were designed to facilitate the learning of mythology, ancient history and fable in a light-hearted and pleasurable way. The cards were often conveniently bound into a pocket-sized book rather than used as a card game.

Jeu des fables : représentant des divinités et des scènes mythologiques : jeu de cartes, estampe / S. D. Bella, 1644. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Above: Jeu des fables : divinities and mythological scenes : Stefano Della Bella, 1644. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

The series was published in several languages, as can be seen in a German version below which is mounted into a small book, handy for study.

German copies of Jeu des Fables by Stefano della Bella, 1644-1670. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: German copies of "Jeu des Fables", etching and letterpress, 1644-1670. © The Trustees of the British Museum. 1896,0501.678.1-52


“Jeu des Rois de France”

The second pack, titled “Jeu des Rois de France” or “Jeu de l’Histoire de France”, presents various kings from Pharamond to Louis XIV. The pack was first issued in 1644 but reprinted in Paris as late as 1698. Each card depicts one or more of the kings of France along with an abridged history or potted biography of the person(s) depicted. Sometimes the instructive text is framed by drapery, adding visual interest to the presentation. It is known in several formats: book form, uncut sheets, sometimes coloured, with or without suits, with forty or fifty-two cards,

Cartes des Rois de France. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: Frontispiece to series; cartouche containing lettered title, surmounted by the arms of France and a crown • Pharamond standing facing front, leaning on a stone tablet • The young Louis XIV seated in a chariot, crowned and holding a sceptre, the chariot drawn by two horses towards left; with a drapery below containing lettering. © The Trustees of the British Museum • Collection search results

An original version can also be viewed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France here

Cartes des Rois de France, Stefano della Bella (1610-1664), Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Above: four cards from Cartes des Rois de France by Stefano della Bella, 1644. Bibliothèque Nationale de France ark:/12148/bpt6k15187061

A Dutch version was published in Amsterdam (Netherlands) 1680-1711: Jeu des Rois de France

A modern facsimile was published by Edizioni del Solleone in 1986: Cartes des Rois de France


“Jeu des Reynes Renommées”

A third pack of 52 cards was produced to offer instruction in history. Similar in design to the preceding pack, but dealing with queens of many different countries and periods, the cards present neatly engraved whole-length figures of renowned women from Dido to Queen Elizabeth. These include brave, saintly, wise or otherwise celebrated women. Some are in chariots or on horseback. Below each engraving is the title and a description of the queen, from which we may learn many curious facts. It would be confusing to use these cards as ordinary playing cards so their didactic purpose is the primary one.

Planche du jeu dit des reynes renommées gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Above: uncut sheet of Jeu des Reynes Renommées. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF


“Jeu de Cartes de la Géographie”

The fourth pack has 52 cards and is intended to give instruction in Geography. The upper part of each card has a design or figure in national costume, emblematic of a geographical division of the globe. Below are a title and an account of the place represented. The design of the engravings is very commendable and amusing which no doubt helps to engage the imagination in the topic which can then be memorised.

“Jeu de Géographie” educational playing cards etched by Stefano Della Bella and published in c.1644

Above: “Jeu de Géographie” educational playing cards designed by Desmarets and etched by Stefano Della Bella, published in c.1644   more


These packs were soon followed by a growing range of new instructive and educational cards covering topics such as Arithmetic, Fortification and Military Science, Geometry, Grammar, Heraldry, Cartography, Biographies, Political Satire, and so on. Today the range of topics is even broader, from chess openings to playing cards offering emotional help and support to young people. See full list


References

Mann, Sylvia: Collecting Playing Cards, Arco Publications, 1966

Willshire, W. H.: A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and Other Cards in the British Museum, Trustees of the British Museum, 1876

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder 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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