The World of Playing Cards Logo
Published February 24, 2011 Updated March 29, 2024

Printing of Playing Cards: Letterpress

Some notes on the manufacture of playing cards taken from Thomas De la Rue's patent, 1831.

1831 United Kingdom De la Rue Engineering Letterpress Manufacturing Processes Patent Printing Steam-power Add to Collection

Above: quality of printing in traditional brush & stencil method (top) and De la Rue's new letterpress method (bottom and below).

Some notes on the manufacture of playing cards taken from Thomas De la Rue's patent, 1831

At the time of Thomas de la Rue's landmark Royal Letters Patent for ‘certain improvements in making or manufacturing and ornamenting playing cards’ in 1831, playing cards were stencil-coloured by hand in water colours or printed in one colour and then hand tinted. These processes were time-consuming, laborious and also gave rise to poor quality if the workmanship was careless or imprecise.

The main innovation which Thomas de la Rue introduced was a mechanical method of registering the colour printing so that the different coloured inks were applied with greater precision and did not overlap or be mis-placed as had been the case with stencil-colouring. In addition, quicker drying oil-inks were employed, a new method of glazing the cards by passing them between copper sheets through powerful rollers instead of the antique method of glazing by friction with a flint, and the use of enamelled paper.

De la Rue's new decorated court card designs, c.1840-65

Above: a redrawn set of court cards with more intricate patterns on the clothing, printed typographically, which became the basis for all De la Rue's double-ended court cards. In this case the cards are in the slightly smaller Piquet size, with Continental style suit symbols.

The text of De la Rue's patent includes the following excerpt: “Take one gallon of old linseed oil (the older the better) and boil it very slowly for three of four hours in an iron pot or vessel, occasionally igniting it and stirring during the whole process with an iron ladle. In some instances I find it necessary to dip a few slices of stale bread just prior to ebulation taking place which facilitates the operation... The manner of igniting is as follows: When it is found that by applying a light to a surface it will take fire the pot or vessel is removed from the fire... when it goes out the pot is again placed on the fire - should the ignition be too violent, it must and may be stopped by placing a cover over the top of the pot containing the oil. When cold it should be the consistency of very thick treacle.”.


Notes on the manufacture of playing cards taken from an article published in Bradshaw's, 1842

An article published in Bradshaw's in 1842 contained an account entitled Visit to Messrs De La Rue's Card Factory. “First comes the preparation of the paper, which is subjected to pressure and brushed with white enamel to give it a highly polished finish. Then follows the printing of the playing-card fronts; these are divided into two groups, the ‘pips’, i.e the numbered cards, and the ‘têtes’, i.e. the court cards. The pips are comparatively simple to print: sets of blocks are produced, each containing forty engravings of one card, and as the ordinary method of letter press printing is employed, forty impressions of one card are obtained at the same moment. As the pips bear but one colour, black or red, they are worked together at the hand press... The printing of the court cards is more difficult since they contain five colours. The colours are printed separately and are made to fit into each other with great nicety... for this purpose a series of blocks is provided, which if united would form the figure intended to be produced. By printing successively from these blocks, the different colours fall into their proper places, and the whole process is completed. The printed fronts then go off to the drying rooms for three or four days.”

Above: King of Hearts from letterpress pack manufactured by De la Rue, c.1860. The letterpress 'squeeze' can be seen in the blue outline areas where the ink has been squeezed to the edges, for example around the nose and mouth. The colour areas are superimposed by successively passing the sheet under separate plates which must be accurately aligned or 'registered'.

The backs are printed in the same way. Thomas de la Rue's Jacquard ‘calico’ method is used to produce “repetitive tartan and criss-cross patterns from a single block engraved with straight lines and printed in one colour, which is afterwards crossed with the same or any other colour by again laying the sheet on the block, so that the first lines cross the second printing at any required angle.”

Then the cards are given solidarity. Between the fronts and the backs are pasted two ordinary layers of paper. To be of an especially smooth quality, the paste employed “is cooled by steam, even the pasting performed with a large brush in a series of systematic movements is something of a work of art.” Three of four years were needed to become a master paster, who as early as 1840 could command the ample wage of £2 per week.

Above: an ‘Old Frizzle’ duty Ace of Spades, c.1840

In quantities of four or five reams at a time the newly pasted sheets of cards are now subjected to the gradual but powerful pressure of a hydraulic press of one hundred tons, which is worked by a steam engine. Any air bubbles between the layers of pasteboard are thus expelled. Again these sheets are carefully hung up to dry to prevent their warping. More pressure is applied to flatten and polish them. If special quality is required the backs are waterproofed with varnish. Finally in order that each finished pasteboard card be of identical size, the sheets are cut into single cards with a big scissors apparatus. By laying up the cards on a long bench, a workman can make up into packs two hundred lots of cards simultaneously.

We also learn from Bradshaw's that the finest quality cards were called ‘Moguls’, the next best ‘Harrys’, and those with imperfections ‘Highlanders’. Tradition has it that the finest, the Moguls, were so called after the Mogul emperors, Harrys were kings - after Henry VIII - and the Highlanders were princes - after Bonnie Prince Charlie.

To ensure that the necessary duty - in 1840 one shilling a pack - has been paid, each ace of spades was printed in the Stamp Office at Somerset House. An account of the numbers of aces was kept there by the authorities.

Towards the end of the 18th century, with the rise of industrialisation, the need for a more powerful source of energy was felt. Steam engines provided the answer, and were employed in playing card manufacture even into the early 20th century.


See also:   Amos Whitney's Factory Inventory   Chromolithography   Design of Playing Cards   Make your own Playing Cards   Manufacture of Cardboard   Manufacture of Playing Cards, 1825   Rotxotxo Workshop Inventories, Barcelona   The Art of Stencilling.

avatar
1440 Articles

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.


Related Articles

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

A limited edition art print of the Jack of Clubs 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 Joker

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

A limited edition art print of the 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.

Printing Presses

Printing Presses

Antique printing presses from the Turnhout Playing Card Museum collection.

Moguls, Highlanders and Merry Andrews

Moguls, Highlanders and Merry Andrews

Discover the historic origins and evolution of card naming and quality designations like ‘Moguls’ an...

1875 Hand-drawn transformation cards, c1875

Hand-drawn transformation cards, c1875

A complete set of hand-drawn transformation cards from c1875, using a standard De La Rue pack.

Classification of Numeral Card Designs in French-suited packs

Classification of Numeral Card Designs in French-suited packs

The classification of numeral cards in French-suited packs, covering various pip designs in over 400...

The Douce Collection

The Douce Collection

The Douce Collection of playing cards in the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

The Henry Hart Puzzle

The Henry Hart Puzzle

Explore the intricate history and unique design variations of Henry Hart's playing cards, tracing th...

Playing Card Research Archives maintained by The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards

Playing Card Research Archives maintained by The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards

The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards maintains an extensive archive of materials from n...

1983 The Art of Erté

The Art of Erté

Luxury playing cards displaying artwork by Erté, published in 1983 by Sobranie of London.

2006 The Chamber of 52 Cards

The Chamber of 52 Cards

Playing cards published by Peter Wood as a tribute to the rock band Genesis.

1675 English cards from the reign of Charles II

English cards from the reign of Charles II

This article explores a historic pack of English playing cards from circa 1675, likely used by King ...

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...

1961 Sweetule Natural History cards

Sweetule Natural History cards

Small cards featuring natural history subjects, given away with packets of sweet cigarettes.

1875 Lend Me Five Shillings

Lend Me Five Shillings

or “Her Majesty’s Privy Purse” - a merry round-the-table game published by D. Ogilvy.

1875 Laughing Made Easy

Laughing Made Easy

a Victorian card game published by D. Ogilvy.

2002 Classic Card Games for Kids

Classic Card Games for Kids

A boxed set of playing cards, Happy Families and an alphabet pack with rules for 22 games.

1904 So-Lah – A Game of Music

So-Lah – A Game of Music

An early 20th century domino-type musical card game by Goodall.

2018 Marmite

Marmite

Fifty-Four images celebrating a UK savoury spread, that has been around one hundred and twenty two y...

1877 Word Making and Word Taking

Word Making and Word Taking

How crossword and spelling games became popular.

2021 Film Noir

Film Noir

A deck of 55 cards, celebrating hard boiled heroes, wise-cracking women, mean streets, guns and gums...

2016 Science Fiction

Science Fiction

A deck of 55 cards, celebrating a time when Science Fiction truly was, Science Fiction.

1977 Lo Stampatore

Lo Stampatore

‘Lo Stampatore’ linocut images created by Sergio Favret, published as a deck of cards by Editions So...

2004 The Beatles playing cards

The Beatles playing cards

Two packs featuring photos of The Beatles issued by the same publisher in 2004 and 2005.

1991 Costume Playing Cards

Costume Playing Cards

Four centuries of costumes from the Costume Court at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

1985 Hilti I

Hilti I

Promotional pack for Hilti power tools, with courts in medieval costume and non-standard pips.

2020 Commoners playing cards

Commoners playing cards

Created by Ian Cumpstey dedicated to the common land and the countryside.

2019 Liber Ludorum

Liber Ludorum

Liber Ludorum playing cards created by Ian Cumpstey in the insular style, United Kingdom, 2019.

2018 Pike and Clover playing cards

Pike and Clover playing cards

Pike and Clover playing cards created by Ian Cumpstey, Cumbria, UK, 2018.

1988 Lorilleux International

Lorilleux International

Promotional pack for Lorilleux International’s Lotus inks, with designs by James Hodges.

2023 Inglewood Hunting Deck

Inglewood Hunting Deck

Inglewood Hunting Deck created by Ian Cumpstey, United Kingdom, 2023.

2010 Pin-Ups

Pin-Ups

A deck of 55 cards celebrating a golden age of cheeky, naughty, bold and curvy ladies in film.

2008 Classic Movie Posters

Classic Movie Posters

A deck of 55 cards presenting vintage classic movies and their stars.

2014 That’s Entertainment

That’s Entertainment

A deck of 55 cards celebrating 20th Century vaudeville, musicals and cabaret.

1981 British Monarchs

British Monarchs

Commemorating the royal wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer on the 29th

2005 Rock & Pop Legends

Rock & Pop Legends

Stunning photos of a selection of US and UK music artists.

2004 The Beatles • Yellow Submarine

The Beatles • Yellow Submarine

A colourful deck celebrating the 1968 animated feature film based on the Lennon/McCartney song of th...

1999 Dutch Court playing cards

Dutch Court playing cards

Games & Print Services’ version of the Dutch pattern.

2013 Past Masters’ Association Presentation Pack

Past Masters’ Association Presentation Pack

The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards Past Masters’ Association Presentation Pack, 2013....

The Search for New Games in the late 19<sup>th</sup> century

The Search for New Games in the late 19th century

A few new games survived and are still around today; most came and went and are only witnessed in th...

1904 Miniature Card Dominoes

Miniature Card Dominoes

A miniature set of Goodall domino cards (5.9 x 3.5 cms) still in perfect condition.

1875 T. Drayton & Son

T. Drayton & Son

Bezique and Whist boxed sets by T. Drayton & Son, London, c.1875.