The World of Playing Cards Logo
Published March 10, 2011 Updated July 29, 2023

Secondary Uses of Playing Cards

The unprinted backs of playing cards have led people to use them for secondary purposes such as memorandum slips, bibliographic index cards, for declarations of love, rendezvous notes, emergency money, visiting cards and so on.

Ephemera History Innovation Notgeld Secondary Uses Add to Collection
Talia from the Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465

Is a Pack Only for Playing Games?

The format of the pack - suit symbols, numeral cards, court hierarchy - has served many secondary purposes beyond a gaming device.

It is debatable whether some early packs of cards were actually intended for play at all. Some were made just to look at, admire and study;  see example → or even for the self-indulgent, narcissistic enjoyment of the super-rich who could afford illuminated cards adorned with gold. They were more than just a plaything, people could read the symbols and inscriptions, draw analogies or see meaning.

Man's mind likes to categorise and classify experience… the elements, cardinal points, lunar cycles, virtues, heavenly spheres, temperaments, taxonomies and hierarchies. Playing cards are convenient to use as a practical 'mnemonic' or device for representing life's basic facts, a memory aid or teaching tool, a means of condensing knowledge. The subject can be anything from botany to heraldry, from cosmology to geography. For instance, a set of educational cards was invented in 1507 by Thomas Murner, a Franciscan monk. Political satire has also been an inspiration for playing cards.

Satirical Playing Cards by Peter Flötner, Nuremberg, c.1545

Above: cards from a satirical pack designed by Peter Flöttner of Nuremberg, c.1545. The backs of the cards contain the vocal scores for German songs. Cards from the facsimile edition published by Ferd Piatnik & Söhne, Vienna, 1993.


Italian Minchiate card
Heraldic playing cards: a knowledge of the arms and blazons of royalty and aristocracy was an important part of a respectable education
Robert Morden's Playing Cards, 1676

The format of the pack - suit symbols, numeral cards, court hierarchy - has served many secondary purposes beyond a gaming device. It can be used for predicting the future, teaching heraldry, as a pocket map, and in the case of the tarot, it has almost become a popular religion. This is also the origin of quartet and Happy Families games which have educational benefits.


reverse of seventeenth century playing card used for secondary purpose Until the latter end of the 18th century playing card backs were left plain white. The problem with this was that card backs became easily marked during play, and would thereby become recognisable by an opponent. It was expensive to buy another new pack, so spoilt cards would be returned to the workshop for cleaning. Some playing card manufacturers began to print repeating geometric patterns of stars or dots on the reverse of the cards to minimise this problem, but until then the white backs of playing cards were often used for secondary purposes, from currency to visiting cards to library classification cards...


Secondary Use of Playing Cards secondary use of playing cards for filing system

Above: repurposed playing cards with handwritten notes on the reverse.

Since their first appearance as printed artefacts, surplus or defective proof sheets of playing cards were re-used as stiffening material inside book covers. Some of the earliest playing cards have survived in this manner, having been discovered when the book cover needed repair. Sixteenth century miniatures were usually painted in body colour on playing cards or on vellum. More recently, the unprinted backs of playing cards have led people to use them for secondary purposes such as memorandum slips, bibliographic index cards, for declarations of love, rendezvous notes, credit notes, pass slips or emergency money

reverse of seventeenth century playing card used for secondary purpose

Left: reverse of 17th century French playing card used for a secondary purpose, with handwritten latin text... see more →

Above: from The Illustrated History of Canada edited by Craig Brown, © Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd, 1987, page 149.

When the French in Canada were short of gold coins, they used the backs of playing cards as emergency money. Even such things as the tallying of compulsory labour were marked on playing cards. Some card backs have been found containing miniature oil paintings, or hand-drawn musical notes in some cases amounting to several vocal parts divided between several cards.

In the eighteenth century Voltaire, having unsuccessfully called on an absent friend, ‘sur une carte à jouer très sale’ wrote crossly: ‘M. de Voltaire est venu quatre fois’. Because playing cards could be conveniently carried upon the person, and did not crumple like ordinary notepaper, they were found to be handy for jotting down messages, a necessary improvement on the garbled verbal messages of illiterate eighteenth century servants.

playing card back used for invitation, 1805

In 1749 a playing card was used as an invitation to a ball, and in 1765 playing cards were used as admission cards to the classes at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Gejus van Diggele, secondary use is “a single playing card (or a few cards) that were produced to play games have been used for other purposes. These cards may be cut, trimmed, torn, folded, pinned, glued or pasted. On one or both sides there might be additional manuscript or printed text, drawings, paintings, doodles, musical notations or any other alteration of the original card.”

Six of Hearts: “Grace’s Card”. Baron Grace of Courtstown, in 1689, raised a regiment of foot and troop of horse for James II, at his own expense. When fighting for the King, he rejected an ultimatum from the enemy written on the Six of Hearts.

Ace of Clubs: It was on this card that Oliver Goldsmith inscribed an IOU to Sir Joshua Reynolds, intimating at the same time that this particular suitmark resembled nothing so much as the sign of a pawnbroker.

Secondary Use of Playing Cards, 1792
Secondary Use of Playing Cards

Above: four examples of playing cards where the backs have been repurposed. Images courtesy John Sings.

The link between the history of visiting cards and the secondary use of playing cards was exploited by Thomas de la Rue (see below). Other secondary uses of playing cards include bookmarks, stiffening material, transformation cards, and of course, a vehicle for fortune-telling, conjuring, taxation, education or political satire as well as advertising.   (See another example here).  During the 20th century advertising moved over from the backs of cards to the fronts so that we often find a King, Queen or Jack offering a drink or a cigarette →.

secondary use of playing cards for autograph collecting

Above: two examples of playing cards used for autographs. Cases have been reported of fake "Sitting Bull" autographed playing cards.

The Invention of the Visiting Card

One of Thomas de la Rue's successful innovations to his playing card manufacturing enterprise was visiting cards. Thomas reduced the size of the cards, thereby rendering them more portable. He also used his enamelled playing-card paper which bent less easily than the flimsier, pre-De la Rue cards. Apart from inventing the modern English playing card Thomas could also be called ‘the father of the English visiting card’, or as Chambers’ called it, ‘the enamelled calling-card’.

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 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.

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

A limited edition art print of the 1984 woodblock joker.

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.

Printing Presses

Printing Presses

Antique printing presses from the Turnhout Playing Card Museum collection.

Ganjifa - Playing Cards from India

Ganjifa - Playing Cards from India

Indian playing cards, known as Ganjifa, feature intricate designs with twelve suits and are traditio...

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 Henry Hart Puzzle

The Henry Hart Puzzle

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

1647 Sevilla 1647 reproduction

Sevilla 1647 reproduction

Facsimile of Spanish-suited pack produced in Sevilla, Spain, 1647.

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...

Managing cards without corner indices

Managing cards without corner indices

For many hundreds of years cards had no corner indices, were square cut and mostly made from card wi...

2001 Kuzco, l’empereur mégalo

Kuzco, l’empereur mégalo

Notched cards featuring toys representing characters from the Disney film Kuzco, as offered by McDon...

1960 Cartes à Jouer Fluorescentes

Cartes à Jouer Fluorescentes

Standard French cards but printed with fluorescent inks on a black background.

1987 Sylvanian Families mini playing cards

Sylvanian Families mini playing cards

Miniature cards in sheet form with Sylvanian Families characters on the courts and Jokers.

2011 Great inventions playing cards

Great inventions playing cards

Great inventions playing cards designed by Gary Wyatt, United Kingdom, 2011.

75: Early American cards

75: Early American cards

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

The making of a Bridge or Bézique marker

The making of a Bridge or Bézique marker

This post-mortem was carried out on a Bezique marker which was already falling apart.

Card Game Items and contemporary advertisements

Card Game Items and contemporary advertisements

It is often difficult to identify the origin, manufacturer and date of a card game boxed set and oth...

1450 Early German playing cards

Early German playing cards

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

1926 Will’s Cigarettes and Auction Bridge

Will’s Cigarettes and Auction Bridge

In 1926 Will’s issued a set of 25 cigarette cards on Auction Bridge, presenting a range of hands ill...

A New Look at the Evolution of Whist Markers and Gaming Counters

A New Look at the Evolution of Whist Markers and Gaming Counters

This article aims to illustrate the evolution of whist and gaming counters from the 18th century to ...

Whist marker boxes

Whist marker boxes

The Camden Whist marker was being advertised by Goodall and son in 1872 as a new product.

1900 Bridge Markers and bridge scoring methods

Bridge Markers and bridge scoring methods

Bridge Markers and bridge scoring methods 1900-1930

1890 Foster’s Self-Playing Whist Cards

Foster’s Self-Playing Whist Cards

In 1890 R. F. Foster published the first edition of “Foster’s Whist Manual” which was to become the ...

Mystery Objects

Mystery Objects

I need help in identifying the purpose of this particular piece of card-playing kit.

1966 Sextet: 6 handed bridge

Sextet: 6 handed bridge

6 handed bridge playing cards designed by Ralph E. Peterson, 1966.

1650 The Parisian Tarot

The Parisian Tarot

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

2018 Skyline cards: London edition

Skyline cards: London edition

Skyline cards: London edition, featuring iconic architecture, United Kingdom, c. 2018.

2005 Easter Playing Cards

Easter Playing Cards

Egg-shaped cards with rabbit designs in soft, pastel colours for Easter.

1983 Tulsa City-County Library System Annual Report

Tulsa City-County Library System Annual Report

Tulsa City-County Library System Annual Report playing cards, USA, 1983.

Possible early astrological playing cards

Possible early astrological playing cards

Two early woodcuts that I believe to be playing cards.

2023 Fried Chicken Playing Cards

Fried Chicken Playing Cards

This innovative chicken-themed concept combines playing cards with the aroma of fried chicken.

2005 Sweetnotes playing cards

Sweetnotes playing cards

Heart-shaped cards with sweet notes on all the backs.

2022 Wine Labels & Chocolate Biscuits

Wine Labels & Chocolate Biscuits

‘Pinta en Copas’ playing card-themed wine labels sold at Día Supermarkets.

2022 Tarot of the Everlasting Day - AI Generated Tarot

Tarot of the Everlasting Day - AI Generated Tarot

Artificial Intelligence (AI) generated tarot deck produced by Marcus Katz. Is this science fiction o...

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....

1968 A New Year’s Greeting

A New Year’s Greeting

in the form of playing cards

1939 Lecardo

Lecardo

‘Lecardo’ playing cards, dominos & word building game invented by Stanley Kermode, United Kingdom, c...

1977 Il Quinto Seme

Il Quinto Seme

An Italian pack with a fifth suit of “amici” (“friends”).

1912 Kuhn Khan

Kuhn Khan

There is little information available about the early twentieth century card game Kuhn Kahn. It firs...

Poker Patience

Poker Patience

Poker Patience, according to an early 20th century author, was "introduced so recently as the autumn...

Piquet: the game and its artifacts

Piquet: the game and its artifacts

Piquet may be the oldest card game which is still played today with origins going back to early 16th...