The World of Playing Cards Logo
Published May 23, 2024 Updated May 23, 2024

Why our playing-cards look the way they do

Analysis of early playing card designs: origins, suit differences, standardization, technological advancements and key innovations leading to modern designs.

Caleb Bartlett De la Rue Hardy Hart (Samuel) Hunt & Sons History Indices Innovation Joker Standard Pattern Suits Add to Collection

Above: Conventional Suit Signs


Above: French Suits

Let’s begin in 1376, when playing-cards started to appear in Southern European countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. These differ from other cards (Chinese and Indian say) in at least three important ways that we still see today. Firstly, they are arranged in suits, specifically four. Secondly, we have a hierarchy of rankings, with court cards at the top and numbered cards below. Thirdly, the court cards show pictures of people.

From the very earliest days, the suit names and their depictions are different in different areas. In the South, we have Swords, Cups, Coins and Batons, all still visible on Spanish and Italian playing cards today. In the North we have Leaves, Hearts, Bells and Acorns, still seen in Germanic countries.

The suit names and signs adopted by the English and Americans initially came from France. They are much more abstract. After 1400, it is thought that a French maker created these so that they could be stenciled instead of being printed in color. This applies to every ‘pip’ on every card, making the process much quicker and cheaper.

Above: Jacks from several regional French patterns

Modern French cards come in only one design, the ‘Paris Pattern’ following a Law of 1701. Before then there were a dozen or so regional variations. This is significant because it helps answer a ‘Frequently asked Question’, namely “what is the significance of the choices/ poses of the court figures?”

The Jacks illustrated above all show what must be the same figure in the same pose, but it has been given different suits in different regions. We also see examples where the same figure is shown sometimes facing right and sometimes left. The use of a common set of figures in differing ways was first noted by English card expert Ken Lodge. Conclusion: the exact details have no significance!

The English began making cards around 1600, and they were copies of a pattern from Rouen, France.

The English cards appear more abstract for a reason noted by the IPCS: the copying was done very frequently and the images deteriorated more and more. This is not abstract design but pure error!


A New Ace of Spades

Above: Aces of spades by woodblock and by metal plate.

A significant change came in 1765, when England introduced a special Ace of Spades. These aces were printed by the Tax Office and card makers had to buy them, thereby paying the tax. This was then added to the selling price of the pack.

Above: Arbitrary numbering of packs gives an official look

At the time, card makers were printing with wood blocks and these aces were printed by metal engraving, a more expensive technology capable of fine detail. The idea was to make the design hard to copy. The aces were printed in sheets of twenty, each having a number. In the Yates and Barnes illustrated Ace above, you may be able to see “No 2” across the design under the spade sign. This was in case of small differences in engraving: any ace found in use could then be compared with the exact same reference ace out of the twenty.

The tax on playing cards is no longer with us but we now expect to see a fancy, highly decorative ace of spades normally showing the maker. The system has also left us with the impression that numbering packs makes them more official. Sometimes this is on the box, sometimes on the Ace of Spades – see the examples below.


The First Standard 1765-1832

Above: A standard across two continents and 60 years

With the new Ace of Spades in place, we recognize the first standard pattern. To recap briefly, we have the French choice of simplified suits and the full-length court cards from Rouen. A century or more of poor copying has made the designs abstract. We then have the idea of an elaborate and numbered Ace of Spades.


Revolution!

Above: Woodblock (left) and lithography.

Soon after 1830 changes began to come quickly. The first change was in the printing technology. Trained as a printer, Thomas De La Rue began to use lithography in 1832. This change had an enormous impact: it took playing card making out of the artisans’ shops and onto the factory floor. Mass production followed rapidly. In the US, industrial printing was pioneered by Lewis Cohen.

Around 1840, De La Rue had another lasting idea – colorful printing on the backs of card. Until then, card backs were usually plain, or very simply decorated. De La Rue commissioned a well-known architect and artist, Owen Jones, to produce attractive back designs. These soon became the norm and we now find it hard to imagine cards without printed back designs.


Double Ends: Late adopters

Above: An early English double-ended version made almost literally by cutting the single figure in half and repeating it below.

Modern cards have two ends – the court figures have been cut in two and reflected over the middle line. This very obviously makes it much easier to arrange a hand of cards. The English and the Americans were very late adopters of this idea. European cards started to become double ended before 1800 while the idea is rare in Anglo-American cards before 1850 or so.

Above: Corner Indices: “Saladees Patent” by Samuel Hart

The next two innovations came from the New York firms, particularly Samuel Hart. Firstly, Hart introduced ‘corner indices’. These are the small pip signs and numerals shown in the corners of each card. The great advantage is that players can see what they hold by fanning the cards a little, instead of having to go through the cards one at a time.

Unintentionally, this innovation gradually liberated the faces of the cards. The card faces can nowadays show a set of souvenir photographs or abstract art: as long as they show these corner indices, we can still play card games with them.

The other New York innovation was the Joker, brought in for Euchre. This card can now be used in other games as a spare card if one is lost, or as a wild-card for amusing variations on standard rules. Unlike other cards, the Joker did not come with a standard appearance, and card designers have exploited this to maximum effect with imaginative and amusing designs.

Above: Eagle Joker c1870 and Hart ‘Best Bower’ 1860s.


The Modern Standard from around 1890

Above: The new standard: an English and an American example. These cards still look familiar today.

So, after 1830 a lot of changes came in a short space of time: double ends, lithography, printed decorative backs, corner indices and Jokers. Once all these changes had been absorbed – and of course widely copied - things settled and a new standard emerged. Now some 130 years later, the 1880s designs are still familiar.


References

  • Bostock, Paul; Clear the Decks, 52 Plus Joker, Vol. 32, No. 1 (June 2018)
avatar
8 Articles

By Paul Bostock

Member since May 07, 2024

Paul has been a collector of playing cards since his early teenage years, the mid 1970s. In the last 20 years or so he has specialised in standard English cards and their story. His collection, including many other English Standards, are featured on his website plainbacks.com. Paul is currently editor of Clear the Decks, the Journal of 52 Plus Joker, the American club for playing card collectors, and is a member of the IPCS Council, an EPCS member and a Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing cards, a City of London livery company.


Related Articles

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

A limited edition art print of the 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 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 Jack of Clubs

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

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

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.

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...

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...

1875 Laughing Made Easy

Laughing Made Easy

a Victorian card game published by D. Ogilvy.

1877 Word Making and Word Taking

Word Making and Word Taking

How crossword and spelling games became popular.

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...

2020 Commoners playing cards

Commoners playing cards

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

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...

1996 Postak – Las Postas

Postak – Las Postas

‘Postak - Las Postas’ playing cards commemorating the history of the Basque postal service, Spain, 1...

1904 Miniature Card Dominoes

Miniature Card Dominoes

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

1987 Bischofszell

Bischofszell

Advertising pack for the food producer Bischofszell, designed by Heinz Looser-Brenner, with non-stan...

1973 Marcello Morandini

Marcello Morandini

Modern designs by Italian artist Marcello Morandini using the simplest of forms and colours.

1960 Cartes à Jouer Fluorescentes

Cartes à Jouer Fluorescentes

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

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.

1869 The Evolution of Bezique boxed sets, 1869 to 1990

The Evolution of Bezique boxed sets, 1869 to 1990

The first company to register Bezique materials with Stationers’ Hall was Josh Reynolds & Son in Sep...

1879 Goodall 1879-1880 Sample Book

Goodall 1879-1880 Sample Book

Complete contents of a sample book by Goodall & Sons

1933 De La Rue 1932-1933 Sample Book of Advertising cards

De La Rue 1932-1933 Sample Book of Advertising cards

Complete contents of a sample book of advertising cards by De La Rue

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...

1864 De La Rue Pocket Guides

De La Rue Pocket Guides

The 19th Century saw the production, by all of the major companies, of pocket guides or “mini-books”...

1450 Early German playing cards

Early German playing cards

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

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 ...

2023 Carte Bolognesi

Carte Bolognesi

New designs reinforcing Bologna’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of Italy.

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 ...

What can we learn from mini-booklet advertisements?

What can we learn from mini-booklet advertisements?

Over the years I have collected a large number of mini-booklets and pocket guides offering rules and...

1693 Infirrera

Infirrera

Italo-Portuguese-suited cards by Andrea Infirrera with the arms of Malta, 1693.

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.

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.

1995 Stars of Country Music

Stars of Country Music

Stars of Country Music playing cards with non-standard suit symbols, USA, 1995

1999 New Orleans Suits

New Orleans Suits

New Orleans Suits playing cards designed by Eddie Tebbe, USA, 1999.

1950 Standard Swiss-German pattern (single-ended)

Standard Swiss-German pattern (single-ended)

20th century version of a single-ended Swiss-German pattern pack for the game of Jass.

2023 Fried Chicken Playing Cards

Fried Chicken Playing Cards

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

1999 The Fat Pack

The Fat Pack

A vastly expanded pack with 8 suits for playing traditional or new games, devised by Roger Howard Bu...

1962 Le Burling

Le Burling

1960s pack from Annecy with non-standard suits all connected with the office.

1982 Imperial Club playing cards

Imperial Club playing cards

Large index broad size cards by AGMüller using a special red ink suitable for casinos.