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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

Cartomancy and Divination Cards

Playing cards are used for fortune-telling, predicting the future or even as a psychological adjunct to folk medicine and therapy.

English Fortune Telling and Divination Cards

Divination was practised by the ancient Greeks, and by the druids, the Celtic priests of the iron age, who consulted various types of omens, runes, bird droppings or holy books in an attempt to seek guidance from the gods or other supernatural entities. Needless to say, divination was considered a pagan practice and forbidden in the early Christian church. Early scientific notebooks contained alchemical and medical recipes, texts on geomancy and divination (often translated from Arabic texts or transmitted from ‘ancient physicians in Babylon’), natural philosophy and miscellaneous notes on astrology, dream interpretation, etc.

Above: two examples of early 18th century Fortune-Telling cards. 1. English Oracle cards, 1714; 2. 'Geistliche Karten', Germany, 1718, based upon Biblical counsel.

Knowledge of cartomancy came from an oral folk transmission totally independent of literacy which was ultimately a Gypsy folk tradition. Gypsies were a unique nomadic nation that migrated from India, through Romania, Hungary and Slovakia to the Czech Republic and Europe. They brought the ways of Indian mysticism and divination with them. For a time all divinatory and esoteric knowledge was erroneously attributed to “ancient Egypt”. Fortune telling with playing cards, or cartomancy, was popularized by the Gypsies in medieval Europe after the invention of playing cards [Keizer, 1999].

From the 16th to the 18th centuries Spanish sources offer a lot of information about cartomantic and magical uses of playing cards, where they had been incorporated into the healer's repertoire of methods. An early example is a reference by Pedro Ciruelo (1538) to fortune-telling using dice, playing cards or handwritten cards ("Estas suertes se echan en muchas maneras; o con dados o con cartas de naipes o con cédulas escritas"). Playing cards are used in much of Spanish-speaking America for fortune-telling, predicting the future or even as a psychological adjunct to folk medicine and therapy. The tradition goes back many centuries.

Queen of Hearts

“Lady Coventry’s Card”. The said Lady Coventry visited a fortune-teller who drew this card from the pack three times running. The first time the seer said “You will be rich,” the second time “You will marry a lord” and the third time “You will die young”. She did all three.

Playing cards were used in England for fortune telling in the middle of the 17th century, if not earlier. Cartomancy seems to have been practiced elsewhere much earlier, particularly France, where there had been a revival of interest in fortune-telling, the occult, prophecy, clairvoyance, etc., perhaps inspired by the prophecies of Nostradamus (1503-1566) in the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century Britain's Renaissance had reached its zenith. The world was fraught with wonders, and the learned men of the day were constructing elaborate new schemes to encompass the whole of knowledge. There was a society of fortune tellers in London who called themselves the Mercurii of London.

Lenthall cards, c.1690-1720

The cards shown right were published in the second half of the seventeenth century and are an example of English Divination or Oracle cards from this period. They involve looking up the prophecy by following a series of rules, reminiscent of numerology and dice throws, so that the answer is read on a specific card  read more →


Dr. Flamstead’s and Mr. Patridge’s New Fortune-Book containing their new-invented method of knowing one’s fortune by a pack of cards (1729) appears to be the oldest book with instructions on fortune-telling-with-cards in the English language  more

The cards shown below appear to follow Flamstead and Patridge’s system.

Fortune Telling cards probably published in London, c.1770

Above: Fortune Telling cards, probably published in London, c.1770. Images courtesy John Sings   see more


The cards shown below are from an English Fortune Telling pack of c.1800 by an unknown artist / engraver with a distictive repertoire of imagery resembling the sets of proverbial cards which were aids to wisdom   more

Generally, that is to say in a large majority of packs, the 'fortune' is printed at the bottom of the card, beneath an allegorical illustration depicting the predestined outcome.  Some packs are more engaging than others. The fortunes in the deck shown above appear to derive from the text of “Every Lady’s Own Fortune-Teller” 1793  (See p.54 onwards).

John Wallis published “The Gypsy's Last Legecy” or “New Pack of Fortune Telling Cards” in c.1806. This was republished c.1820/30 by his son Edward Wallis with the title “Cards of Destiny” or “Gipsey Predictions”. There are two sets of cards, one for ladies and one for gentlemen and an instruction card. The participants use the cards to ask questions of the opposite sex about the future.

Cartomancy was very popular in Spain.

Above: 1) Trío Palos, Cartomancia, c.1910. 2) Arte de echar las Cartas, Madrid, Saturnino Calleja, c.1910-1915. Biblioteca Nacional de España.


Above: Le Jeu du Destin Antique fortune-telling cards published by Piatnik in 1986, based on 19th century originals by Grimaud more


Patent Applications

A number of speculative “useful improvements in playing cards” were invented and patented over the years, presumably granting exclusive rights but not necessarily ever getting published, incorporating aspects of palmistry or cartomancy with interesting symbols and design layouts.

In 1873 Hammatt Billings, of Boston, Massachusetts, submitted a patent application for a set of Cabalistic Playing Cards

Cabalistic Cards, 1873

Above: Cabalistic playing cards invented and patented by Hammatt Billings, 1873. “My invention consists in a playing card which not only bears the sign indicating its ordinary name when used in the more common games, but also a sign, whether letters or figures, or both, indicating its name and signification when used in the game of fortune telling.”  see more


In 1903 Sarah A. Moulton and Luther V. Moulton, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, submitted a patent application for a set of Cartomancy Cards

Cartomancy Cards, 1903

Above: cartomancy playing cards invented and patented by Sarah A. Moulton, 1903. “The object of my invention is to provide playing cards with a single series of symbols adapted to serve in place of the symbols of the ordinary cards and at the same time well adapted for educational purposes and for cartomancy.”  see more


In 1903 A. J. Seymour, of Buffalo, New York, submitted a patent application for a set of Palmistry Cards

Palmistry Cards, 1903

Above: playing cards depicting aspects of Palmistry invented and patented by A. J. Seymour of Buffalo, New York, 1903. “This invention relates to a card game which embodies in a fanciful and amusing manner some of the features or characteristics upon which chirognomy or palmistry is based. The object of my invention is to provide a novel deck of playing-cards which renders card games more interesting and entertaining.”  more


Artists and seers are drawn to design even more compelling fortune telling and tarot packs, drawing upon esoteric philosophies, religion, mysticism, egyptology or inspired speculation. In some cases the theories are sublime: some purport higher authority or even a secret manuscript as their basis, whilst others rely upon correspondences with cabbalism, astrology, numerology, witchcraft, and so on.

 

Best known amongst the French cartomantic fortune tellers of the revolution era was Madame Lenormand, who had designed her own variant version of the tarot, and was said to have been consulted by Napoleon and predicted military disaster. There are several popular fortune telling narratives similar to the Madame Lenormand account found in booklets.  It usually runs like this:

Gypsy Bijou box, c.1910 Gypsy Bijou card no.6, c.1910 "At the end of the 18th century there lived a famous gypsy who had a great reputation as a fortune teller… she predicted the downfall of Napoleon and many other historical events… after her death her cards were found and are now reproduced here…"

[From "The Gypsy Bijou Fortune Telling Cards" guide, by Minetta.  Published by Foulsham & Co., London, c.1910 (36 cards)].

Illustration right: card no.6: "Clear clouds a sign of contentment. Dark clouds announce trouble." Minetta was the author of another published work on the 'Science of Card Fortune Telling' which claims to make the reader become an adept. A crystal ball is also advertised in the booklet, to be sold separately. Click here to see Lenormand pack by Müller   See also: Cartes Lenormand by H.P. Gibson.

Note: Mary Greer has shown that the earliest forerunner of the Lenormand cards is a 1796 book in English. See her blog: Mary K. Greer's Tarot Blog

Carreras Fortune Telling Cards, 1926

Carreras Fortune Telling Cards, 1926

The Carreras Fortune Telling Cards (36 cards) were published in 1926 for W.D. & H.O. Wills, Bristol, and issued by Carreras Ltd in various sizes and formats, and are of the same type as the above example. The cards were printed by chromo-lithography by B. Dondorf in Germany. A single card was enclosed inside every packet of “Black Cat” cigarettes.   See also: Cartes Lenormand by H.P. Gibson.

Right: cards no. 36, 35 & 34 from the narrow size edition with figure inserts. According to the guide booklet, which could be obtained separately, the Cross is always a bad foreboding and warns of bad luck. The Anchor is a favourable sign suggesting fidelity in love, profitable business and an overseas undertaking. The Fish predict good fortune and luck in your undertaking abroad.

The booklet accompanying the pack describes the cards as “those used by Mlle Silvia d'Arville's grandmother, who predicted Napoleon's victories, and his ruin…”.

Jack of Diamonds: For reasons apparently no longer known, in the 18th century the English referred to this card as “Jack Shepherd”. In fortune-telling circles the card usually indicates events involving someone who is very rich.

Picture Show Fortune Telling Cards, 1930

Picture Show Cards, 1930The Picture Show fortune telling pack was presented with the magazine 'Picture Show' in October 1930, and shows popular personalities of the day as the court cards, whilst the pip cards are combined with zodiac signs or the seasons of the year.

Left: King of Diamonds/Lewis Stone: "… a kind hearted, loving man of fair complexion considering marriage or some important change.".  Eight of Clubs/Cancer (The Crab): "People born under the sign of cancer are very difficult to understand…"

The pack comes as a series of uncut sheets of 16 cards each, printed in red and black only. The full divinatory interpretation for each card - upright and reversed - is printed on the back of the cards.  See more →

Rameses Fortune Telling Cards, 1910

Rameses Fortune Telling Cards, c.1910The Rameses Fortune Telling Cards were manufactured by Chas. Goodall & Son Ltd, London, c.1910, around the same time as Rameses The Egyptian Wonderworker, the successful magician illusionist, flourished. They are presented in a mock snakeskin box.

Left: back design from "The Rameses Fortune telling Cards" showing an Egyptian scene. Jack of Hearts: "Your dearest friend (pay attention to the cards nearest)" Reverse: "A pleasure loving bachelor; a fickle lover".

The pack comprises an ordinary pack of 52 cards, plus one Joker or 'Subject' card, with interpretations printed at the top and foot of each playing card.  An Instructions leaflet contains a treatise on how to give readings.

Romany Fortune Telling Cards, 1935

Romany Fortune Telling Cards, 1935

Romany Fortune Telling Cards, 1935 Romany Fortune Telling Cards, 1935 The Romany Fortune Telling Cards were published in 1935 by Thomson-Leng Publications for readers of women's magazines of the day (Red Letter, Red Star Weekly, Weekly Welcome, My Weekly, Secrets, Woman's Way, etc.), and printed by The Universal Playing Card Company, Leeds.  Original price: 2/6d.

Above Left: box from "The Original ROMANY Fortune telling Cards" showing a gypsy by a campfire, reading cards.   Jack of Hearts: "A fair man will bring you much happiness" Reverse: "Someone interested in you is fickle".

The pack comprises an ordinary pack of 52 cards, plus one Joker, with normal and reversed interpretations printed at the top and foot of each playing card. The extra card accompanying the pack describes the "Original Romany Way of Fortune Telling".


Le Petit Cartomancien

Above: three cards and wrapper from "Le Petit Cartomancien" fortune-telling cards manufactured by B.P. Grimaud, Paris. The miniature playing cards in the top corners depict full-length 'Paris' type courts, alongside contain divinatory interpretations with images of different personalities below.   See more →

If you would like to produce a home-made deck of Fortune-telling cards, download: Livre du Destin or Book of Fate a nineteenth century French Cartomancy deck, with titles in French and English, published in Paris, c.1890. 32 cards. Download the entire deck (21 MB) as large size images, suitable for desk-top publishing into hand-made pack. Images courtesy Gilles Daigle.

Detail from Fortune Telling Deck by Industrie Comptoir, Leipzig c.1818

See also:   Argentinean TaroccoBook of FateCartas BlancasCartas GitanasChinese Fortune Telling CardsEdyta Gdek Tarot17th Century Fortune-Telling Cards72 Names CardsGeistliche Karten, 1718German Fortune Telling cards, c.1818Cartes Lenormand by H.P. GibsonJason Ennis TarotMinchiateMlle Lenormand CartomancyNaipes Tu DestinoPicture Book of Ana CortezThe Fortune Teller's DeckRussell Grant Astro-TarotPicture Show Zodiac Fortune Telling CardsRamses II TarotSelf-Nurturing SolitaireTarocco BologneseTarocco PiemontesiTarot Egipcios KierWelsh TarotTarot

REFERENCES & RESOURCES

See Mary Greer's Tarot Blog for more details and references about divination with cards.

Keizer, Lewis: The Esoteric Origins of Tarot: more than a wicked pack of cards, included in The Underground Stream by Christine Payne Towler, Noreah Press, 1999. Can be found online

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

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