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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.

Aesop’s Fables

Aesop’s Fables playing cards by I. Kirk, c.1759.

Aesop was the most famous fable-teller of ancient Greece, over 2,500 years ago. He told fables on all matters where a moral could be added. Over the centuries these fables have been translated, re-told and presented in many different formats, registers and regional styles.

Boar and Ass illustration from a woodcut series of Aesop, Genoa, 1557

Above: the Boar and Ass illustration from a woodcut series of Aesop, Genoa, 1557.

Featured on this page are cards from the 1759 edition of Aesop's Fables playing cards by I. Kirk (St Paul’s Churchyard, London) based on drawings by Francis Barlow (c.1626–1704) and also from a facsimile edition of Aesop's Fable Cards published by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (USA).

Aesop's Fables by J Kirk, St Paul's Churchyard, London 1756-65

Above: Ace of Spades from the 1759 edition by I. Kirk (London) with the red tax stamp and ‘GR’ cypher. Image courtesy WCMPC


Boar and Ass, J Kirk, 1759
Wolf and Lamb, J. Kirk, 1759

Above: two cards from uncoloured facsimile edition of I.Kirk’s Aesop’s Fables playing cards published by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (USA). See the Wrapper


More Original Cards

An advertisement in the Public Advertiser for December 17, 1759 reads “Æsop's Fables exactly copied after Barlow, with fables and morals in verse, to be had of the proprietor, I. Kirk at the Grotto Toy Shop in St Paul’s Churchyard.”

Above: etching by James Kirk after Francis Barlow, c.1760. 15.9 x 17.2 cm. Courtesy The Elisha Whittelsey Collection.


The Wolf & Lamb from Aesop, Vita et Fabulae, Naples, 1485

Above: The Wolf & Lamb woodcut illustration and text from “Aesop, Vita et Fabulae”, Naples, 1485.

REFERENCES

Hargrave, Catherine Perry: A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming, Dover Publications, New York, 1966

Mann, Sylvia: All Cards on the Table, Jonas Verlag/Deutsches Spielkarten-Museum, Leinfelden-Echterdingen, 1990

Christie’s, Illuminated Manuscripts & Valuable Printed Books auction catalogue, June 1991.

Sotheby’s, Valuable Printed Books and Manuscripts auction catalogue, September 1988.

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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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