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The Henry Hart Puzzle

Published June 17, 2024 Updated June 18, 2024

Explore the intricate history and unique design variations of Henry Hart's playing cards, tracing their journey from 18th-century England to America.

United Kingdom Hart (Henry) Jazaniah Ford WCMPC Aces History Tax Add to Collection

The Court minutes of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards record that John Hart became a Court Assistant of the Company in 1728 and that he was Master for the year commencing November 1733. In 1749 he was joined on the Court by John Hart Jr, and in 1761 by Henry Hart. Henry Hart was Master of the Company for the year commencing November 1763.

Above Left: WCMPC Minutes Oct. 15th 1728, John Hart as Court Assistant. Above Right: WCMPC Minutes Nov. 30th 1763, Henry Hart chosen as Master. (Red underlining added to assist finding the entries.)

A search of the London birth and baptism records retrieves many entries for both “John Hart” and “Henry Hart”, but only one pair shows the same parents, John and Anne. We infer that these are the correct records, in which case Henry Hart was born in 1716 and John in 1722.

In 1763, Henry is listed in London’s ‘Universal Directory (Mortimer)’ for the first time, having premises at Lambs Conduit Street (Red Lion Square) in London. It is likely that the business had in fact been going for some time previously. In 1765, the first English “tax aces” were introduced. From this year on, every ace of spades was printed by the Stamp Office and carried the name of the card maker. The maker had to buy these aces by the sheet from the Stamp Office, thereby paying the tax. Hart was one of six card makers who registered in 1765 to have these aces made. The Stamp Office also offered exportation versions of the aces. These were similar in appearance, but no duty was payable on cards exported. Hart was one of five card makers registered for exportation aces.

In 1776 the duty increased and the ace of spades was re-designed to show the additional 6d duty paid. The same year, two card makers were bankrupt (possibly as a result of the increased duty). Hart registered in 1776 for the new ace. In 1789 the duty increased again and we have an example of Hart’s ace showing this later duty – additional 6d duty twice over. Hart was bankrupt in 1797. It is likely that he died in 1801, the only potential match in the burial records. He would then have been 85.

An appearance in America?

Above: apparently American wrapper for a Henry Hart deck.

The standard reference book for American cards is The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing-cards by Tom and Judy Dawson. In the section on Early Makers (in the printed version of 2000) we find:

Henry Hart produced cards in the latter portion of the 18th century in England and his cards, with exportation Ace, have been found in the United States. The wrapper listed as U39 and shown left indicates he also produced cards in America or were there two Henry Hart’s? Or did someone import Henry Hart decks and put them in American wrappers, perhaps with an American Ace of Spades? Another mystery to be solved!

For the wrapper illustrated (Left), The Hochman Encyclopedia gives a date c1810.

This cannot be Henry Hart, unless the date of death is wrong and he lived well into his nineties. If this business is related to Henry’s, perhaps it is a younger relative with the same name? We have been unable to find a direct descendant in the records. This American mystery is part of a more general puzzle surrounding Hart: the known sets of cards by Hart vary greatly and somewhat suspiciously in appearance.

Appearance of the Cards

There is little in the history to suggest anything unusual – Hart is never suggested as one of the makers who may have indulged in illegal printing of home-made forged tax aces, for example. Yet the cards show considerable and puzzling variation in the ace of spades and in the appearance of the court cards generally.

The cards illustrated below, we believe, are standard cards made by Hart in London. The Codes (A25 etc) are references that can be seen on plainbacks.com.

Above: A25: Ace of Spades.

Above: A25: Queen of Clubs.

Above: A25: King of Hearts.

Above: A20: Ace of Spades.

Above: A20: Queen of Hearts.

Above: A20: King of Hearts.

Above: A30: Ace of Spades.

Above: A30: Queen of Hearts.

Above: A30: King of Hearts.

Above: A2: Ace of Spades.

Above: A2: Queen of Hearts.

Above: A2: King of Hearts.

Cards showing more variation:

Above: A16: Ace of Spades.

Above: A16: Queen of Hearts.

Above: A16: King of Hearts.

Above: A28: Ace of Spades.

Above: A28: Queen of Hearts.

Above: A28: King of Hearts.

Above: A29: Ace of Spades.

Above: A29: Queen of Hearts.

Above: A29: King of Hearts.

The temptation to forge tax aces was considerable. The tax was worth more than the cards, so printing the ace of spades ‘in-house’ more than doubled the value to the seller. The official aces were printed from metal plates, while the card makers used wooden blocks, which cannot capture fine detail. The ace for ‘A16’ looks strange in comparison to the others and the ace of ‘A28’ is the only one named ‘Henry Hart’ not plain ‘Hart’. Makers did not normally give forenames, adding initials if there were other makers with the same name (usually from the same family).

However - all known forgeries are forgeries of the taxable ace. After all, why would anyone forge an exportation ace, on which no duty was payable anyway? We will return to this later.

Court cards naturally differ between makers to some extent, but always within the context of the generally understood ‘standard’. Here some of the Hart cards use designs and colours that are not typical of English cards of this period. ‘A16’ has no blue colouring, for example, and the style is qualitatively more like later American cards. The delineation of faces of ‘A28’ is much clearer than the known English cards, and the eyes have no outline which is highly unusual. ‘A29’ could certainly be English, but its design would fit better with cards of the next decade or so.

Measurements

We recorded the dimensions of a number of card sets in the period 1765-1800. The thickness is represented by gsm – grammes per square metre. The gsm value is the weight of the whole set divided by its area in square metres (the area of one card times the number of cards present). One pack with 357 gsm was excluded from the reference group. Cards of this period were made with three layers of paper glued together. This lighter pack had de-laminated – i.e come apart - and it was repaired recently. It is possible that cards in this set had lost a layer before their repair.

Reference set: measurements of 16 packs from the same era by other makers.

width mm height mm Gsm
Avg. of 16 packs, 1765-1800 63.2 93.0 458
Std. Deviation of same 0.9 1.5 18

Measurements for the Hart cards

Model Width (mm) Height (mm) GSM
Hart A28 63 89.5 355
Hart A29 63 93.5 379
Hart A16 63.5 91 393
Hart A2 64 93 459
Hart A25 63.5 95 460
Hart A30 63.5 94 467
Hart A20 64 94 469

The Hart cards are presented in order of increasing ‘gsm’ values. The first three are a long way outside the range of the reference group.

Combining our measurements with our observations, it appears that: A2, A25, A30 and A20 are genuine cards made by Hart in London. A28 and A16 are light in weight and do not look typical of English cards. A29 is also light and looks ‘different’ or at least later than the 1790s.

The New York tax wrapper and the appearance of one particular set of court cards suggest that we should also make a comparison with American cards.

Reference set: measurements of 14 packs by early American makers

Width mm Height mm Gsm
Avg. of 14 American packs made before 1840 63.6 91.4 344
Std. Deviation of same 0.5 1.4 27

The lightness of three Hart packs is consistent with American production. We tested the cards with much more accurate scales. If the ace of spades was a Hart original added to an otherwise American pack, we might expect it to be heavier than the other cards. None of the Hart examples suggests this mixing. The ‘feel’ of the aces matches the other cards, and in the case of the set with a pattern on the back, the ace has the same pattern as the remaining cards.

More on Appearances

Comparing Hart A16 with cards by Jazaniah Ford circa 1815:

Above: Hart A16.

Above: Jaz. Ford.

Above: Hart A16.

Above: Jaz. Ford.

The similarity between the Queens is unmistakeable. The Kings differ a little in style, but note the arrows on the ‘ermine’ lapels of the kings’ gowns, for example. While the maker may not be Ford, the style is definitely American not English.

Above: Six of Spades by Ford: Illustrates the unique up-down symmetry typical of American cards from this era, absent in contemporary English cards."

However: in this era the majority of American cards have pip cards with an arrangement not seen in English cards of the period. For example this six of spades from Ford:

Note the perfect up-down symmetry! While the court cards are still full figures that can only be viewed one way, the pip cards look the same if they are turned upside-down. None of the Hart cards has reversed pips.

The set Hart A28 has a pattern on the back, unlike any of the 16 English sets we have seen in the same period. We can compare this with some American examples (right). The Hart with a pattern is very compatible with these American examples. However, American cards of this era are occasionally plain, and European cards quite often have simple patterns like the American ones shown.

Above: Hart A28.

Above: Jaz. Ford.

Above: Casenave.

Above: Humphreys

The last factor is the paper type. The English cards are made from laid paper, having fine and closely spaced lines where wires were used in the manufacture. The American cards are typically, but not always, wove. This creates a smooth surface. Of all the Hart examples, only A28 – the pack with the printed back - has a wove paper finish.

Let us summarise our analysis of the “Hart” sets:

A2 Hart A16 Hart A20 Hart A25 Hart A28 Hart A29 Hart A30 Hart
AS ok ?? ok ok ?? Ok ok
Courts English American English English American English/ later English
gsm English US English English US US English
Back plain Pattern American plain plain plain plain plain
Paper Laid Wove Laid Laid Laid Laid Laid
Pips English English English English English English English

Thus: A2, A20, A25 and A30 give us little concern and appear to be typical cards that we would expect from an English maker in this era. A16 and A28 seem very likely to have been made in America. For now, A29 seems more likely to be English with a lighter weight and a later pattern than the other examples by Hart. It is possible that when his business was wound up, his stock of pre-paid tax aces was bought by another maker and used up.

Why then copy the ‘Exportation’ aces – upon which there was never any tax? Presumably the American manufacturers made these aces simply because that’s what their customers were used to. Additionally, if the early American manufacturing industry did not have any official recognition, the use of this ace would have been a safe face to hide behind.

In conclusion, then, Henry Hart’s business looks honest and several sets of cards seem correctly attributable to him. It is possible that one pack is by another maker with a genuine Hart ace. Two packs are very probably early American manufacture, using the Hart name as a reassurance to their customers.

The author thanks Judy Dawson for permission to reproduce the item on Henry Hart from The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing-cards (print edition 2000).

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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.


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