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Seminole Wars deck by James Y. Humphreys, Philadelphia, c.1819

Court cards from the Seminole Wars deck by J. Y. Humphreys, Philadelphia, c.1819. Ace of Spades from Jazaniah Ford's Decatur deck, 1815. Jazaniah Ford was born in Milton (Massachusetts) in 1757

Historic Playing Cards

Seminole Wars deck by James Y. Humphreys, Philadelphia, c.1819

The front cover of Life Magazine, May 30, 1955, featured a colour photo of “Historic Playing Cards commemorating early U.S. events and heroes” whilst the accompanying article inside the magazine displayed “the masterpieces of colonial designers who created native styles as statesmen were building a new nation... Long before 1776 the independence of America was being declared by its arts and manufactures.. silverware, guns, furniture, houses & playing cards...”  The court cards shown are in fact from the Seminole Wars deck by J. Y. Humphreys, Philadelphia, c.1819, whilst the Ace of Spades is from Jazaniah Ford's Decatur deck, 1815.

After the Americans got rid of a king as a ruler they decided to eliminate royalty from their playing cards. General Washington himself became the king of hearts in the rare historical deck illustrated below. Thomas Jefferson is the king of clubs, John Quincy Adams the king of diamonds and General Andrew jackson (the Commander of the War) is the king of spades. The queens are classical divinities - Minerva the queen of spades, Venus the queen of hearts, Ceres of clubs, Justitia of diamonds. Jacks (or knaves) are Indian chiefs - Gy-ant-wachia the jack of diamonds, an unidentified chief the jack of spades, the Iroquois Joseph Brant the jack of clubs, Red Jacket the jack of hearts.

front cover of Life Magazine, May 30, 1955, featuring Historic Playing Cards commemorating early U.S. events and heroes

Above: the front cover of Life Magazine, May 30, 1955, featuring “Historic Playing Cards commemorating early U.S. events and heroes.”  The court cards are from J. Y. Humphreys' Seminole Wars deck, c.1819, whilst the Ace of Spades is from Jazaniah Ford's Decatur deck, 1815. The cards are hand-coloured with stencilled pips.

The wealthier colonists played “Pope Joan,” quadrille and whist. Few of them kept as full a gambling record as George Washington, whose diaries show that he lost six pounds, three shillings and three pence between 1772 and 1775. After he took control of the Continental army he banned card games among his men, as it was impossible to discriminate between “innocent play” and “criminal gaming.”

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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. 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.


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