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Published February 28, 2013 Updated June 03, 2022

The Steamboat Brand

The theme of steamboats navigating up and down the Mississippi also extended to the cotton plantations alongside the river and to African American people employed therein who were sometimes depicted on the special Joker card.

USA Steamboat Americana History Add to Collection

Owing to the romantic appeal of gambling on the Mississippi river, from the 1870s onwards many American playing card manufacturers added “Steamboats” to their range, differentiated by a number, such as 99 or 999. There do not appear to have been any copyright restrictions or patent laws covering the use of the name “Steamboats” as various manufacturers had this brand in their range. This is not the case with other brands such as “Bicycle” or “Bee”. “Steamboats” tended to be the cheaper end of the range, often but not always produced in a rudimentary quality. The theme of steamboats navigating up and down the Mississippi also extended to the cotton plantations alongside the river and to African American people employed therein who were sometimes depicted on the special Joker card. Times have changed and these cards are now documentary evidence of a past era of history.

Steamboat No.999 produced by Russell & Morgan Co., Cincinnati, USA, c.1883

Above: Steamboat No.999 produced by Russell & Morgan Co., Cincinnati, USA, c.1883. This was the cheapest deck they offered for sale and in this instance only two colours were used on the court cards to keep the printing costs to a minimum   more →

Steamboat No.999 produced by the United States Printing Co., Cincinnati, USA, c.1891

Above: a slightly later edition of 'Steamboat No.999' playing cards produced in three colours by the United States Printing Co (Russell & Morgan Factories), Cincinnati, USA, c.1891. The Ace of Spades now has the number 999 but not the title “Steamboat” although the image of a steamboat is evoked.

Superior Steamboats No.9, National Card Co, c.1885

Above: Superior Steamboats No.9, National Card Co, c.1885. Although the Steamboats brand was the bottom of the line quality-wise with all makers, this particular deck is gold edged!   more →

'Steamboats No.99' playing cards produced by the American Playing Card Co. of Kalamazoo, c.1890

Above: 'Steamboats No.99' playing cards produced by the American Playing Card Co. of Kalamazoo, c.1890. The Ace of Spades is rather patriotic and the court cards appear to be based on the earlier designs of Russell & Morgan (U.S.P.C.C.)   more →

Steamboats #66 playing cards, Kalamazoo Paper Box & Card Co., c.1903

Above: Steamboats #66 playing cards manufactured by the Kalamazoo Paper Box & Card Co., c.1903. The Joker in this deck depicts an able seaman standing in front of a cleat   more →

As an indication of just how widespread the the “Steamboats” brand was, other manufacturers produced their own versions. In some instances, the term “Steamboats” was used to mean lowest quality, whether they were labelled as such or not. See also: Lawrence & Cohen; Samuel Hart & Co; John J. Levy; Victor Mauger; Globe Playing Card Co (c.1880); Perfection P.C. Co (c.1885-90); Andrew Dougherty (1888 and c.1910); Card Fabrique Co; American Playing Card Co (c.1887); Excelsior Card Co (c.1895); Chicago-American Card Co (c.1895); Shakespearian P.C.C. (N.Y.C.C. c.1895); North American Card Co (1897); Crescent Playing Card Co (c,1900); Dorrity Card Manufacturing Co (c.1903); New Chicago P.C. Co (c.1903); Bay State Card Co (c.1900 and c.1905); N.Y. Consolidated Card Co (c.1890 and c.1910); St Louis Playing Card Co (alias Kalamazoo P.C., c.1905); Standard Playing Card Manufacturing Co (c.1890 and c.1900); Universal Playing Card Co (alias Kalamazoo P.C., c.1911); American Bank Note Co; Russell P.C.C.; the Canadian P.C.C. (1914) and Montreal Litho, making a total of well over 30 different versions. About three years ago, U.S.P.C. discontinued the brand. However, a private vendor obtained a special arrangement with U.S.P.C. whereby the brand is available at www.dananddave.com.

St. Louis Southwestern Railway Lines, the Cotton Belt Route, 1903

As a final souvenir from that bygone era, this deck also relates to the cotton plantations that were located in the States through which the steamboats travelled on their voyages up and down the Mississippi River.

St. Louis Southwestern Railway Lines, The Cotton Belt Route, 1903 St. Louis Southwestern Railway Lines, The Cotton Belt Route, 1903

Above: this Cotton route deck published in 1903 by St. Louis Southwestern Railway Lines is a standard deck with advertising only on the box, back design and coordinated Joker. Accordingly, the deck was used for regular play. To find a specimen in excellent or mint condition is therefore a rarity. This specimen is gold edged.

Conclusion

It was the romantic mystique surrounding the gambling that regularly took place on the Steamboats and the folklore that built up around legendary Mississippi gamblers that card makers exploited in this very popular brand of playing cards. The evocation of the life in the steamboat era provides a melancholy reminiscence of that bygone age.


REFERENCES

Dawson, Tom & Judy: The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards, U.S. Games Systems Inc., 2000

All images on this page are from the collection of Rod Starling, author of "The Art and Pleasures of Playing Cards".

Steamboat Cards and the Mississippi Mystique by Rod Starling. Download as Adobe Acrobat file.

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94 Articles

By Rod Starling

Member since January 09, 2013

Rod Starling was one of the founding members of the 52 Plus Joker card collectors club. He authored many articles for the club's quarterly newsletter, Clear the Decks. His collection encompasses both foreign and American decks. Rod also authored a book titled The Art and Pleasures of Playing Cards.


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