What did an 18th Century Playing Card Factory look like?
Amos Whitney (1766-1804) was a playing card manufacturer from Boston, USA. An advertisement dated October 1799 offered Superfine Columbian, Harry the Eighth and Merry Andrew Playing Cards for sale. The following list of the items sold at auction following the death of Amos Whitney give us an insight into the equipment which was used inside a playing card manufacturing workshop:
2 sets new Court Blocks; and 8 do partly worn, for English or American Cards; 1 set do for Spanish Cards; 1 set do for French Cards; 1 shew card block; 2 sets Types for printing backs of French or Spanish cards; 1 set Court Blocks in brass, for English; 1 Block and 2 Copperplates for Aces; 10 Blocks for do of various descriptions in metal; 2 Blocks for Counters; 15 sets new Court Card stencils, 8 of which from new blocks; a number sets do in good condition; 1 set do for Shew Cards; 8 sets do for pips or spots, new; 6 sets do for Spanish Cards; 2 sets do for French Cards; 7 pasting brushes; about 4 doz Painting do part of them new; 11 Loting do; 4 Glazing machines and Marbles complete; about 4 doz Flints for polishing, chiefly new; 1 Printing Press; one hand do for wrappers; 8 Cutting Machines large and small; about 1200 Poles for hanging paper; about 1500 Hooks for do; about 4700 printed Covers or Wrappers for Cards of different descriptions; and 10 dozen Press boards of maple and pine. Also listed were: a Copper, containing 55 gallons; 3 large iron bound screw presses; 4 Stoves and Funnels; 1 large and 2 small Scale Beams, scales and weights; a quantity of Vermillion; Red Lead; French Berries; Lamp Black, etc.
Above: interior view of playing card workshop where colouring, polishing and cutting operations are taking place. The polishing was done using a marble slab and flint stones fixed to the apparatus hanging from the ceiling. The person at the right is using some industrial scissors to cut out the finished playing cards. Illustration from L'Encyclopedie by Diderot, d'Alembert, Paris, 1751.
From the above list of equipment we learn that several types of blocks were used for printing English or American, Spanish and French-type cards, and that some blocks were made of brass. The others may have been woodblocks. There were pasting brushes and painting brushes. Also, cutting machines were used, probably similar to the big scissors apparatus which can be seen in the illustration. From the above it is possible to reconstruct the processes that went into the making of cards of that time, including the pigments for the colours. It is also interesting to compare this with the earlier descriptions of the Rotxotxo Workshop Inventories, Barcelona and Thomas de la Rue's Innovations in Playing Card Printing →
Above: interior view of playing card workshop drying area. The freshly pasted sheets of cardboard are prepared for hanging up to dry on wires. After a certain time the sheets of cardboard were removed from the press, brushed to remove any dirt and then pierced with a spike so that they could be hung up on wires in the drying rooms. These areas were well ventilated rooms at the top of the building. The dried cardboard was then stored. Illustration from L'Encyclopedie by Diderot, d'Alembert, Paris, 1751.
Until the latter end of the 18th century playing card backs were left plain white. The problem with this was that card backs became easily marked during play, and would thereby become recognisable by an opponent. It was expensive to buy another new pack, so spoilt cards would be returned to the workshop for cleaning. Some playing card manufacturers began to print repeating geometric patterns of stars or dots on the reverse of the cards to minimise this problem, and we can see that Amos Whitney used types for printing the backs of cards. Marbled or mottled backs were also produced. During the 19th century more elaborate designs appeared, and ultimately... advertising.