A History of Playing Cards

A timeline of the glorious history.

A History of Playing Cards

Ever wonder about the history of playing cards? We have you covered.
All years are CE (Common Era).

868: Chinese writer Su E describes Princess Tong Cheng playing the “leaf game” with her husband’s family, the Wei Clan. This makes the Tang Dynasty the earliest official mention of playing cards in world history.

1005: Ouyang Xiu, another Chinese writer, associates the rising popularity of playing cards with the production of sheets of paper instead of the traditional scrolls.

1300s: Playing cards come to Europe—which we know because in 1367, an official ordinance mentions them being banned in Bern, Switzerland.

1377: A Paris ordinance on gaming mentions playing cards, meaning they were so widespread that the city had to make rules to keep players in check.

1400s: Familiar suits start appearing on playing cards across the world—hearts, bells, leaves, acorns, swords, batons, cups, coins.

1418: Professional cardmakers in Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg start using woodcuts to mass-produce decks.

1430-50: The Master of Playing Cards arrives in Germany. Nobody knows who this guy actually is, but it seems that, unlike other card producers of the day, he trained as an artist as opposed to an engraver, making him unique in the business. His playing cards were far more artistically sound than his predecessors.

1480: France begins producing decks with suits of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. The clubs are probably a modified acorn design, while the spade is a stylized leaf.

Late 1400s: By the end of the century, European court cards switch from current royalty to historical or classic figures.

1500s: Rouen, France, becomes England’s primary provider of playing cards, while a Parisian design swept France. It’s the Parisian design we’re most familiar with today.

1790s: Before the French revolution, the king was always the highest card in a suit; the Ace begins its journey to the top.

1867: Russell, Morgan, & Co is founded in Cincinnati, Ohio as a company that prints theatrical and circus posters, labels, and playing cards.

1870s: The Joker makes its first appearance as the third and highest trump (the best bower) in the game of Euchre. Some believe the name “joker” is actually derived from the word “juker,” another name for Euchre.

1885: The first Bicycle® Brand cards are produced by Russell, Morgan, & Co.

1894: Russell, Morgan, & Co. becomes The United States Playing Card Company, acquiring the Standard Playing Card Company (Chicago), Perfection Card Company (New York), and New York Consolidated Card Company (also New York).

1939: Leo Mayer discovers a Mameluke deck (cards made in Mamluk Egypt) in Istanbul dating from the 12th or 13th century.

1942: The United States Playing Card Company begins producing Bicycle® Spotter Decks to help soldiers identify tanks, ships, and aircraft from other countries. They also produced decks for POWs that pulled apart to reveal maps when moistened.

1966: During the Vietnam war, two lieutenants write The United States Playing Card Company to request decks containing nothing but Ace of Spades cards. The cards frightened the highly superstitious Viet Cong, who believed Spades predicted death.

2013: The United States Playing Card Company founds Club 808, prompting the biggest Bicycle® playing card fans from all over the world to join together to read great articles, hear from celebrity card players, and get cool stuff. Welcome to the club.

Sources:

Caldwell, Ross Gregory. “Early Card Painters and Printers in Germany, Austria, and Flandern (14th and 15th Century).” Playing Cards. 2003. http://trionfi.com/0/p/20/. 14 April 2013.

MacPherson, Hugh. “The History of Playing Cards.” Textualities. 2009. http://textualities.net/hugh-macpherson/the-history-of-playing-cards/ 15 April 2013.

Parlett, David (1990), The Oxford Guide to Card GamesOxford University PressISBN 0-19-214165-1

Wilkinson, W.H. (1895). “Chinese Origin of Playing Cards.” American Anthropologist VIII (1): 61–78.

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