Unknown Beginnings ...
The earliest origins of playing cards are really unknown. They are believed to be originally sourced from Asia ... specifically China. The records are very limited here but there is some evidence of the use of cards for the game of dominos in China dating back as far as 1000 AD.
Wood block printing in China has traces to as early as the 7th century AD ... and there is also some evidence of the use of paper cards as currency notes somewhere between 600 - 900 AD in China. It was in this time that the production of paper became widespread in China. It appears as though what we now know as playing cards evolved in China and Asia somewhere in the 11th or 12th century ... and may have been interchangeable w/ the domino cards of the time.
There's also a rich history of playing cards from India but unfortunately the documented records don't show accurate timeframes for when these beautifully illustrated cards first came about. There are references to Indian cards back to as far as 16th century w/ the playing of the card game Ganjifa. It's very likely that the use of these cards for these puposes far preceeded the documented records. Some theories state that the Indian cards were influenced and inspired by Persian designs ... for at the time the great Mogul Muslim Dynasty was in dominance in the Central Asia region. It's believed that the Persian inspiration was ... in turn ... Eastern or Chinese.
Other Games of the East
Although we're focsing here on the playing card ... it's origins ... and it's likely migrations ... it turns out that China & Asia has served as host to many games of chance, cunning, and morality that have modern contemporaries in our society today. Some of them include the following:
Westward They Go
- Chess in India
- Ganjifa in India (card game)
- Dominos in China
- Mahjong in China
- Renju (gomoku)
- Sic Bo or Sicbo (chinese)
- XiangQi (Chinese Chess)
- Go in China (war/strategy game)
- Shogi (Japanese Chess)
- Sugoroku (Japanese Backgammon/Shutes & Ladders)
Again ... as with the initial appearance of the cards in Asia and China ... it's not totally clear exactly how the variations of Asian cards began to make their way westward toward Persia, the Middle East, Africa, and ultimately to Europe.
One likely scenario would be that merchants traveling the trade routes thru asia and central asia into persia may have carried some of the more unusual things they encountered back home. Another possibility could be that armies of warriors would have also had an opportunity to visit these far away places and bring back samples of the unusual things they found.
There are actually some stories outlining the arrival of cards into Europe describing the cards entry into mid 12th century Italy via a merchant returning from China. Other theories discount this version and describe the migration of the cards more as a result of the geo-political landscape of the central asian and middle eastern region of the time.
Various wars and conquests of this region between the 11th and 13th century would have likely produced signifigant migration and integration of varying cultures in both directions. The Mogul warrior Ghengis Khan at this time has a massive empire that spanned nearly all of Asia (Middle East to Japan). There's no doubt that during his reign in this region there was signifigant contact w/ the culture and their practices ... with many of the advanced cultural elements of the Chinese being adopted by their western neighbors.
It's believed that the cards made their way from China and Asia back thru Central Asia and then Persia. From there a likely migration would be to the Middle East and then possibly to Northern Africa. From there Egyptian influence into Western Europe thru trades routes across the Mediteranean would have likely brought cards to the southern shores of Europe. Initial arrivals in Italy and Spain would have quickly led to migrations northward into Germany, France, Switzerland, and England.
There are competing theories to the one just descirbed. Some believe the Eurpoean cards were brought from Spain which was under Muslim rule from 700 AD. If this is the case it's then a question of how the cards first arrived in Spain.
Entry Into Europe
The earliest documented dates for the existance of playing cards in Europe is around 1350 or so. There's a lot of dispute about exactly where the cards first appeared ... but it seems like they show up almost at the same time in Italy and France ... in Germany slightly later. This is the best that can be deduced ... but again the exact record is not clear.
Once the cards arrived on the shores of Europe ... the variations in design and their use began to expand as more people were exposed to this new interesting oddity. It was not uncommon in the early days for local nobility and other wealthy patrons to commission local artists to hand paint beautifully illustrated decks for local use.
In each region of Europe a distinct style and unique characteristics began to develop in their card designs. Spanish cards had the Queen absent from the court and often replaced w/ a Cabellero. The Spanish Kings were always found seated on the throne. The Spanish suits were most often represented as cups, coins, swords, and clubs/notty batons.
French cards often used a different suit system than those of Italy, Germany, and Spain ... and they resemble that of our common western playing cards of today. These suits first appeared in the early 15th century and were Coeurs(cups, hearts), Carreaux (arrowheads, vassals, diamond), Trefles (clover, clubs), and Piques (points of lances, spades, knights). The French were believed to be the fist to use named court cards ... using famous knights or local heros.
Italian cards were often illustrated w/ beautiful allegorical imagery. Italian hand made cards had distinctive border around the edges ... created by a fold of the back card layer over the front of the card. The Italian kings were always seated on the throne ... and the Italian suits were most often represented as cups, coins, wands, and swords.
It didn't take long for this new arrival to Europe ... the playing card ... to take hold and become a popular pastime for the 14th Century Europeans. It became so popular that there were often prohibitons levied by the church against games of chance, dice, and cards. France passed a restriction as early as 1397. These prohibitions were not uncommon in other parts of Europe as well ... w/ Italy passing restrictions on the use of 'playing' cards since they were often used in games of chance and outright gambling (which was strictly prohibited). England also levied restrictions both on the use of cards and the importation of cards to support local tradesmen and their ability to compete locally w/ the imports. In Italy they often made exception for Tarot decks since these were often most popular w/ the wealthy and influential.
The suits used on the various cards from the different areas of Europe were often quite similar but also showed some distinctive differences. The Italian suits were typically the cups, coins, wands, and swords. They almost exclusively represent the King as seated on the throne ... and they can be most easily identified by their liberal use of allegorical imagery. The Spanish cards almost always ommitted the Queen and the Kings were always shown standing. Their nominal suits were cups, coins, swords, and clubs/notty batons. German card suits were most commonly hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves. The French suits developed in the early 15th century and were Coeurs(cups, hearts), Carreaux (arrowheads, vassals), Trefles (clover, clubs), and Piques (points of lances, spades, knights). The French were believed to be the fist to use named court cards. They would also use famous knights or local heros on their cards as well (lancelot, hugier, rolant, alexander, ceasar, charlamagne, david, etc). The French suit system most closely matches that of common western playing cards today.
Means of Manufacture In Europe
The earliest arrival of cards into Europe were clearly imports of some type from another region but it didn't take long for local artists and craftsmen to quickly pickup these new arrivals and use them as inspiration for their own creations. In the earliest times the cards were hand painted. This was often done by well known artists who were commissioned for this work by wealthy individuals or nobility. Subsequent methods included wood block printing, stencils, copper plate engraving, and ultimately the printing press.
By the 18th century almost every country in Europe was manufacturing and exporting playing cards of some type. This also created some issues w/ import restrictions and tax levies in some european countries following complainst from local tradesmen about their ability to survive. Many French card makers emigrated to Spain in late 16th century to avoid excise tax levied against card printers in France.
Much of the documented evidence concerning the existence of ... or their makeup come from the fact that it wasn't uncommon for printers and bookbinders to use old paper ... and old playing cards ... as filler in the bindings and covers of the books of the time. In many cases this is the only means of survival of any of these ancient cards.
Different card makers and themes from different regions were used to extend the use of cards from just novelty or direct use in a game (typically of chance) ... to other purposes that ranged from religion to education. Cloistered Cards were common in Ausburg Germany by 1753 ... and were the only cards permitted by the pope for use by the monks and other members of the church. Satires were a common theme in general at this time in Europe and their popularity extended onto playing cards in short order.
Tarot's decks and the popular game that was played w/ these cards became widespread all over Europe by middle of 18th cent. The use of cards for fortune telling was common in France in 1634. It is said that even Louis XIV (france) was taught using special educational cards for his prep as king (in 1643) when he was just a young boy. A strange application known as Bubble Cards appear ... which strangely resemble our current day comic fomat w/ bubbles above heads w/ words/thoughts.
The Ace of Spades becomes an important card in the deck by the 19th century ... for both tax revenue reasons and advertising. Cards became so popular in both Europe ... and ultimately America that local governing bodies saw their opportunity to generate revenue and would levy taxes on the manufacture, sale, or importation of playing cards. The Ace of Spades was often used as the 'revenue stamp' card to indicate the compliance on the tax levy. In addition, many manufacturers used the Ace for their own promotion typically include a logo of some type, name and location info for the manufacturer, and sometimes other related references often to the 'series' of the cards in question.
Card Games in Europe
Once the arrival of playing cards spread across Europe and many a European took to this new oddity ... various card games were developed utilizing their local card format and social mores of their region: Hombe in Spain, Trappola in Italy, and Piquet in France.
Hombre (trans: man) originates in the chivalric age in the 17th an 18th century in Spain and is now known as Trisillo in Spain and South America. It uses a 40 card deck this is comprised of the regular Spanish deck but removing the 8, 9, 10. Queens are absent from Spanish decks by default. The game is typically played by three players. It is a trick-taking game utilizing bidding (believed to be the first) ... in which each hand places a bid. This game is believed to be an early application of trump cards. The rules are a bit strange and I refer you to other sites
that have this covered in detail. Hombre is somewhat similar to Piquet from France.
Piquet (trans: stake) was a card game invented by the famous knight E'tiene Vignoges (or Lahire as he was called) sometime in the 15th century. It was a game of knights and chivalry ... as oppossed to old games from east which were based on war. It was a game for two players and the deck consisted of 36 cards ... the old tarot atouts were out ... and remove the 2,3,4,5, and cavalier. The dealer is referred to as the 'younger' and the other player is referred to as the 'elder'. Players cut for the deal on each hand ... low card drawn is the dealer. Each player is dealt 12 cards in sets of 2 to 4 cards each. Rules for the game can be found here
Trappola (trans: trap) originated in the 16th century in city of Venice. It uses a deck of 36 cards that includes 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, ace, king, cavalier, and knave from each suit. The game's popularity in Italy had faded by the end of the century but it's believed to be still played in some areas of Eastern Europe. The card patterns were different than regular playing cards and it's assumed that these had evolved over time and are no longer tied to their original forms. Trappola was considered to be a better game of chance than the then popular game of Tarot.
Tarot was an extemely popular and common game all over Europe by middle of 18th century ... with it's first appearance in Italy in early 15th century. This use preceeded much of how we think about the Tarot today as a divination tool. The game was typically played w/ three or more players. The dealer shuffles the deck and deals out all 78 cards in the deck. Additional rule of the game of tarot can be seen here
Hoyles games was published in Bath, England in 1743 by Edmund Hoyle describing the many varied flavors of card games that were popular and prominent in Europe at this time. Hoyles is still around today and their codified list of card games includes over 250 different games.
Playing Cards in America
The history of cards in America has a little better record to work from to define it's history ... but as is the case w/ Asia and Europe the real beginnings are unclear. There are some records of what are known as 'gaming sticks' that were believed to be used by American Indians prior to any European settlers ... and these cards resemble those of Asia ... w/ symbols of featherd arrows ... a resemblance of suits showing four directions. The creation and inspiration for these cards are unknown.
There are other theories that state a likely early source for both America and Mexico were the Spaniards who would have brought their cards during their travels to North America. Other theories (and somewhat of a legend) states the arrival of cards w/ Columbus' initial crews. As the story goes ... they brought cards with them and played them during the voyage from Spain ... they grew supersticious at one point during the voyage and threw the cards overboard. Once they landed they fashioned new versions of their cards from resources they found here. Yet other theories claim the arrival of playing cards w/ the first settlers ... with Virginia likely being sourced via England and New Amsterdam sourced via the Dutch. Their exact arrival in America is unknown.
As the use and popularity of playing cards spread thru the New World of America the same issues arose as did in Europe. There were often prohibitions on the use of cards since they were seen as a distraction and not in line w/ the strict religious doctrines followed by the early arrivals. Among these restrictions were prohibitions against cards, dice, games of chance as part of a 1624 Virginia law prohibiting drinking, games of chance. Another prohibition in 1700 at William & Mary banned the 'keeping of horses, horse racing, cock fighting, or games of chance including billiards, dice and cards'. Any Innkeepers allowing the playing of these games could even loose their license and face stiff fines if caught hosting the events.
The Stamp Act of 1765 levied a tax of 1 shilling per deck. It was not uncommon to see taxes on items that were seen as yielding some material revenue. Even George Washington has refs to playing cards in his diary ... with wholesale restrictions on the use of the cards for his soldiers (some things never change). The State of Massachussetts also passed a tax on cards in 1785.
Card Manufacturing in America
Shortly after the arrival and popular adoption of playing cards in America a manufacturing capacity devleoped w/ it's greatest concentrations in Mass. ... but NY and Phila were also big centers for card manufacturers. Card makers included the local printer, newsprint printers, bookbinders, stationers, and wall paper makers. By 1776 there were as many as 40 printing presses in the colonies.
Ben Franklin and his brother were early card importers, manufacturers and sellers ... and by the mid 18th century Ben Franklin was postmaster of Philly ... and had many adverts in the local paper for various items for sale ... including cards. Items could be picked up at post office or printing office (he and his brother were printers as well)
The key centers of American manufacuring was Boston ... with Philadelphia and New York providing a wealth of manufacturers. The late 18th produced Jazniah Ford in Milton,MA ... card manuf for 50 years. Early 19th century was the beginnings of Lewis I. Cohn in New York City (1832). Other major manufacturers in this time were Andrew Dougherty (1848) in Brooklyn, NY, NY Consolidated Card Co. (), Globe Card, Eagle card, and the US Playing Card Co. in Cincinnnatti, OH (then known as Russell, Morgan & Co) (1881).
Card design was a big part of these American card manufacturers and there are many interesting stories surrounding the varied designs used in this time. See the section titled "What's Up With The Bicycle" for a summary of the different card designs employed.