The history of playing cards is fascinating, although relatively unknown to most of us. It starts in the ninth, eleventh or the thirteenth century, depending on who you ask, but it’s noticeable how quickly they spread. One thing is sure: although playing cards are virtually a household item, we know so little about them.
When speaking about playing cards, the first association is the modern deck consisting of fifty-two cards, four suits, and two colours. But that’s not the only deck that exists. In others, you’ll find additional symbols and unusually-shaped cards, with the number of cards varying from less than twenty-five to over a hundred. There’s a whole world of cards, mysterious and enticing at the same time. And today, we’re going to explore it.
Two most basic question related to the history of playing cards are where were they invented, and by whom. Unfortunately, we don’t have conclusive answers to both of them. There are many theories, and one relatively clear thing is they came from Asia. But the exact location is unknown.We also don’t know how they arrived in Europe. However, we know they were present in Europe in the fourteenth century, as Bern’s city in Switzerland officially banned their use in 1367.
A Chinese game called yezi ge is often cited as the first game to use playing cards. The “game of leaves” was played as early as the ninth century, and even Chinese writer Su E described a game between members of the Tang Dynasty. A recent study revealed there was no indication that yezi ge utilised played cards. The same study cites a police record from 1294 as the earliest record of playing cards, as it mentions the arrest of gamblers in Shandong and confiscation of their cards.
There are card-sized parchments dating back to the thirteenth century, but it’s not sure whether they were playing cards, or they just look like them.
The Cloister’s Deck is the oldest complete deck of playing cards known to the world. It dates back to the late fifteenth century, and it’s very recognisable. There are fifty-two cards in the deck, in four suits.
Another famous old deck comes from Turkey. Called the Mamluk cards, its from the early sixteenth century. Cards are missing from the deck, and it’s also clear that some have been replaced over the years. They are so thoroughly decorated that it’s difficult to tell them apart.
The standardisation of design and layout began by the end of the fifteenth century. That allowed players to enjoy the same game with different decks, as all of them contained the same cards, with the same numbers and suits.
However, there wasn’t a single standard available. Four different decks were in use in Europe: the German, French, Swiss and Latin. The Latin deck was the first one, Swiss, German and French followed.
Italian and Spanish decks are based on the Latin one, albeit with small differences. They typically consist of forty cards, although sometimes there are forty-eight or fifty-two cards in them. They’re split into four suits: Cups, Swords, Batons and Coins. A forty-card deck has number cards, also known as “pip cards”, ranging from one to seven. There are twelve face cards (three for each suit); fante (jack), cavallo (knight) and re (king).
German decks have thirty-two or thirty-six cards, split into four suits: Hearts, Acorns, Bells and Leaves. Swiss decks have thirty-six cards in four suits, with Roses instead of Leaves.
None of these decks doesn’t have suits in different colours. The only one that does is the French deck, which is the most popular one globally. It has fifty-two cards, and four suits (Diamonds, Spades, Clubs, Hearts) in two colours, red and black. The suits have a simple design and are easy to print, which was one of the main factors behind its popularity. It’s also used for some of the most popular card games, such as poker and bridge.
Although the most cited, these are not the only decks in the West. There are many of them, even some for specific games like Uno. Tarot decks are not included, as they represent a thing of their own.
There are many card decks used outside of Europe. The interaction with Portuguese traders influenced the development of Japanese decks. One of the most famous decks is hanafuda (“flower cards”). There are forty-eight cards in this deck, which have twelve flower-themed suits. The gaming giant Nintendo originally sold hanafuda cards, and it has continued selling them to this day.
The “money-suited” deck from China is presumed to be the ancestor of modern European decks. Containing thirty-eight cards, this deck has four suits: coins, strings of coins, myriads of strings, and tens of myriads of strings and coins. Today, there’s a plethora of playing card decks, with many of them completely unknown outside of China.
India also has its own style of playing cards, although it’s not as standardised as in other countries. Most of them are circular and are called ganjifa (or ganjapa). The number of suits ranges from eight to twelve, while the number of cards goes from forty-eight to 120. You can even find decks with French suits but printed in a circular style.
One of the smaller decks is the one belonging to the Galician Jews. They wanted to avoid using Christian imagery from European decks and created their own. The deck’s name is kvitlech, and has twenty-four cards.
Here’s the complete timeline of the playing cards’ history:
The history of playing cards is a remarkable journey, but there’s much more ahead of us. No one knows what the future holds or how it will shape what we call a “standard” deck. Only time will give answers to all these questions. In the meantime, we can all enjoy a bit of history, knowing that our modern decks date back to the fifteenth century. Whenever you play cards, just think about that you’re doing something which has been part of the leisure for more than half a millennium.
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