A Brief History of Playing Cards

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Some sources have suggested that India may have been the origin of playing cards. There is a striking resemblance between the symbols on some early European decks and the dated Indian decks, which featured a ring, sword, cup, and baton, depicted in the four hands of Indian statues. That said, it seems far more plausible at present that playing cards were born in China, sometime after the invention of paper. Ancient Chinese money cards had four suits: coins, strings of coins, myriads of strings, and tens of myriads. There were represented by ideograms with the numerals of two to nine in the first three suits and one to nine in the tens of myriads. It’s possible that the first form of playing cards were actually paper currency; that is, they had a dual purpose as both the tools for gaming and the actual stakes for which the game was being played. Some evidence suggests that the first deck of cards was printed as a domino deck.

When and where playing cards were introduced into Europe are also a matter of dispute. It appears that the 38th cannon of the council of Worcester in 1240 recognized the presence of cards in England during the middle of the 13th century. A game known as de rege et regina is mentioned in the cannon, and for some time, this game was thought to involve playing cards. While it seems now that rege et regina was a game more closely related to chess, there is also a mountain of other circumstantial evidence that cards were not well known in Europe as late as 1278. Petrach never mentions cards in his work, De remedies utriusque fortunae, which deals with gaming. Likewise, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and a host of other writers never mention cards.

The likely path of playing cards, from China (or possibly India) to Europe began with a move from the Mamelukes of Egypt in the late 1300s. The Mameluke deck contained fifty-two cards and closely resembled the modern decks. There were also four suits known as polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten cards with a number and three court cards: the king, the viceroy, and the second or underdeputy.

There is some evidence to suggest that this deck may have evolved from an earlier 48-card deck that had only two court cards per suit, and some further evidence to suggest that earlier Chinese cards brought to Europe may have traveled via Persia. From there, they had a profound influence on the Mameluke and other Egyptian cards of the time.
In the late 1300s, the use of playing cards spread rapidly across Europe.

The first recognized reference to cards is confined to Spain in 1377, in Switzerland in 1377. In 1380, they are referred to in many locations including Florence, Paris, and Barcelona.

One early mention of a series of playing cards appears in an account by the treasurer of the household of Charles VI of France. The entry dates to 1392 or 1393, which records payment for the painting of three sets or packs of cards.

The earliest cards were made by hand, making them quite expensive. The printing of woodcuts on paper may have developed because of the demand for cards. The technique of printing woodcuts was transferred from being used to decorate fabric to use on paper around 1400, very shortly after the first recorded manufacture of paper in Christian Europe. No examples from before 1423 survive.

Most early woodcuts of all types were colored after printing, either by hand or, from about 1450 onwards, using stencils. The manufacture of playing cards en masse was undertaken in Germany to coincide with the development of the printing press. As cards became increasingly popular throughout Europe, each country tended to develop their own designs or variety of designs, eventually leading to the modern 52-card deck we play with today.