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a special credit to Thierry Depaulis for having revised my historical notes and for his contribution

  (in this page)  


  • Western Playing Cards
  • Asian Playing Cards
  •   page 2  


  • The Composition
  • Playing Card Manufacturing
  • Tax Stamps
  • Glossary
  • Playing Card Collecting
  •   page 3  




    It has been suggested that playing cards were born in China, sometime around the 10th century AD. They were likely domino cards, i.e. the ones that represent a throw of two dice, very similar to the ones still used today in the Far East, and just slightly different from common domino tiles now used in many countries.
    A few centuries later, playing cards were in use by the Arabs, and soon after they spread also to the Western world.

    10 of Coins
    from the earliest
    Arabic deck known
    This was the result of the commercial and cultural relationship between the Mediterranean countries and the Arabic world, in particular the Mamlûks, who spread along the northern coast of Africa.
    The archaic Italian word for "playing cards", naibi or naibbi, and the Spanish equivalent, naipes, still used, both come from the Arabic word na'ib, meaning "delegate" or "deputy".
    "Deputies" were two court cards of the old Arabic deck: the "viceroy" and the "second viceroy". Such cards did not feature the relevant personages as human figures, according to the Islamic tradition, but only stated the names of the three ranks at the base of the subject.
    The oldest surviving set of cards of this kind is known as   Mulûk wa-Nuwwâb ("Kings and Deputies"), held by the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. It was composed of four suits, each of which had fourteen cards (ten suit cards and four courts), for a total of 56 subjects.

    The suits of the Arabic deck were:





    On the surviving cards held in Istanbul, these names are spelled at the bottom of the court cards, together with the rank; a sample is shown at the end of the third part (relations between Western and Oriental cards), where the the meaning of the names and the connections that seem to relate these cards to an ancient Chinese origin are discussed more in depth.

    According to written records, Italy is the western country where tarot cards were first made, in the first half of the 1400s, but Spain is the country where the common non-tarot cards first appeared, some 50 years earlier.
    The relation between these two kinds of decks may be explained by the present theory, according to which the Mamlûk cards were taken into Spain and Italy sometime during the 14th century, following the close relations between the Arabic and European civilizations, facing each others across the Mediterranean.

    trump from the
    Pierpont-Morgan Visconti
    Tarot (15th century)

    In Spain the composition of the local deck remained almost unmodified; only the 10s were dropped, thus reducing the 52 cards of Moorish origin to a local 48-card deck. A further modification concerned the introduction of pictures featuring court personages instead of a written caption, which made them more easily recognizable. In Spain, such cards were called naibes or naipes, a word of Arabic etymology (as previosly explained).
    Decks of cards with a similar composition were known in Italy, as well, referred to as naibi (alternative forms were naibbe, nahipi, etc.). But other chronicles from the first half of the 15th century mention "saracen cards" - another indication suggesting their origin - and in the second half of the same century "cards for playing".

    A different deck was devised in northern Italy, i.e. the one now called tarot, whose composition was likely obtained by adding to the Moorish set of suit cards, or naibi, a group of 22 illustrated subjects of local origin, and by increasing the three original courts, all male personages, with the addition of a female one, and in some early editions even more than one.
    The enlarged pack was soon named carte da trionfi (trump cards, but literally meaning "triumph cards"), probably after the poem I Trionfi by Petrarch, and this was also the name of the game played with them. The word tarocco ("tarot") came into use later on, being found in written sources only as of the early 16th century.

    More than one source mentions the "triumph cards" (or "cards of Lombardy") and the "cards for playing" (or "small cards for playing") as separate items. One source also mentions "emperor cards", although these ones have never been identified. Therefore, in the early 1400s at least two varieties of playing cards were in use at the same time, i.e. smaller ones without trumps (referred to as "of Saracen origin"), and larger ones which included the set of trumps, of Italian origin.

    Curiously, the earliest surviving deck of Western playing cards is not a tarot, nor a traditional Spanish deck, but a third variety from southern Germany, likely sprung from the Moorish cards, as well.

    courts from the suit of Deers
    (Stuttgarter Kartenspiel)
    The Stuttgarter Kartenspiel ("Stuttgart deck") dates back to c.1430. Another one with similar features is the Ambraser Hofjagsdpiel ("Ambras court hunt deck", see the relevant gallery for details and pictures). This group of patterns, now referred to as hunting decks, came into use in German-speaking areas in the first half of the 15th century. They had no trumps, and their composition was basically similar to that of Moorish decks, but their suit system was rather peculiar.

    3 of Hounds

    Hunting decks, very few of which are still extant, were beautifully illustrated with scenes of royal hunts, as the suit signs adopted were animals or objects used for hunting, such as deers, hounds, falcons, nooses, etc. Some of these decks were known to have a fifth suit, featuring shields. However, scholars tend to agree that these decks appeared shortly after the tarot.
    A 16th century French deck now partially extant, known as Tarot of Catelin Geofroy, features the 22 usual trumps, but the four suits are pheasants, lions, parrots and monkeys, almost in the fashion of the German cards: basically, a blend of classic tarot and hunting cards.

    penetration and spreading of playing cards in Europe
    (second half of the 14th century - first half of the 15th century)

    subject from the
    (Germany, c.1460)
    A much fewer number of German decks instead of pips featured personages of a royal household, such as the chaplain, the lady-in-waiting, the master of the stables, etc., ordered according to their social hierarchy. Only one specimen of such decks has survived; it is known as the Hofämterspiel ("household deck"). Its suit signs are shields featuring the national emblems of four central European countries (see also the Hofämterspiel gallery for further details and pictures).

    German cards such as the aforesaid ones and hunting decks were probably used up to the 17th century, when they died out, while the popularity of the classic tarot kept growing. Nevertheless, their peculiar suits are believed to have inspired the ones still used today by most German-speaking areas.

    From the 15th century onwards, playing cards spread through many princely courts, into neighbour countries, soon reaching most parts of the European continent.

    In all countries where the pastime had become popular, both the tarot and the playing cards without trumps survived side by side. While the former remained popular among wealthy players, the common people played with the cheaper type of decks, consisting of suit cards only, because the tarot game was complicated, because it was not suitable for gambling, because it required a good cultural background to understand the trumps, and also because tarot decks were more expensive. Although the cheaper type of cards shared a common Moorish scheme, in differnt parts of Europe each deck had a particular composition, obtained by either dropping or replacing some of the subjects not frequently used. Obviously, the new composition changed from country to country, according to the favourite local games. This led to a rather large variety of combinations, which gradually grew into the standard regional patterns used today.

    • Northern Italy adopted the well-known 52-card scheme (values 1 through 10, and three courts), and the 40-card scheme (values 1 through 7, and three courts).
    • Central and southern Italy use 40 cards (same as above).
    • Spain uses both 40- and 48-card decks (the latter has values 1 through 9).
    • Portugal too now uses a 40-card deck, though slightly different from the Spanish one: 1 to 8 (but without a 7), and three courts.
    • Many central and northern European areas such as France, Germany (but not in the south), the Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, tend to use 32 cards, starting either from 1 (in French-suited packs) or from 2, i.e. deuce (in German suited ones), then 7 through 10, and three courts.
    • A 24-card pack is used in southern Germany and Austria for the game of Schnapsen.
    • Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland use 36 cards (same as above, but with 6s, as well).
    the map below refers to the composition
    of regional patterns used for local games

    trump from Mitelli's Tarot
    (17th century)
      Suit signs too were modified quite considerably:
    • in Spain the shape of the original Arabic signs slightly changed to a less stylized pattern: the look of Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons turned more "actual"; in particular, the original polo sticks, virtually unknown to the Spanish, were turned into cudgels.
    • Germany radically changed suit signs, probably inspired by the early "hunting decks", adopting symbols which recalled everyday's country life: Hearts, Leaves, Acorns and Bells.
    • Switzerland too chose Acorns and Bells, but the other two signs became Shields and Roses: the former was probably a reminiscence of the fifth suit of some "hunting decks", mentioned above. The Roses, instead, may have been a graphic corruption of the Coins used in northern Italy, due to the elaborate geometrical patterns featured by the latter suit signs, sometimes resembling the petals of a flower.
    • France changed suit signs to a rather stylized design: Diamonds, Hearts, Clubs and Spades, likely sprang as a simplification of the German ones (Leaves into Spades, Acorns into Clubs and Bells into Diamonds). Later on these signs were adopted by other European countries where cards had not yet become popular, thus becoming the international (or French) suit system.
    • Portugal originally used the Spanish suits, but around the 19th century the French system prevailed, and it is still the one presently used.
    • In the north-east of Italy, symbols remained more or less identical to the suit cards found in early tarots: this gives reason for the rather ancient look of these cards.
    • The center and the south of Italy developed local patterns sprang from the Spanish cards, whence their suit system made of Coins, Cups, Swords and cudgel-shaped Batons.

    Tracing the change of the suit signs, Coins maintained their early shape and meaning in the Latin systems (Italian, Spanish), while in Germany they were turned into Bells (still round, but no longer related to money), until in the French system this sign lost all its details and straightened its sides, giving birth to the suit of Diamonds. This last change may have developed because of the rough colouring technique used for early decks, which may have caused the circles to appear as irregular dots of tan-brownish ink.

    evolution of suit signs in different systems (left to right): Mamlûk, Spanish, Italian, German and French
    Also the suit of Cups substantially maintained its shape and meaning in the Latin systems, while in both the German and the French ones it turned into Hearts, whose shape, large in the upper part and tapered at the base, vaguely corresponds to that of a chalice.
    In the Swiss system, though, where the aforesaid two suits are represented by Bells and Roses, the latter, round in shape, seem to have developed from Coins more likely than the Bells did.

    The suit of Scimitars in the Mamlûk cards was clearly understood in Italy and Spain, where Swords faithfully preserved the suit's meaning; the Italian ones even maintained typical curved blades.
    In Germany, instead, the sign developed as Leaves: the connection with the original shape may be understood by considering the leaf as a corruption of a sword's hilt and handle, while the stem may have sprung from the curved blade. A similar interpretation probably gave origin to Spades, very similar to Leaves.
    In France and Germany the shape of Spades (called Piques and Pik, respectively) was likened to another early weapon, the pike, i.e. the long shaft with a pointed end carried by foot-soldiers. Furthermore, the Italian and Spanish names of the suit, i.e. Spade and Espadas, clearly recall its English name, probably not by coincidence.
    The Swiss equivalent of this suit, instead, are Shields, whose shape is in fact consistent with the German Leaves.

    Polo-sticks, familiar to the Mamlûks, were probably completely obscure to the Italian and to the Spanish; the former saw this long implement as a ceremonial staff, while the latter considered it a stick, thus explaining why the sign of this suit took the shape of a sceptre or a mace in northern Italy, and a rough cudgel in Spain.

    The German suit of Acorns, also adopted in Switzerland, was probably influenced by the latter interpretation, as the tip of the fruit recalls the cudgel's shaft, while the acorn's cup is consistent with the projecting branches. The French system developed a stylized, yet perfectly recognizable interpretation of this shape: Clubs; also in this case the allusive English name is a reminiscence of the early implement.

    Despite these many varieties, the original tarot was never abandoned, and still today it is commonly manufactured, although only its regional varieties are used for playing games (see The Tarot and Other Early Cards for further details).

    click on the map to see
    more samples of suit systems

    card from a modern
    Chinese Domino deck

    If the history of western cards is still partially obscure, we know even less about the development of cards in the East.
    The earliest findings in Chinese royal tombs provide enough evidence that domino cards were locally played already by year 1000 AD.
    Similar decks still exist today, in almost identical patterns (see the Chinese gallery page 4), suggesting their long-lasting popularity, more or less as the tarot in Western countries.

    card from a Chinese
    money-suited deck

    money-suited patterns from
    Malaysia and Vietnam
    Other Chinese patterns belong to the so-called "money suited" system, whose earliest faithful description is found in a mid 15th century source. Also in this case few changes occurred, and most contemporary editions are fairly similar to the decks used in the 1400s, or earlier. Full details about these cards and their evolution may be found in the Chinese gallery page 1.

    Some cards in China borrowed characters from the national board game of XiangQi (Chinese Chess). They are likely the most recent ones, but very little is known about when and where they were created.

    Another important group of early Asian playing cards are typical of northern India, the so-called Ganjifa decks, a name whose origin is Persian: these cards were originally taken to India many centuries ago.
    Round in shape, early ones came in many sizes (they range in diameter from 2-3 cm to 12 cm, 1 to 8 inches), and many styles and suit compositions, since they were inspired by different themes, such as god Vishnu (Dashavatara style, with ten suits featuring Fish, Tortoises, Vases, Axes, Sabres, and other symbols of the god's reincarnations, often with additional suits, as well), the planets (Navagraha style, with nine suits), scenes from the Ramayana text (Ramayana style), etc.
    The suits have 12 cards each, so these decks contain either 96 cards, or 108, or 120, or more.

    South wind
    from a Chinese
    Mah Jong deck

    Even between decks of similar type considerable differences exist, according to the area they come from, therefore no pattern can be said fully "standardized".
    Unlike western cards, best Ganjifa decks were sometimes painted on tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, or even had precious inlayings.

    Ganjifa card
    Records concerning Ganjifa decks date back to the early 1500s, but apparently they were already used in earlier times, as suggested by the pre-Mughal style of some illustrations.
    By the end of the 16th century, the deck was given a fixed composition of 96 cards, with eight suits, a version known as Mughal Ganjifa . This made the game particularly popular, and although larger luxury decks were still a classy item, the game itself was being enjoyed with smaller ones also by common people. The 96-card version is still the main one found today, although due to the low request, the traditional hand-made decks have sadly become an endangered form of craft.

    Each Ganjifa suit has two leading cards, which basically have the same meaning of western courts: a king (or lord, or rajah, etc.) and a general (second in rank); the remaining cards have decreasing values, shown by arrangements of suit signs, as in western cards.
    From both geographic and historical reasons (the Mughals ruled India since the 16th century), a connection between the early Arabic cards and the Ganjifa sets would have not been impossible, although no evidence at all seems to exist, neither in favour nor against this theory.
    Comparing the two early systems, the suit of Sabres found in Indian Dashavatara style sets seems to match the Mamlûk Swords, and Vases are reminiscent of Cups.

    Ganjifa card

    Japanese painted shells
    Instead, we know much more about the origin of Japanese cards.
    For some peculiar reason, Japan was not affected by Chinese domino cards, despite the cultural relations of the country with China surely dated back to an earlier time than year 1000 AD.
    Around the 11th-12th centuries, the Japanese high class was already playing games with sets of sea shells whose text or pictures were painted (further historical notes in Uta Karuta and Iroha Karuta page).

    card from a
    Japanese Iroha deck

    card from a Hanafuda deck (left)
    and a Mekuri deck (right)
    Only around 1550, when Portuguese sailors reached the Japanese islands, the 48-card Spanish/Portoguese deck was brought on land, where it apparently stirred the local interest, becoming the ancestor of most following varieties, up to the modern Hanafuda (see the Japanese gallery for a more detailed description).
    Finally, during the first half of the 20th century, the aforesaid Hanafuda cards were taken to Korea, where they also became a regional pattern, changing their name into Hwatu.

    the main elements
    of playing cards
    relations between
    Western and Oriental cards

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