AN INTRODUCTION TO
THE MAIN ELEMENTS OF PLAYING CARDS
In a deck of cards, the courts and the jokers, if any, are the most interesting subjects, because their illustrations with human figures usually contain many interesting details. According to the deck, these personages may be single-headed or double-headed (i.e. the character may be either shown in full length, or doubled by a line which cuts the character into two symmetrical halves). Furthermore, the personages may be shown in different attitudes, the clothes they wear may change, colours too may be very different, the suit signs may not be the usual ones, and the overall graphic style may suggest a given theme. All together, these elements form the deck's pattern.
Besides the well-known Bridge cards, which are considered the international or standard pattern (also known as "English pattern"), all other varieties may be roughly divided into two main categories: fancy patterns and regional patterns.
jack of Hearts from
a Soviet Union deck
FANCY PATTERNSIn general, fancy patterns are the ones whose illustrations are not based on a consolidated tradition. In most cases they consist of the usual 52 cards, plus one or more jokers, so what changes is not the composition of the deck (i.e. the suits, the number of cards and their values), but only their look: instead of featuring ordinary kings, queens, and jacks, the courts are inspired by the deck's theme, such as a country, a historical period, a famous novel, a sports event, an important civilization, and so on. Any possible subject may inspire a deck of cards. Often aces too, and sometimes all the cards of the deck are somehow related to the main theme, as well as some backs, whose designs or motifs are in the same fashion.
REGIONAL PATTERNSRegional patterns, instead, are the traditional ones, used in rather restricted areas of the world. Some of their designs are well over 100 years old: since most players are reluctant to accept any change to their favourite cards, their illustrations have remained very similar to those of the early decks they developed from.
court card from the
Akahachi pattern (Japan)
While standard and fancy patterns usually have 52 cards plus a variable number of jokers, the cards in regional patterns may considerably vary, from the 32-card packs for playing the German game of Skat to the 78-card tarot decks, not to mention some Chinese patterns whose total may reach up to 156, or more.
The packs used in Western countries always contain two kinds of subjects: the pip cards, that have a numeral value according to the number of pips they feature (these ones include the aces, as well), and the courts, with different personages, often without a specific number value, though always ranking above the aforesaid pip cards.
The number of courts in most decks is three, but tarot packs have four: in decreasing value order, a king, a queen, a cavalier (or horseman, or horse), and a knave (matching the jack of Bridge decks). In three-court patterns either the queen or the cavalier are present, while tarot patterns have both of them.
The male characters found in Western cards link to the old Arabic ones, which were a king and two deputies of different rank (see page 1). The queen, instead, is surely a Western addition, since a female character would never have been featured on cards for players of Islamic culture.
The ones belonging to Italian- and Spanish-suited patterns (a king, a cavalier and a knave), relate quite closely to the above-mentioned Arabic courts, while German- and Swiss-suited patterns match the old scheme even more closely, featuring a king and two knaves of different rank (see the German gallery).
The following diagram shows a summary of the courts used by different playing card systems:
unusual cavalier from
a Minchiate deck
(Italy, 18th century)
style KING QUEEN CAVALIER KNAVE / JACK Arabic (obsolete) · - - · · Tarot · · · · Italian / Spanish · - · · French · · - · German / Swiss · - - · ·
PLAYING CARD MANUFACTURING
The early decks of average quality were printed in sheets, by using woodblocks.
sample of woodblock print with
stencil colouring (France, 17th century)
The woodblock technique yielded images with a rather naive definition; a better result could be obtained with copper plates, but due to the higher costs they were seldom used, only for exclusive decks. Then, as of the early 1800s, the introduction of lithography considerably improved the quality of the print keeping the expenses low; these plates were initially made from stone, whence the name (Greek lythos = "stone"), but were soon replaced by metal ones. For a few editions also different techniques were employed, such as aqua fortis. In all cases, the illustrations were coloured by hand: different stencils were overlapped in turn to the uncut sheet, and were dabbed with large ink-pads. Cheaper decks were coloured with three or four colours only, and sometimes the thick ink covered a part of the underlying printed etchings. For better editions, instead, many more colours were used, sometimes watercolours, so to leave the etchings fully visible and minimize the "blotchy" effect caused by the stencils.The turn of the 20th century marked the introduction of chromolithography, then chromotypography, up to the recent offset technique, freeing card makers from the need of colouring their cards by hand; however, stencils did not die out before the 1920s-1930s.
A completely different technique was used for the earliest tarots. These exclusive decks were not simply coloured, but painted or, better, illuminated, and in some of the best known specimens, a gold leaf with a hammered texture was used for the background: they were real works of art, made by renowned artists rather than by craftsmen or card-makers, for the benefit of members of princely courts, either on their request or to be presented as gifts.
playing card stencilling (detail from a French 17th century painting)
sample of lithographic print
and watercolours (Austria, c.1870)
Italian tarot (mid 1400s):
paint and gold leaf
Although these cards were actually played with, they were surely cared for by the owners. In fact, a certain number of decks, or loose cards, after five or six centuries are still extant, while early specimens of the "cheaper" kind are extremely scarce, and most of them only survived as uncut sheets.
Western cards have always been made of several layers of paper or pasteboard pressed together. The average number of layers was three: one printed with the card's illustration, one for the back (often printed too), and the central one which made the card non-transparent. From the 16th to the 19th century the layer representing the back of the card was fixed to the other two by means of flaps, folded and glued along the edges of the front layer. Nevertheless, playing cards were subject to a considerable wear, and often they got soiled, or bent, or their corners tore off.
This problem was sometimes faced by simply trimming the cards along their sides: some packs were even produced oversize, for the benefit of the owner, who could shrink them a few times before having to buy new ones.
As of the second half of the 19th century the corners, once cut sharp, i.e. pointed, began to be rounded, for a better comfort in handling the deck, and also in order to avoid the early wear of the cards (the corners are the most vulnerable part). This measure is still used in the West, while in the Orient there is a trend to maintain the use of sharp edges for decks with the local regional patterns.
During the 1930's a new important technique was introduced, by which cards were given a plastic coating: this treatment prevents them from most damages, and also slightly stiffens them.
a subject from a
deck from Britain
subject from a Japanese
Uta Karuta deck
During the last two decades, decks made of plastic have also appeared, granting cards an almost illimited life.
Plastic and plastic-coated cards are now commonly used in Western countries, but also this technique never came into use in the Far East, where the regional patterns are generally uncoated.
Also replicas of old decks (merely produced as souvenirs or collectors items) often lack a plastic coating, sometimes with sharp corners, so to resemble the originals even more closely.
Playing card manufacturing is a very specific activity, and several companies throughout the world are specialized in producing decks. A few of them, such as the French company Grimaud, sprang from early printers of the 18th century.
The following are only some of the world's most outstanding card manufacturers:
Due to the great popularity of this pastime, especially during the last centuries, the governments of many countries imposed a monopoly over the sale of playing cards.
All decks were taxed, and one of the cards had to carry a special government stamp, usually an ace, or another important card in play.
In some cases the stamp also stated a date, referring either to the introduction of the tax (i.e. French sample below) or to the actual stamping of the card (as in Sweden); in Italy the date was indicated by means of a small separate stamp (see below).
left: Italian tax stamp, 1920s (courtesy of Simon Wintle);
center: stamped ace of Hearts from Germany (1920s);
right: Spanish stamp, early 1970s;
all of them are printed on the card
In a fewer number of countries other techniques were used: an embossed stamp, or one in paper (or a label) glued to the box or to the wrapper that was torn when the pack was opened, or sometimes a seal printed on the wrapper that the owner had to cancel with a pen, and even watermarks on the paper used for manufacturing the cards (France, 18th-19th centuries).
The dual purpose of these marks was always to prove the payment of the tax, and to guarantee that every new deck had not been opened and played with.
contemporary Korean paper stamp,
glued to the box
Still nowadays similar devices, such as an adhesive label that seals the deck's box or a transparent plastic shrink-wrapping, are commonly adopted as a form of guarantee.
Only in a very limited number of countries the government monopoly tax and the relevant stamp or seal are still applied.
Stamped cards now represent a particular branch of playing card collecting. An in-depth source about the story and the varieties of tax stamps is available in Peter Endebrock's Spielkarten-Seiten ~ Playing-card Pages.
tax introduction date
mentioned on the card
British seal to be cancelled,
on the flap of the wrapper (1950s)
above: Japanese stamp with overstamp, sealing the
folded corners of the wrapper (1980s-90s);
below: Argentinean tax label, sealing the wrapper along one side (late 1940s)
Italian double stamp (1945 and 1955)
Thai tax label, sealing the plastic card box (1990s)
Placing the stamp as a proof of the tax collection before packing the cards seldom caused situations such as the one on the left, which refers to an Italian deck made in 1945 (note the small rectangular stamp at the top). Ten years later, following a raise of the tax, this deck, having remained unsold, was officially reopened: the ace was stamped again in the lower half, an explicatory line of text (Tax stamp regularized. Bill 4201 of 12.12.1955) was added along the rim, and the box was finally sealed again. What is also curious is that the 1945 round stamp says "Kingdom of Italy", whereas in 1955 the country had long since turned into a republic.
In a number of decks, especially among the ones made during the 1950s, one of the cards bears a stamp, such as the ones on the right: they are not referred to a tax, but simply mention the manufacturer. In some cases it replaced the real tax stamp, after the latter was abandoned; in other cases the proof of the tax was on the wrapper. As of the 1960s, the manufacturer's name was no longer stamped in ink.
manufacturer stamps from Sweden (left) and France
The following is a brief glossary of terms referring to playing cards used in the following pages; many of them are of common use, others require an explanation.
- Aces · they are the first card of each suit, and they usually represent number 1 (which, from game to game, may be the highest value of the pack or the lowest one). They are often more richly decorated than other pip cards.
- Backs · the rear surface, perfectly identical on each card of the pack, to prevent them from being told when turned face down; they are usually decorated with geometrical patterns, but in some decks they feature special illustrations, or touristic views, or advertisements, etc.
- Court cards (or Courts) · cards belonging to any of the suits and featuring the picture of a King, a Queen, a Jack, or a similar personage. The characters are sometimes entirely shown (single-ended courts, typically in old decks and some traditional patterns), otherwise their upper half is symmetrically shown on both ends of the card (double-ended courts, a standard style in many modern decks).
The name "court cards" derived from the use of borrowing the personages featured on these cards from the social structure of Renaissance courts, where card games were first played in the Western world.
- Honours · some patterns include a various number of particular cards that do not belong to any of the suits, have no numeral value, and are often known with typical names: in most games they are worth more than suited cards, and sometimes they even have special properties. They are also referred to as "special cards".
- Indices · the small number or letter, often with a tiny suit sign, in the card's corners. In a standard Poker or Bridge deck they are A for Ace, K for King, etc., but different ones too exist, changing from country to country (see index reference table page). When the cards are held in hand in "fan" position, i.e. with each of them overlapping the following one, in a semicircular order, indices enable to read which cards they are.
In some Oriental patterns, the indices feature particular graphic designs rather than numbers or letters.
- Jokers · they are "wildcards" that do not belong to any of the suits. In some games, the joker may be given by the holder any possible value. Usually Bridge packs contain two or three jokers. Several other patterns have no jokers, although for some games other cards of the deck may be used as wildcards.
- Pattern · it describes the graphic elements of a deck, usually referred especially to the court card personages and to the group of suit signs used. Patterns are usually related to the town or the geographic area where such cards are the local standard. Very often patterns, especially regional ones, remain almost unchanged in time.
- Pip Cards · they are subjects that feature a numerical value by means of pips or signs, repeated as many times as the points the card is worth, graphically arranged according to the deck's own pattern. Pip cards together with courts form the suit cards.
- Pips or Signs · they are the small symbols representing the suit, in different number and arrangements, whose number indicates the value of a card: for instance, a 7 of Diamonds has seven pips shaped as red diamonds.
- Suit Cards · they include all the cards belonging to any of the suits or families of the deck (i.e. all the pip cards and the courts).
- Suits · categories or families into which cards are divided, represented by symbols called signs (or, seldom, by colours), which in standard decks are Diamonds, Hearts, Clubs and Spades; usually, in Western patterns each suit has one card for each different value, while in many Asian patterns each value is duplicated several times.
- Trumps · in some patterns, trumps are subjects belonging to specific categories (i.e. a given suit, or a special group, etc.) that beat all the other cards of the deck; the most well-known ones are the 22 picture cards in tarot decks, whose actual name is "trumps", but in some games even common suit cards may act in such way.
Some of the terms related to playing cards have an interesting origin: for example "ace" comes from the Latin as, an ancient coin once used as a weight measure, almost as if the first card of the series acted as a reference for other values belonging to the same suit.
The origin of the word "trump" is discussed in the tarot gallery.
It is also interesting to compare names of suit signs, which in different languages do not always have the same meaning; this happens because symbols are rather stylized, and may suggest different objects: Clubs, for example, look like flowers to Italians, clover to Spanish and French, crosses to Germans. For a full multi-lingual glossary table follow this LINK.
Ace of Cups from an
Italian regional pattern
PLAYING CARD COLLECTING
subject from an Italian
Mercante in Fiera deck
Generally speaking, a deck of playing cards is a fascinating object: a full set of rectangles made of glossy pasteboard, perfectly regular in shape and so nice to handle, decorated with colourful pictures, each one different from the other. No surprise that many people love them, either for playing games or simply as artistic items.
Nevertheless, the number of collectors is very small, compared to the number of people who collect objects of similar nature: sports trading cards, cigarette cards, phone cards, postcards, and - most of all - stamps.
There is no standard rule for collecting playing cards: some people only keep one or more cards from each deck (i.e. an ace, a court, a joker), or more often they keep the whole pack.
For an average collector, any deck would belong to one of the following basic categories:
More experienced collectors would surely find several subcategories within each of these groups, but for mere practical reasons the picture galleries have been organized according to the above-mentioned simplified criteria.
- fancy decks featuring non-standard (fancy) pictures, or peculiar shapes and sizes
- standard decks with special backs featuring advertisements, touristic views, etc.
- tarot decks (either varieties of the classic pattern, or regional ones, or non-standard ones)
- decks without traditional suits, for specific games, featuring numbers or illustrations
- regional decks, traditionally used in specific geographic areas or countries
Most collectors only care for cards belonging to the first group: subjects to which a deck may be dedicated are almost unlimited, and fancy decks can be found in every part of the world, often sold as gadgets or as souvenirs.
Though not disliking these cards, some of which are beautifully decorated, my personal preference goes to regional patterns. They look naive, the number of existing varieties is surely more limited, and some of them are turning obsolete, or are already extinct. Nevertheless, their illustrations have remained almost unchanged for ages, and their interesting graphic elements often recall traditions, folklore and history of the area or city they come from.
9 of Acorns from a
German regional pattern
|historical and iconographic notes||relations between Western and Oriental cards|
THE FOOL &
ace of Spades from
a deck made in Thailand