The history of cards

The history of modern-day playing cards is shrouded in secrecy, as is the genesis of its design. Instead of being developed by a single person, organization, or nation, the pack that most people are today acquainted with emerged through many hundred years of research and development. Whenever the notion of playing cards got introduced into a new nation, the form and design of the cards got altered to represent the cultural character of the new country’s inhabitants. The manufacturing process got also changed to accommodate the expertise and abilities of the local craftspeople. Due to the complexity of the evolutionary process, it is impossible to determine the specific geographic origin of playing cards with any degree of precision.

Origin of playing cards

Even though several countries claim to have invented playing cards, historical evidence clearly shows that the Chinese were the first to design cards for game purposes. It isn’t unexpected to realize that China was also responsible for the invention of paper, the woodblock printing method, and the first printing system using moveable type. In the design of early Chinese cards, which date back to the 9th century, coins are featured prominently, a theme still often employed as a suit emblem in Spain and other European nations. Apart from this resemblance, traditional Chinese playing cards are opposed to early European ones. Some historians think that playing cards were initially created in Persia (the old name for Iran) rather than China and that they then moved eastward to India and China as a result.

There is an old Persian game known as “As Nas” that uses a smaller pack, and while it is likely that the current pack arose from this source, there is no contemporary evidence to support this idea. Similarly, the circular pattern of early Indian “Ganjapa” cards, made of wood or tortoiseshell, does not appear to have impacted the design of the famous pack of 52 playing cards that we are all acquainted with today. The Chinese created a large variety of packs, each of which differed substantially in terms of design and number of cards. Several historians argue that the initial playing cards were a sort of paper currency created to have a dual purpose, serving as instruments of the game and representing the stakes being wagered itself. This concept is similar to popular modern-day trading card games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, both based on collecting cards.

There is no doubt in the minds of many historians that playing cards were introduced into Europe by troops returning from the Crusades. In support of this allegation, not a single shred of proof can get found. The last Crusades ended in 1291, more than a hundred years before the first recorded mention of playing cards in Europe appeared in a book.

Similarly, the widely held belief that gypsies were responsible for introducing playing cards into Europe is without foundation. It is apparent from historical documents that playing cards were in use in Europe even before the arrival of the gypsies in the region.

National types and suit systems

By around 1500, three major suit systems had emerged:

  • The French suit system (which has since been known as the ‘Anglo-American’ suit system).
  • The Germanic suit system (which includes German and Swiss suits).
  • The Latin suit system (including Italian, Spanish and Portuguese).

At the same time, the judicial hierarchies were becoming more standardized but with slight variations depending on the locality. However, other students prefer to perceive a religious, social, or political meaning in the suit symbols, which may have had a semi-symbolic value or been borrowed from a foreign language. Others believe the suit symbols reflect the popular culture at the time.

As a result of these suit systems and court hierarchies, numerous Standard National patterns, also known as National Types, emerged that were identified with some regions of tax jurisdictions. Many of these have remained essentially unmodified for centuries, having been passed down through the generations while retaining their archaic, medieval qualities. While others have developed into contemporary forms, this may have occurred due to the self-affirmation of national identity in nations with recently acquired independence from imperial authority. Because of globalization and the widespread use of computers, conventional playing card designs are becoming more consistent on the one hand while providing increasing chances for customization and creativity on the other.

The imagery used on cards

It took years for other applied crafts to establish the repertory of designs that would eventually get used in playing cards. In the medieval period, it was customary for artisans to work from models drawn on pieces of vellum and pasted into sketchbooks before beginning their work. Hundreds of copies of these models were made repeatedly, allowing images to travel throughout workshops and from master to pupil. Pictures were taken while traveling overseas frequently featured mistakes in observation and proportion, exacerbated by future copying and reproduction.

However, while the social structure at the court inspired the main court card hierarchy, much of the secondary imagery on early playing cards resemble the figures that recur in the borders and marginal drollery of illuminated manuscripts: miniature illustrations and trompe l’oeil of tapestries, carving, and sculpture. The topic was usually a light-hearted allusion to tournaments, cavorting youngsters, or mock battles between animals. It was typically surrounded by fruits, flowers, acanthus leaves, birds, monkeys, and grotesques, among other things. Playing cards were made by artists whose primary source of revenue may or may not have been the sale of playing cards themselves. The painters’ abilities varied: while some artists could depict standard topics stereotypically, others were able to reimagine scenarios from scratch.

Written writings, such as hunting manuals, mystery plays, and morality tales, would have impacted the designs. Flowers from the herbal, animals from the bestiary, and birds and insects from the Hours books, all evoking symbolism, a semiotic language, and echoing the ordinary world of popular beliefs and folklore, were represented in the exhibition.

Card production

Luxury hand-painted packets were only available to a select few, who savored them in solitude or with a small group of friends. The printed or mechanically generated versions, which were cruder in design and execution, were viewed by a more significant number of people at the same time but were more prone to deterioration with time.

The rise in demand for cultural items spurred the development of more efficient and cost-effective production processes, such as woodcuts, moveable type, paper instead of parchment, and many copies of the same work. As card-playing became increasingly popular, alternative procedures, such as hand-made cards, cards printed from woodblocks or stencils, or other improvised techniques, helped to hasten the manufacture of cards and increase their availability. 

Early packs used artisan card creation methods, which were time-consuming yet resulted in extremely durable cards. It was made of numerous sheets of paper that got pasted together to form a pasteboard. More costly cards were made from copper engravings, which required the talents of a goldsmith and an engraver, and were then lighted with a variety of colors, including gold and silver, to make them more valuable. These cards contain more detail and more organic use of line than the previous ones. This type of package was presented as a wedding gift, bequeathed as heirlooms, and considered a precious object. Depending on the situation, they were frequently made for collectors or as curios for regal display cabinets.

Casino card games

The growth of card games has been a fascinating process to watch. Casino and online gaming are becoming increasingly popular. The traditional card games that have been enjoyed throughout the world for centuries are guaranteed to undergo a further transformation due to new technological developments. In casinos, a wide variety of card games are available to be played by patrons. The cards themselves, used in card games, are now public in two different materials: card stock and plastic.

Most nations have their current deck configurations, but the French format of Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades is the most widely used in casinos worldwide and has existed in France from the beginning of the game’s existence. The history of card games and their development inside the casino is a fascinating subject to study. Man’s fascination with gambling may be dated back to 600 BCE. Still, it wasn’t until the first legal casinos opened their doors in the early 1930s that gambling was able to transition from back alleyways and shady saloons to respectable establishments. Over the years, casino gambling has expanded to include a wide range of activities, with card games, in particular, becoming increasingly popular. The evolution of casino card games has been spectacular, beginning in the back alleys and progressing to the increasing popularity of new online casino games.

  • Poker

In the nineteenth century, the Americans were the first to introduce poker to the world. The number of cards used in modern-day poker differed from the number of cards used in poker in the nineteenth century. Back then, each participant would draw five cards from a deck of twenty cards, dealt face down.

This game was quite popular among boat crew members since it was a fun way to spend time while also earning extra money. Gamblers used to hang out at saloons. However, as the casinos progressed, players began to use a pack of 52 cards rather than a single deck of 20 cards.

Additionally, they establish specific rules and points for each card to make the game more fascinating for everyone. On the other hand, poker did not remain confined to the casinos. It also found its way onto television in the 1970s, thanks to shows like “World Series of Poker” and other similar programs. Poker has now made its way into the digital realm, with online sites where you can register as a permanent visitor and play poker anytime you want to earn some money.

  • Blackjack

While other card games are available at casinos, the most popular ones are blackjack and poker, both available at most casinos. According to one blackjack hypothesis, the French invented the game in the 17th century, and it got first played there. Even though the game was known by the name Vingt et un, the rules and structure of the game were quite similar to those of modern-day blackjack.

However, some minor distinctions, such as the dealer’s ability to double up, and the betting techniques, were also significantly different from those in the United States. Most people, especially those who enjoy gambling, are familiar with the modern-day blackjack card game invented in 1821. Today, this game, also known as the Comparing Card Game, is the most popular and favored game played in casinos worldwide.

Were cards invented for playing games?

In specific early packs of cards, it is disputed whether or not they were meant for use in a game in the first place. The super-rich who could purchase lighted cards decked with gold could engage in self-indulgent, narcissistic pleasures by buying cards meant to be looked at, admired, and studied. They were more than simply a toy; individuals could decipher the symbols and inscriptions, make comparisons, and discern more profound significance.

Man’s intellect enjoys categorizing and classifying his experiences the elements, cardinal points, lunar cycles, virtues, celestial spheres, temperaments, taxonomies, and hierarchies are some of the categories and classifications that he enjoys. As a practical “mnemonic” or mechanism for depicting life’s essential truths, a memory aid or teaching tool, and a means of compressing knowledge, playing cards are an excellent choice. There are no restrictions on the subject matter, ranging from botany to heraldry and from cosmology to geography. 

As an example, Thomas Murner, a Franciscan friar, produced a deck of instructional cards in 1507 that is still in use today. Political humor has also served as a source of inspiration for the design of playing cards. Until the latter part of the 18th century, the backs of playing cards were left plain white. However, the difficulty with this was that card backs got easily marked during play, and as a result, they became identifiable by an opponent. Because it was too expensive to purchase another fresh pack, any damaged cards were returned to the workshop for cleaning. The white backs of playing cards got frequently used for secondary purposes. It included currency, visiting cards, and library classification cards until some playing card manufacturers began printing repeating geometric patterns, such as stars or dots, on the reverse of the cards to alleviate this problem.

Cards for the masses

Like dice or a roulette wheel, Cards are employed as a randomizing technique in various gambling games, including blackjack. The guidelines are typically straightforward: a banker may or may not be present, depending on the circumstances. Games of skill have a lower chance element than games of chance. The skill becomes more decisive via the use of technologies such as bidding, capturing, collecting, merging, and increasingly complicated rules and procedures. 

Both types of games have been played in Europe since the invention of playing cards in the 16th century. The widespread usage of cards for gambling is demonstrated by the prohibition of card games and preachers’ denunciation of card games. It was poker, a hobby that drew card sharps, gamblers, swashbucklers, and other outlaws who made a livelihood by their wits. The emotional outbursts and bad behavior that occurred due to losing were deemed unethical.

Playing cards are typically used for two primary purposes: 

gambling and participation in skill games. Their emergence gave a new option to more cerebral games such as chess and draughts and more chance-based games such as dice and knuckle-bones games. They introduced a new method of telling fortunes and practicing sleight of hand.

Concluding thoughts

Card games are a reflection of the society in which they are played. A simple way of looking at it, playing cards might be thought of as conduits for popular culture and taste.

 The development of printing is a product of the modern age. Consequently, the growth of playing cards as a mass-produced product got dramatically accelerated, and they became a part of popular culture throughout Europe. Printing made it possible for information and culture to be conveyed more effectively. It also boosted the paper manufacturing industries due to its invention.

As a result, playing cards and card games permeated everyday life, affected society, and eventually became a part of European popular culture (or subculture) – spreading as far as North Africa. As early as the fifth century, playing cards and card players first appeared in chronicles and archives. We learn that they were disapproved of or forbidden by religious and secular authorities as soon as they appeared in Europe. Society gradually grew more open and less reliant on tight restrictions. Within a few hundred years of the sixteenth century, a rich vocabulary of descriptive phrases and famous sayings had made their way into ordinary English and literature about card playing, including metaphors based on cards and card games.