The small cardboard rectangles we know as playing cards have been used by humans for many centuries, however most people would not give them a second thought. In today’s electronic age, your pack of cards is most often relegated to a dusty drawer, only to be produced at a poker game or, in the height of boredom, as a way to pass the time. But what is interesting about playing cards is how pervasive they are in society, from simple childhood games to high-stakes casino gambling, having consistently throughout human history been a source of entertainment and social bonding.
The first playing cards are believed to have been created in China under the Tang dynasty in the 9th century. Thought to be a consequence of the invention and popularisation of woodblock printing, these early mentions of paper cards leave unclear how the cards were used in games, and do not seem to be the suited decks we know today.
Some historians believe that early card suits originally designated value, with the cards being both the game itself and the stakes, similar to how we use chips to represent money in modern gambling. It is interesting to see that from the very beginnings of their history, playing cards have been used in games of chance, with cards being closely linked with gambling throughout history.
We are not sure when they became common, but by the 11th century, cards with suits had spread across Asia, with Persian, Arab, Turkish, and Egyptian examples. Unlike modern-day cards, and unlike those that came before and after, these cards were hand-painted and featured intricate designs. The most famous of these are the Mamluk playing cards of Egypt, some examples of which have survived and are considered fine examples of Islamic art.
After travelling from China to the Middle East, playing cards continued to spread: indeed, it is fascinating to see how the cards slowly traveled across the world, taking 500 years to cross the Asian continent and arrive in Southern Europe in the 14th century. Interestingly, the first playing cards weren’t introduced in Japan until Portuguese tradesmen brought them over in the 16th century, meaning that the custom had made its way halfway across the world from neighbouring China before circling back to East Asia through European trade.
Brought from Egypt, the Mamluk cards were popularised in Europe; however, they underwent several design changes before becoming the cards we know today. The Mamluk suits were swords, coins, cups, and polo-sticks; since polo was not a popular game in Europe at the time, the latter was replaced with clubs, and these are still found in Latin decks to this day.
At this point, sometime in the 15th century, playing cards evolved both into the modern decks we know today and into tarot cards. Tarot, which only became associated with the occult in English-speaking countries from the late 18th century onwards, featured more detailed cards with allegorical or historical depictions of people, whilst what we know as standard playing cards are the result of decades of design simplification across countries.
As the cards traveled north from Southern Europe, Germany adapted the design to hearts, leaves, acorns, and bells. The French then created the suits we know today by simplifying the designs in order to use stencils instead of woodblock printing for mass production. An interesting thing about playing cards is how different types of card used worldwide remain linked: some of the names we use for French decks are remnants of the original Latin suits, with ‘spade’ for instance deriving from the Italian ‘spada’ (sword) and the English using the word ‘club’ for the clover.
Europeans also changed the Mamluk court cards, which included the King, Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant, and Assistant. These were represented by an inscription along the top and bottom of the card, due to artistic representations of humans and animals being forbidden in most Islamic art. When the cards were changed in Europe, European court figures were selected, with the modern-day King, Queen, and Jack (or originally ‘Knave’) eventually becoming most popular. European cards of course used drawings to convey these figures.
A few further innovations brought playing cards to the decks we know today: during the 18th century, card designs became reversible and numbers began to be printed in corners so players could easily hold them in one hand. Corners become rounded in the 19th century to prevent wear and tear, and the United States later introduced the joker into the deck for the use of certain games.
Most people in English-speaking countries are only familiar with one type of playing card: the 52 French card deck, featuring hearts, diamonds, clovers, and spades. This deck is used for everything from casual family games to the perennial solo classic solitaire. They are however most associated with casino gambling, thanks to popular games such as poker, blackjack, and baccarat. The cards and their suits have become iconic symbols of gambling, and used card decks from famous casinos are a popular souvenir from places like Las Vegas.
Whilst people from around the world are likely to be familiar with the standard 52 card French deck, several countries have their own cards and suits which tend to be more locally popular. As explained above, Latin card decks, used in Spain and Italy, use the original symbols brought over from Egypt. Within that category, there are several regional differences: for instance, the Castillan and Catalan Spanish decks have different designs. Germany, on the other hand, still uses the early designs from which the French suit was developed, and their decks tend to have less cards.
Yet another variety of suited card is the Japanese flower card (Hanafuda), comprising 12 suits named after flowers which represent the 12 months of the year. In the late 19th century, following centuries of prohibition on Western-style gambling and playing cards, a Japanese company became famous for the manufacture and distribution of hand-made Hanafuda cards: this company was Nintendo, which still produces a limited range of playing cards, both French suit and Hanafuda.