The History of Playing Cards

The History of CardsHistory of Cards

  Aeons before the casinos opened their doors to legalised gaming, the playing of card games was one of the more popular pursuits the world over. History tells us that the first documented proof of card playing was from as far back as the 10th century, when the innovative Chinese used paper ‘dominos’ to play unique games where shuffling and dealing were very much part of the ‘integrity’ of the newly formed entertainment.

Decks with the royal court cards were actually imported to the west from the Moslem world around the late 1300’s, but it was the pastime of the rich and educated only, as all cards were hand-painted and excessively priced. It was a hundred years on, with the invention of woodcuts, that the western world began the production of playing cards on a mass scale. Cards finally became accessible to the ordinary man.

Court Cards

The court cards have an interesting history and in the 1500’s were named after the heroes and heroines of the time. The most prolific manufacturer of cards happened to be in the French region of Rouen, and these Rouen courts are traditionally named as follows:

  • King of Spades – David
  • King of Hearts – Alexander
  • King of Diamonds – Caesar
  • King of Clubs – Charlemagne
  • Queen of Spades – Pallas, the warrior goddess
  • Queen of Hearts – Rachel, the mother of Joseph
  • Queen of Diamonds – Argine, an anagram of Regina which is Latin for queen
  • Queen of Clubs – Judith, from the book of Judith
  • Jack of Spades – Hector, the Prince of Troy
  • Jack of Hearts – La-Hire, comrade to Joan of Arc
  • Jack of Diamonds – Ogier, a king of Charlemagne
  • Jack of Clubs – Judas Maccabeus who led the Jewish rebellion against the Syrians

The French can be thanked for the four designs still used on playing cards today – spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts – and the simple shapes and flat colours expedited the manufacture of cards, which soon flooded the markets throughout the western world. England was the first country to standardise playing cards, which soon spread to all the British colonies, including America.

The Americans ‘smartened’ the cards by adopting a couple of refinements including:

  • Double-headed court cards which alleviated the nuisance value of having to constantly turn the card to align the royalist figures
  • Clear varnished surfaces which improved the longevity of the card and made it easier to shuffle
  • Rounded corners which lessened the wear and tear of the card.

They too introduced the joker into the pack. The origins of the joker stem from the early card game, Euchre, also referred to as Juker, where the most valued card of the game was called the ‘juker card’. Over time the juker became the joker we know today.