History of Playing Cards

Playing cards were invented in Ancient China but reached Europe only after the Middle Ages, being transferred from Egypt, where it was brought, in its turn, from Persia. Suits and symbols on the cards, as well as their shapes, varied greatly depending on local cultural influences.

The Origins

The earliest mentions of a Chinese entertainment called the game of leaves is dated by the 9th century. This fact was represented in many pieces of research, including the ancient ones. The game gained popularity during the time when the Tang Dynasty was ruling the country – it was played on banquets of the officials. The “leaves” were probably far from what we imagine now hearing “playing cards”: there were pictures on them which didn’t have the hierarchy cards are known for now.

The earliest European reference dates back to the 14th century – a miniature of a card play was included in a French manuscript. We can see cards with numbers on them – now we know this type of design as the Latin suit-signs.

Many researchers claim that in the 14th century, such games were already so popular that authorities came to banning them. Playing cards were normally associated with charlatans and drunks. Bans on using cards on workdays were spread in many countries throughout Europe at that time.

The Deck

“Pips” – graphic symbols on the cards – were simplified through time. At first, there were complex pictures of birds or flowers, charged with meanings. Then, they all moved to a sphere of mystic cards like tarot, while playing cards moved toward homogeny. Deck of cards symbols in forms of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades was established in Medieval France. The way they were painted varied from one location to another, but the essence remained the same.

Historians suggest that four suits represented social classes: clergy, military, merchants, and peasants. This theory can hardly be proved. 

Apart from pips with numbers, there are so-called face cards, which appear to have more stability in their representation. British and French king cards derive from the images of the same persons: Charles, David, Caesar, and Alexander the Great. The queen cards are the following: Pallas, Judith, Rachel, and Argine. There were some variations in other European countries: Spanish decks replaced queens with Caballeros, German ones excluded queens but featured two types of jacks (upper man and lower man).

As games were gaining more acceptance, manufacturers were making a fortune on the production of playing cards. There were a lot of designs, but the community of gamblers insisted on standard and symmetrical cards not to get distracted in the process. 

As for the backs of the cards, they remained plain. It wasn’t until the 19th century when a British printer created simple designs for the backs: with dots, stars, or something like that. It was not only a visual enhancement which could please the eye of players, but it also contributed to making the process fairer: plain backs could easily wear out and reveal the values of cards.

Another innovation that changed the course of the cards history was implemented during the Civil War – corner indices with numbers and letters were added. It allowed players to hold their cards in a more compact way and glance through them quickly.