Today’s ubiquitous playing cards have a history stretching back well over a thousand years
The modern 52-card deck of cards is one of the most globally recognizable and widely played human inventions in history. Most people have grown up playing countless hours of cards, with kid friendly games such as Go Fish, Rummy, Crazy Eights, Concentration and later in youth perhaps Hearts, Euchre, Spades, Cribbage among others. The game of Bridge is played worldwide by millions of people with vast networks of clubs, players federations, and tournaments for fun, prestige or money. Even more popular are the betting games played in homes, street corners, seedy back rooms and mega-billion dollar casinos. Popular card games that involve betting include Baccarat, Blackjack, Poker and its more recent off-shoot Texas Hold ‘Em.
In these digital days, even more time is likely spent playing games involving cards then ever before, albeit on computers and phones. Think Freecell, Solitaire and countless online casino card games. The simple deck of playing cards has led to billions, even trillions of hours of game play, and evolved into thousands of different games, new and old with a process and variety that would have impressed Darwin himself. But where did today’s deck of cards come from?
From East to West
It’s generally agreed that today’s playing cards had their origins 9th-century China, appearing not long after printing technology developed (which really means ink and wooden blocks). They likely started as paper sheets before becoming more durable in nature, and were said to have been used in hybrid games that also involved dice. By the late 1200s Chinese playing cards with numbers and suits had been developed and became more common in the following centuries.
Along the trade routes from China to the Middle East and into Europe, card games (often connected with drinking and gambling) and the playing cards themselves spread rapidly. Within a couple hundred years of their appearance in China decks of numbered and suited cards were popping up in Pakistan, Persia and Egypt and Arabia. Most of these decks were in four “suits” (with older variations of today’s hearts/diamonds/spades/clubs) and with twelve cards in each suit for a total of 48 cards. They usually included 10 numbered cards (1-10, with the 1 also called the “ace”) and two face cards depicting a king and deputy king (or viceroy).
By the late 14th century, the cards were showing up in Europe and began to develop along three different lines, German, Latin and French. The Queen, or 13th card in the suit, started to appear in European decks early on and became a permanent fixture of the increasingly dominant 52-card French deck. It is the French cards that carry the familiar trèfles (clovers or clubs ♣), carreaux (tiles or diamonds ♦), cœurs (hearts ♥), and piques (pikes or spades ♠). The design of the cards became more standardized in the 1700s and while each region in Europe showed some variation, playing cards settled into the familiar-looking 52 card deck that we know and love today. The French cultural influence on England made it the deck of choice for the two greatest colonizing forces as they spread cards and card games around the globe.
Bonus – If you’d like to play card games like Solitaire with historical designs, check out Solitaired. They have customizable card designs you can choose from including ones from the Smithsonian. Now that you know the history of playing cards, you can immerse yourself in it!
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