Poker Cards - Their Origins, History and Future

playing cards

In the midst of a heated hand of poker scant attention is given to the design of the cards themselves. Every player gets two in the initial deal and then five more are placed on the table – three as the flop, one as the turn, and finally the river to conclude the round. The essential element of poker is, of course, the playing card. But what of the history of playing cards? Where did they originate and how long have they been around?

Take your seat as the cards are shuffled and the big deal of their story and history is told.

 

Origins of playing cards

Playing cards are believed to have originated in China in the 7th or 8th century and then spread to India and Persia. From Persia they are believed to have spread to Egypt and from there into Europe via both the Italian and Iberian peninsulas in the second half of the fourteenth century. Thus, European playing cards appear to have an Islamic derivation but were originally born in China.


Different styles and formats of packs

playing cards in the handThe idea of suit symbols may have originated with Chinese ‘Money’ cards. However, the suits that made their way into Europe were probably an adaptation of the Islamic cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks. By the end of the fifteenth century playing cards had spread over most of Western Europe. Diverse cultural contexts and printing techniques led to a variety of playing card types. Styles peculiar to particular regions evolved, such as Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, France, and so on. The court hierarchy and suit symbols were not always consistent. In some cases we see Kings mounted on horseback, in other cases seated on thrones. Some packs contained Queens and attendants; others preferred horsemen and foot soldiers.  It was French card-makers who invented the simpler suit system of spades, diamonds, clubs and hearts as these could be applied using stencils at the stroke of a brush. It was also the French card-makers who began naming the court cards after famous heroes such as Caesar, Hector or Judith, but this never caught on with English cards.

It may come as a surprise to learn that around this time playing card manufacture was still largely based on wood block printing technology, with stencil colouring using a paint brush, the finished cards being cut out with a large pair of shears, a far cry from today’s advanced 6-colour UV printing capabilities. These English ‘French-suited’ decks were made on stiff cardboard or pasteboard, had square corners, plain backs, no jokers and contained cards Ace – 10, Jack, Queen & King in four suits, spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds. This made them hard to read when the cards were fanned in the hand.

caqrdmaker workshop

 

The game of Poker

The game of Poker is first reported to have appeared in New Orleans gambling saloons in the early years of the 19th century. It spread from there to the rest of the country via the Mississippi riverboats on which gambling was very popular and was, of course, considered a gambling game for men who were often out prospecting to make their fortunes.

Owing to the romantic appeal of gambling on the Mississippi river, most American playing card manufacturers added “Steamboats” to their range, differentiated by a number, such as 99 or 999. The theme of steamboats navigating up and down the Mississippi also extended to the cotton plantations alongside the river and to African American people employed therein who were sometimes depicted on the Joker card. Times have changed and these antique poker cards are now documentary evidence of a past era of history.

playing cards on steamboats

The spread of the game of poker was greatly facilitated by its popularity on the Mississippi River steamboats. The game quickly spread to various river towns and then to points east and west.Early versions of the game used a 20-card deck, but by the 1840s the game was played with a full 52-card Anglo-American pack as more sophisticated winning combinations were devised.

19th century technical innovations: letterpress printing, double-ended, turned courts, indices, rounded corners, patterned backs, the joker card

Poker games reached UK sometime during the second half of the 19th century. The playing cards used in those days, which are now collectible antiques, were undergoing a series of technical innovations introduced by enterprising manufacturers competing with each other to gain the largest market share.

poor workmanship producing playing cardsAt the time of Thomas de la Rue's landmark Royal Letters Patent for ‘certain improvements in making or manufacturing and ornamenting playing cards’ in 1831, playing cards were stencil-coloured by hand in water colours or printed in one colour and then hand tinted. These processes were time-consuming, laborious and also gave rise to poor quality if the workmanship was careless or imprecise. The main innovation which Thomas de la Rue introduced was a mechanical method of registering the colour printing so that the different coloured inks were applied with greater precision and did not overlap.

The next technical innovation was the introduction of double-ended court cards in the 1850s. Single-ended cards needed to be sorted and so a player seen turning his or her cards up-side-down might give an opponent clues to how many court cards they held. A further problem was that the suit symbol often lay on the right-hand side of the court card, and so would be obscured if the cards were held tightly fanned. Thus during the 1870s some of the court cards were “turned” so that all the suit symbols lay on the left-hand side. As it happens, these changes in design are the main clues that help collectors in dating antique packs of playing cards.

The advent of double-ended cards presented playing card designers with a new challenge. Sometimes the two ends were just mirror images of each other. Some court figures were more thoughtfully designed with clever solutions in achieving the double ended result. But the designs needed to be unobtrusive and elegant so as not to distract players from their concentration.

Generally-speaking serious card players, including Poker players, are conservative regarding the cards they use. Novel designs, pretty faces or backs, are not really welcome because they are a distraction during play.

double ended playing cards

< Online poker cards also have a story. There are plenty of reasons to play with our cards! >

As new technologies were developed, playing card manufacturers began to modernize the design, flexibility or stiffness and the appearance of playing cards, bringing out new innovations every season. But conservative card players often shunned these innovations, so they took time to become accepted, or else were withdrawn. Poker players required back designs which would be as unobtrusive as possible and aesthetic considerations remained entirely in the background.

novelty card designnovelty playing card designVictorian playing cards manufacturers also produced calendars, almanacs, greeting cards and various other fancy printed products which were designed to catch the eye. Thomas de la Rue employed the architect and designer Owen Jones to design some richly coloured and elaborate back designs which are, of course, highly sought by collectors. Likewise the other manufacturers availed themselves of the services of eminent artists or designers to embellish the backs of playing cards which were announced in their trade catalogues as “works of art” in the “best taste” for drawing rooms and for female card players. However, plainer, “old fashioned” or more traditional backs were also kept in the range, as they still are today, for players who do not wish to be distracted by brightly coloured back designs. These were often called “Club House” or “Club Cards” with plain, pastel coloured backs or simple geometrical patterns, and perhaps a crest or insignia in the centre. The plainer backs were also cheaper to manufacture.

The same thing happened when rounded corners were first introduced as “more convenient”; some players still preferred square corners and shunned the new-fangled invention!

Around this period card players began to want indices and often these are found pencilled in the corners of packs dated around 1870 onwards, when indices came into common use on English and American cards. Gradually the manufacturers took out patents for their newly designed, miniature index signs, such as “Squeezers”, “Duplex”, “Dexter”, “Triplicate” or “Indicators” and some early examples are now very rare to find.

early corner indices on playing cards

Another 19th century innovation was the introduction of the extra card, called “the Joker”. The extra “Joker” card is believed to have been invented by American Euchre players who, when modifying the rules sometime during the 1860s, decided that an extra trump card was required.

the joker playing cardOriginally he was called “The Best Bower” and then later “The Little Joker” or “The Jolly Joker”. These Jokers, or extra cards, were first introduced into American packs around 1863, but took a little longer to reach English packs, in around 1880. It has been suggested that “the Joker is the 'wild-card', or the card of opportunity, not unlike the ethos of opportunity and individuality that has been the driving force behind America's pursuit of greatness.”  One British manufacturer (Chas Goodall) was manufacturing packs with Jokers for the American market in the 1870s.

The surface of playing cards was usually smoothly polished, and Victorian card-makers had invented a new glazing process which they called “enamelled”.

pneumatic playing card“Pneumatic Playing Cards”were invented by William Thomas Shaw, an old employee and De la Rue friend who had recently become a partner in the company, in around 1890. The surface of the cards was slightly grooved in a herringbone effect by being rolled on prepared plates, so that there were little pockets of air between each card. This prevented them sticking together when shuffling and acted as a resistance for the thumb in dealing, so the chance of a misdeal was considerably lessened. Other manufacturers soon introduced similar dimpled or granulated ‘fabric’ finishes on their cards to keep up with this innovation.

The plastic-coated playing card was yet to be invented.

 

20th century innovations: narrow size, jumbo index and plastic coating

Due to market forces, economic cycles and competition, many of the smaller Victorian manufacturers closed down or were taken over, so that by the 20th century there was only De la Rue and Goodall & Son left standing, until Waddington’s appeared in c.1920. But in 1922 Thomas de la Rue Ltd purchased Goodall and De la Rue and Waddington’s became rivals. Another long-standing printer, Alf Cooke, also set up a playing card department in the early 1930s.

The growing sphere of technical progress included great improvements in colour printing where a full colour subject could be accurately depicted using colour separation and photographically generated dots of different sizes. During the 20th century UK playing card manufacturers moved away from mechanical or steam-driven printing technologies of the previous century, including chromo-lithography, and embraced new methods such as offset-lithography, gravure printing and reel-fed printing machinery. At that time production problems included making the cards opaque, smooth on the fingers but not too slippery, uniformity of size and exact printing so all the backs were identical.

Until around 1915 playing cards were wider, but a narrower size was introduced for games like whist and poker. This necessitated that court cards were redrawn to fit and this often resulted in a slightly ‘modernised’ and staid appearance but they also tended to have wonderful backs.

narrow sized playing cards

The general strike of 1926 and the economic slump which hit Britain in 1931 had a disastrous effect on business but Waddington’s and De la Rue were able to ride these out. One idea involved printing miniature playing cards to be inserted inside cigarette packets which could be redeemed for full-sized packs as part of a gift scheme. In those days before TV or Internet, playing cards were a very popular pastime. During and after the Second World War cardboard and paper supplies were restricted but Winston Churchill ordered that supplies of playing cards be made available to provide amusement for the forces in their leisure hours during long periods of waiting and monotony.

Plastic playing cards were not an initial success and although they have the advantage of lasting longer and being slightly heavier, they were not accepted by the card playing public.

Due to the effects of globalisation, a large proportion of playing card manufacturing has now migrated to the Far East where the latest technical innovations are available at a cheaper cost. Cards manufactured from paper or plastic, with advanced 6-colour UV printing capabilities and a sharp focus on quality, colour alignment and precision cutting can be shipped from China more economically than produced locally. Glossy varnishing, plastic coating, lamination, embossing, gold/silver foil, linen finish, etc. are all offered. Also packaging has reached a new state-of-the-art level of perfection with diamond-cut edges... a far cry from the rectangular pieces of pasteboard being produced 200 years ago. Many new companies now have manufacturing based in China with marketing and distribution channels in the UK and online.

Since the 'Texas Hold 'Em Poker' fad of the past ten years the number of cheaper grade 'poker' branded decks on the market has increased very noticeably. Shops are awash with cheap 'professional' casino and poker decks and poker sets (including plastic counters described as 'professional poker chips').  Imitation decks are appearing in the market, chiefly imitating the USPCC 'Bee Brand', claiming to be 'professional' and 'preferred by casinos'.

old playing cards

< Online poker cards also have a story. There are plenty of reasons to play with our cards! >

Image credits: Simon Wintle & Rod Starling.


Simon WintleSimon Wintle is the founder of The World of Playing Cards, a website about the history and visual art of playing cards. He has been writing about playing cards for 30 years and his articles have been published in collectors’ magazines, websites and social networks around the world. Simon is an expert on the history of playing cards and tarots and he has produced replicas and facsimiles  of historical playing cards in order to gain insight into their design and manufacture.


 

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