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© 2011 New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the Playing Card and Game Collection
1549-present
(Bulk 1800-1899)
  PR 115

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jason Burns

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on June 26, 2017
Description is in English.

Historical Note

The origin of the playing card is difficult to pin down to a specific time or place. Playing cards are known to have existed in China before 1000, and probably spread west through trade routes. Playing cards were found in the Middle East by the 13th century, and in Southern Europe by 1350. Cards moved north from France into England by 1459. Playing cards were initially hand-painted, which contributed to their use among the noble classes of Europe. With the development of the woodblock method of printing, ca. 1380, mass production of cards was possible, and card playing became a widespread leisure activity. As printing processes developed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cards were printed in greater detail, in color, and more inexpensively.

Suits found on Islamic cards were cups, coins, swords, and sticks. These were reinvented in various ways by different countries and cultures throughout Europe. The Spanish suits are similar: cups, coins, swords, and clubs. Italians used the same suits, but feature the king seated. The suit signs in common usage today are the French system: hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades (hearts, trefoils, squares, and spearheads to the French). Hearts, acorns, bells, and leaves are German suit signs. Swiss suits are acorns, shields, bells, and roses. This collection contains examples of all of these suit variations. Each nationality has developed differing ways of rendering the court cards.

The earliest known playing card with a date written on it is from 1546. This card is part of a deck in this collection. French cards from before the Revolution in 1789 show full-card depictions of Kings, Queens, and Jacks. When the Monarchy fell, kings and queens were no longer popular, and the figures were de-crowned and became representative of democratic ideas like liberty and equality. The monarchs were re-installed on cards at the time of Napoleon's reign. There are many examples of pre-Revolutionary French cards in this collection.

The nineteenth century was a time for much standardization, and at the same time, experimentation on the part of card manufactures. American card manufacturing began in the early 1800s; previously, decks had been imported from England and taxed. Transformation cards, where the suit signs are incorporated into comic or sentimental pictures, began to be printed at the beginning of the 19th century. Corner indices, or the practice of putting the suit sign and number in the corner of the card, took off in the second half of the nineteenth century. After 1860, most cards began to be standardized with numbers. The Joker card first appeared in American decks of euchre around 1865. Most playing cards had plain backs until the 19th century, when designs were added. Advertising material began to appear on card backs in late 19th century, first in Belgium. Souvenir packs with different photographic views on each card were introduced in the 1890s.

"Standard" decks are considered to be those able to be used by the average card player. This most often results in 52 cards (13 each of 4 suits) and 2 joker cards. "Non-standard" decks are often used to play specific games. Bezique, a game in the collection, has 64 cards. Other non-standard cards are used for educational purposes and for games of memory and chance. Transformation cards are also considered non-standard.

Cards have often been used for fortune telling. Many are identified as "Le Normand Style" after a deck named for Napoleon's personal fortune teller. These cards contain a small image of a playing card in the upper center of each card, with a number above. The remainder of the card has a fortune image. Tarot was a game invented in Italy, although tarot cards are today used for fortune telling. Political messages are often found on card decks. In many cases, both in Europe and America, political card decks were issued close on the heels of the depicted event.

Games played with playing cards make up a significant part of this collection. The small size and portability of playing cards made them useful to game designers. Often a small folding board would be included with the deck of game cards. Dissected puzzles, or metamorphosis games, were popular. In these games, different cards are components of a whole picture (heads, torso, and legs, for example) and were to be interchanged or else matched to their corresponding parts. The rebus, or picture puzzle, was another popular game printed on playing cards. These cards would show a picture, and sometimes a written clue, and the game was to guess the answer. Rebus cards have been produced since 1789.

Playing card wrappers are also notable ephemera because cards were one of the early products sold in packaging. Decks of cards were thus one of the first pre-packaged manufactured items. Early cards decks were packaged in paper wrappers held together with a piece of thread. Cardboard slipcases were in use by 1800, boxes with push on lids by 1828, and telescope and tuck-flap boxes were introduced in the late 19th century. Cellophane wrappers were common by 1937. Original containers have been retained with the card decks in this collection, and are sometimes boxed separately.