1902 Encyclopedia > Playing Cards

Playing Cards




CARDS, PLAYING (khartes [Gk.], paper, probably, as Chatto thinks, square paper), rectangular pieces of pasteboard, used at games. The invention of playing cards has been attributed to various nations. In the Chinese dictionary, Ching-tsze-tung (1678), it is said that cards were invented in the reign of Sèun-ho, 1120 A.D., for the amusement of his numerous concubines. There is a tradition that cards have existed in India from time immemorial, and that they were invented by the Brahmans. A pack of cards, said to be a thousand years old, is preserved in the museum of the Royal Asiatic Society; but modern critics are of opinion that these cards are of recent date. The invention "of cards has also been assigned to the Egyptians, but apparently on no better authority than the belief that the representations on tarots may be so interpreted as to connect them with Egyptian philosophy. To the Arabs, Germans, Spaniards, and French have also been ascribed 'the invention of cards, but on grounds of varying feebleness.

There are numerous singular resemblances between the ancient game of chess (chaturanga, the four angas or members of an army) and cards (see " Essay on the Indian Game of Chess," by Sir William Jones, Asiatic Researches, vol. ii.), from which it has been conjectured, with some show of reason, that cards were suggested by chess. The presumption, then, is in favour of the Asiatic origin of cards.

The time and manner of the introduction of cards into Europe are also moot points. The 38th canon of the Council of Worcester (1240) is often quoted as evidence 11of cards having been known in England in the middle of the 13th century; but the games "de rege et regina" there mentioned were a kind of mumming exhibition (Strutt says chess). No queen is found in the earliest European cards.

In the wardrobe accounts of Edward I (1278), Walter Stourton is paid 8s. 5d. "ad opus regis ad ludendum ad quatuor reges." This passage has been translated to mean cards; but as chess was known in the East by a term signifying the four kings (chaturaji), it is now believed that this entry relates to chess. If cards were known in Europe in 1278, it is very remarkable that Petrarch, in this dialogue which treats of gaming, never mentions them; and that though Boccaccio and Chaucer and contemporary writers notice various games, there is not a single passage in any one of them that can be fairly construed to refer to cards. Passages are quoted from various works, of or relative to this period, but modern research leads to the belief that in every instance the word rendered "cards" has either been mistranslated or interpreted.

The earliest unquestionable mention of a distinct series of playing cards is the well-known entry of Charles or Charbot Poupart, treasurer of the household of Charles VI of France, in his book of accounts for 1392 or 1393. It runs thus -- "Donné à Jacquemin Gringonneur, peintre, pour trois jeux de cartes, à or et à diverses couleurs, ornés de plusieurs devises, pour porter devers le Seigneur Roi, pour son ébatement, cinquante-six sols parisis." From this entry it has hastily been concluded that Jacquemin Griugonueur (it is not certain whether Gringunueur was the painter's surname, or only his designation as a maker of grangons) invented cards ; but the payment is clearly for painting, not for inventing them.

The safe conclusion with regard to the introduction of cards is that, though they may possibly have been known to a few persons in Europe about the middle of the 14th century, they did not come into general use until the end of the century, and that whence they were brought has not yet been ascertained. But if the testimony of Covelluzzo can be relied on, cards were introduced into Italy from Arabia in the year 1379. Covelluzzo, who wrote in the 15th century, gives as his authority the chronicle of one of his ancestors. His words are --"Anno 1379, fu recato in Viterbo el gioco delle carte, che venne de Seracinia, e chiamisi tra loro naib." (In the year 1379 was brought into Viterbo the game of cards, which comes from the country of the Saracens, and is with them called naib. See "Istoria della Citta di Yiterbo," Feliciano Bussi, Roma, 1743.)

Soon after the date of Poupart's entry, cards it would seem became common ; for in an edict of the provost of Paris, 1397, working people are forbidden to play at tennis, bowls, dice, cards, or nine-pins on working days. From the omission of cards in an ordonnance of Charles V. (1369), forbidding certain games, it may reasonably be concluded that cards became popular in France between 1369 and the end of the century.

It does not follow that because the earliest positive mention of a series of cards is French, they were not previously known in other parts of Europe. It seems more likely, if their Eastern origin is accepted, that they traveled quickly through Europe to France. Early in the 15th century, card-making had become a regular trade in Germany, whence cards were sent in small casks to other countries. Cards were also manufactured in Italy at least as early as 1425, and in England before 1463; for by an Act of Parliament of 3 Edw. IV. the importation of playing cards is forbidden, in consequence, it is said, of the complaints of manufacturers that importation obstructed their business. No cards of undoubted English manufacture have been discovered of so early a date; and there is reason to believe, notwithstanding the Act of Edward IV., that our chief supplies came from France or the Netherlands. In the reign of Elizabeth the importation of cards was a monopoly; but from the time of James I. must of the cards used in this country were of home manufacture. In the reign of James I. a duty was first levied on cards; since when they have always been taxed.

It has been much disputed whether the earliest cards were printed from wood blocks. This is a question of some importance, as, if answered in the affirmative, it would appear that the art of wood engraving, which led to that of printing, may have been developed through the demand for the multiplication of implements of play. The belief that the early card-makers or card-painters of UIm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg, from about 141S-1450, were also wood-engravers, is founded on the assumption that the cards of that period were printed from wood-blocks. It is, however, clear that the earliest cards were executed by hand, like those designed for Charles VI. Many of the earliest woodcuts were coloured by means of a stencil, so it would seem that at the time wood-engraving was first introduced, the art of depicting and colouring figures by means of stencil plates was well known. There are no playing cards engraved on wood to which so early a date as 1423 (that of the earliest dated wood-engraving generally accepted) can be fairly assigned; and as at this period there were professional card-makers established in Germany, it is probable that wood-engraving was employed to produce cuts for sacred subjects before it was applied to cards, and that there were hand-painted and stencilled cards before there were wood-engravings of saints. The German Briefmäler or card-painter probably progressed into the wood-engraver; but there is no proof that the earliest wood-engravers were the card-makers.

It is undecided whether the earliest cards were of the kind now common, called numeral cards, or whether they were tarocchi or tarots, which are still used in some parts of France, Germany, and Italy, but the probability is that the tarots were the earlier. A pack of tarots consists of seventy-eight cards, four suits of numeral cards and twenty two emblematic cards, called atutti or atouts. Each suit consists of fourteen cards, ten of which are the pip cards, and four court (or more properly coat cards), viz., king, queen, chevalier, and valet. The atouts are numbered from 1 to 21; the unnumbered card, called the fou, has no positive value, but augments that of the other atouts. (See Académie des Jeux, Corbet, Paris, 1814, for an account of the mode of playing tarocchino or tarots.)





The marks of the suits on the earliest cards (German) are hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. No ace has been discovered corresponding to the earliest known pack, but other packs of about the same date have aces, and it seems unlikely that the suits commenced with the deuces.

Next in antiquity to the marks mentioned are swords, batons, cups, and money. These are the most common on Italian cards of the late 15th century, and are now used both in Italy and in Spain. French cards of the 16th century bear the marks now generally used in France and England, viz., coeur, trèfle, pique, and carreau.

The French trèfle, though so named from its resemblance to the trefoil leaf, was in all probability copied from the acorn; and the pique similarly from the leaf (grün) of the German suits, while its name is derived from the sword of the Italian suits. It is not derived from its resemblance to a pike head, as commonly supposed. In England the French marks are used, and are named hearts, clubs (corresponding to tr_fie, the French
symbol being joined to the Italian name, bastoni), spades (corresponding to the French pique, but having the Italian name, spade [dissyl.]), and diamonds. This confusion of names and symbols is accounted for by Chatto thus – "If cards were actually known in Italy and Spain in the latter part of the 14th century, it is not unlikely that the game was introduced into this country by some of the English soldiers who had served, under the banners of Hawkwood and other free captains, in the wars of Italy and Spain. However this may be, it seems certain that the earliest cards commonly used in this country were of the same kind, with respect to the marks of the suits, as those used in Italy and Spain."

About the last quarter of the 15th century, packs with animals, flowers, and human figures, for marks of the suits, were engraved upon copper ; and later, numerous variations 9.pliaared, dictated by the caprice of individual card-makers; but they never came into general use.

The court cards of the early packs were king, chevalier, and knave. The Italians were probably the first to substitute a queen for the chevalier, who in French cards is altogether superseded by the queen. The court cards of French packs received fanciful names, which varied from time to time.

Abbè Rive, Éclaircissements sur l' Invention des Cartes à jouer, Paris, 1780 ; J. G. I. Breitkopf, Versuch den Ursprung der Spielkarten zu erforschen, Leipsic, 1'!84 ; Samuel Weller Singer, Researches into the History of Playing Cards, with illustrations of Origin of Printing and Engraving on Wood, London, 1816; Peignot, Analyse Critique et raisonnée de toutes les Recherches publiées jusqu'à ce jour, Dijon, 1826; M.C. Leber, Etudes historiques sur les Cartes à jouer, principalement sur les Cartes Francaises, Paris, 1842; William Andrew Chatto, Facts amd Speculations on the Origin and History of Playing Cards, London, 1848 ; P. Boiteau D'Ambly, Les Cartes à jouer et la Cartmancie, Paris, 1854, translated into English with additions under the title of The History of Playing Cards, with Anecdotes of their use in Conjuring, Fortune-telling, and Card-sharping, edited by the Rev. E. S. Taylor, B.A., London, 1865; W. Hughes Willshire, M. D., A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and other Carda in the British, Museum, printed by order of the Trustees, London, 1876. (H. J.)






The above article was written by Henry Jones ("Cavendish"), M.R.C.S.; author of The Laws and Principles of Whist by "Cavendish"; and of guides to croquet, bézique, eucre, and other games.




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