Where do playing cards come from? The answer involves swords and lawn games, the evolution of printing technology, and the devil.
Where Do Playing Cards Come From?
The earliest known reference to playing cards was found in writings from the tenth-century Tang Dynasty in China. These were made from strips of bamboo and more closely resembled dominoes than cards. The concept made its way west through the Silk Road. Cards were then made in Persia, India, and the Arab world from papyrus and later from paper—expensive materials that were a mark of luxury.
The international card deck we know today developed from the 52-card deck used in the Mamluk Dynasty centered in Egypt and Syria in the thirteenth century. In 1931, forty-three cards from a medieval Mamluk card deck were discovered and are now located in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. The cards, known as Mulūk wa-nuwwāb (kings and deputies), were hand-painted in elaborate gold leaf and follow the same structure as the modern international card deck—four suits, each with ten numeral cards and three court cards. In this early deck, the suits were coins, polo sticks, cups, and swords. The court cards were king, first deputy, and second deputy.
Versions of the Mamluk card deck made their way first into Spain and Italy around the 1370s by means of traders and sailors. The Arabic term, nāʾib, meaning “deputy,” became the first European name for playing cards, which in Spanish are still called naipes. The hand-lettered cards were quite expensive and were sold to the wealthy for entertainment. Playing cards were quickly and explosively popular, spreading all over the continent in the matter of a decade.
Playing Card Suits
In European card decks, the same suits were loosely adopted from the Mamluk deck, but their names and appearances changed over time. European decks adapted the suits to things that were more familiar. For example, the sword eventually become known as a spade based on the Spanish word used for sword, spado, and was pictured as a straight sword rather than a curved scimitar. Polo sticks were not used in Europe and thus became batons instead,
As cards spread into other areas of Europe, each country developed its own slightly different version of a card deck with different suits and court cards. The court cards generally followed the hierarchy of a country’s courts to determine which cards ranked higher than others, generally with a king, an upper court official, and a lower court official. In descending order, early card decks were marked with a king, a cavalier (caballo in Spanish) or knight as the upper court official, and a knave as the lower court official. A cavalier was a gentleman of the court who was trained in horsemanship, and a knave was a young boy who attended the royal court as a servant.
In the fifteenth century in Germany, the cavalier was replaced with a queen for some unknown reason, and the French deck, which was based on the German deck, followed their lead, but the German deck switched back. With the invention of wood block printing in Germany in the 1500s as well as stencil printing in France, playing cards became cheaper and more widely accessible. The German card deck was widely known at this point and had settled on four standard suits: acorns (Eichel), leaves (Laub), hearts (Herz), and bells (Schelle). However, stenciling was much easier accomplished with simplified suit designs, which gave way to the simpler shapes of the French national card deck. The French cards were adopted in England and became the basis of the English card deck.
What in the World Is a Jack?
In the nineteenth century, a letter or number identifying the card was placed in the top right corner so that each card could be identified when a hand of cards was fanned out. This was called an index. In English, the king and the knave would both have been represented with a K, so the more modern term jack was substituted instead to make the index letter a J.
The word “jack” was once considered lower-class slang, as Charles Dickens expressed in Great Expectations—Estelle mocks Pip, “He calls the knaves, jacks, this boy!” The two terms were both also used to indicate a tricky, deceitful, lower-class young man, but “jack” eventually gained acceptance while the word “knave” became obsolete.
At first, the court cards depicted generic royal figures rather than real people. But in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, card manufacturers briefly featured Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, the biblical King David, and King Charlemagne—representing the empires of Greece, Rome, the Jews, and the Franks. Queen cards showed the biblical character Rachel, the apocryphal character Judith, the Greek goddess Athena, and a queen figure called Argine (an anagram of regina, the Latin word for queen). These characters featured for a while in French and British card decks, but most continued to depict stock characters in royal garb.
The British card deck also swaps the values of the king and queen cards depending on whether the ruling monarch of the time is a king or a queen, a variation called “the British rule.”
The Modern Card Deck
Unique national decks are still used in their countries of origin. However, the most commonly used deck today is the international card deck patterned after the English version of the French deck. The modern international card deck uses four suits—spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds.
A spade was originally meant to represent a sword. The club in French is called a trèfle, meaning clover—the name “spade” comes from the Spanish word basto used for the suit of batons. Hearts came from the original suit of cups, while diamonds came from the original suit of coins. While some have tried to derive symbolic meaning from this assemblage of suits, it is more likely that various suit marks were commissioned by wealthy families and simply represent the tastes of noble men and ladies.
Like the Mamluk deck, the international deck uses 10 numeral cards for each suit. The images on each numeral card—two hearts on the 2 of hearts, three hearts on the 3 of hearts, and so on—are called pips. The 1 card is referred to as an ace. The word “ace” comes from the French word as, simply meaning “a single unit.” This was also the name for the smallest unit of Roman currency. In some games, the ace represents the lowest possible value, while in others the ace is considered the highest card.
Finally, the international deck contains two joker cards, styled after a traditional court jester. The joker was created specifically for a game called euchre in the nineteenth century to act as the top trump card. It is essentially, in the words of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “a glorified jack.”
Playing Cards Become Political
Playing cards soon became associated with both seduction, drinking, and gambling, leading to the demonization of playing cards by religious authorities and prohibitions by civil authorities. Preachers warned against the “the Devil’s picture book” paving the road to a life of vice and depravity. Many countries established a state monopoly on the manufacture of playing cards; others levied a tax.
In 1765, the notorious Stamp Act applied a tax to playing cards, along with all other paper goods, in the American colonies in order to raise funds for the British Empire—which, of course, led to mob violence over the issue of taxation without representation. This is also when the ace card became more prominent and elaborate, as this was the card stamped to show that the tax had been paid.
Playing cards have been both a mark of luxury and a staple of lower-class entertainment, a form of richly detailed artwork and a mass-produced good, a virtue and a vice. Their history is longer and more detailed than can be explained here, but every time you shuffle cards for a game of solitaire or hearts, you are playing out a global tradition that has connected people across time and distance for over 600 years!
Adrienne Bernhard, “The Lost Origins of Playing Card Symbols,” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/08/the-lost-origins-of-playing-card-symbols/537786/
International Playing Card Society. “Why Are Jacks Called Jacks?” 2007. https://i-p-c-s.org/faq/jack+knave.php.
David Parlett, “Eucher,” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/euchre.
David Parlett, “Playing Cards,” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/playing-card.
Will Roya, “The History of Playing Cards: The Evolution of the Modern Deck,” Playing Card Decks, October 16, 2018. https://playingcarddecks.com/blogs/all-in/history-playing-cards-modern-deck.
Sherryl E. Smith, “Trzes’ Mamluk Deck: The Granddaddy of European Playing Cards,” April 5, 2019. https://tarot-heritage.com/2019/04/05/trzes-mamluk-deck-the-granddaddy-of-european-playing-cards/.