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Playing Cards-Where Did They Come From?

Updated on August 25, 2015

Playing Cards

I think we should all know what a playing card is. Whether you use them or not, they are a pretty popular thing. Such a simple deck of 52 cards can really allow you to play any game that you can make up. I happen to be an addict of playing cards, and decided to read about where these unique things originated. Nobody really thinks about it, but after you consider finding out where they came from, you can become hooked on trying to figure it out.

Today, by reading this article, you will learn about the beginning, the spread, and the many changes of playing cards.

Where It All Began-History of the Tang Dynasty

Its no surprise that the Tang Dynasty was the beginning of the playing cards that we know today. It was around this time that new ideas, and art started to spring up, including the playing cards. But as all ancient history, there was more than just art. There was lots of death In this era. We start off directly after the fall of the Sui Dynasty. The Li Family were powerful rulers of this time, but can be proved as very violent. Li Yuan declared himself as the first emperor but his son shut him down, which ended is rule. His son didn't stop there. Li Shimin, after shutting down his father, killed his two brothers to gain the rights to be emperor. He had a long and effective rule, but died in 649 AD.

With the Tang Empire also rose the Nanzhao empire which overtook lots of land and defeated many armies from the Tang empire. With this chaos, the Arabs also wanted to expand their empire. They attacked the Tang empire and defeated a Tang army. Luckily the Tang army had a decent general named An Lushan, who rebelled and recaptured some of their land. He was later killed by his son. Another empire called the Tibetans attacked Tang empire and captured part of their land.

Obviously, things weren't looking up for the Tang empire. With the constant attacks also came many natural disasters in the last years. Simultaneously, the empire was flooded, which followed with a terrible drought and famine. People who survived these disasters rose up and rebelled against their government.

Through all of this chaos, the playing card was invented. It was around Mid-Tang Dynasty when something called the leaf game was invented. The cards then look nothing like what they look like now. The first set of cards was the 32 Domino Pack.

A playing card enthusiast (William Henry Wilkinson) said that the cards then might have actually been currency in the Tang Dynasty and Dynasty's afterward.

A map showing the rule of the Tang Dynasty.
A map showing the rule of the Tang Dynasty. | Source


Ganjifa were, and still are, Persian playing cards with 8 suits. These unique cards can be circular or square. They are usually hand painted.

They were invented when playing cards (or the leaf game) spread to India and Persia.

Once again, these cards have hardly any relation to modern playing cards, but it was an early and popular game after the cards travelled to different countries.

Indian Ganjifa Cards
Indian Ganjifa Cards | Source

Playing Cards Spread to Another Continent

After spreading through India, most of Asia had had the use of playing cards. Long after the Tang dynasty, playing cards spread to Egypt. Two different kinds of decks spread out through Egypt. They were the Mamluk, and the Topkapi decks.

The design of Mamluk cards were possibly related to "religious proscription"(Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, the Mamluk style of cards started to become unpopular in the 16th century.

Spread to Europe

After the Spread to Egypt, the playing cards started to spread to Europe. When the card first came to Europe, they made them by hand, but later on they started to have professional card makers.

With the spread to Europe, people began to change the suits of the cards. The four suits then were:

  • Leaves
  • Hearts
  • Bells
  • Acorns

There was another suit with those four that was a combination of Latin and Germanic suit pictures.

Later on the Mamluk style cards changed to represent royalty in Europe. There were many more early design changes, but they don't get very extreme until later on.

Further Design Changes

What we now know is that an ace is the lowest card in your average deck of cards, but still when people think about it, they often times think of it as the highest or most valuable. In the old times, the King was considered the highest rank, but later in the 15th century, people gave "special significance" to the lower card , or the ace as we call it now.

Along with the improvement of the Ace came the editing of the corners of cards. People started to cut of the corners of cards to make them easier to hold. But later they decided that, because a sharp corner would wear out easier, they should round the corners of cards. This technique is still used today (Picture Below)

Finally the United States added the Joker to the deck which was necessary for a game that began in Europe and traveled to America after the revolutionary war.

Later the joker started to function as a wild card. This started with the game of poker

The still rounded edges of the playing card.
The still rounded edges of the playing card. | Source

Different Suits

Different suits started to sprout up in different places. There are initially five different types of suits.

The Italian version:

  • Cups
  • Coins
  • Clubs
  • Swords

The Spanish Version:

  • Cups
  • Coins
  • Clubs
  • Swords

The Swiss-German Version:

  • Roses
  • Bells
  • Acorns
  • Shields

The German version:

  • Hearts
  • Bells
  • Acorns
  • Leaves

The French Version:

  • Hearts
  • Diamonds
  • Clubs
  • Spades

The Italian and Spanish versions have different designs, as shown below

French Card Version
French Card Version
German Card Version
German Card Version
Spanish Card Version
Spanish Card Version
Italian Card Version
Italian Card Version

Playing Cards Today

Even though nobody really talks about the history of playing cards or even wonders about it, playing cards changed drastically throughout history.

From the Tang Dynasty thousands of years ago to now, the playing cards have traveled and changed to more than ten different games.


Poll (For fun)

What's your favorite Version of Cards

See results


Submit a Comment

  • Luke Dallabetta profile imageAUTHOR


    3 years ago

    Thanks! Glad you liked it

  • chateaudumer profile image

    David B Katague 

    3 years ago from Northern California and the Philippines

    Interesting hub since I am an avid bridge player!

  • Luke Dallabetta profile imageAUTHOR


    3 years ago

    Comment if you liked it or you didn't like it...

    I have to be honest when I started writing about this I didn't think it would be about ancient history.


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