Playing Cards History and Playing Card Games
Playing Cards History
Of all the items common to most American households, I think the humble deck of playing cards might be most overlooked in its fascinating history. Like life itself, playing card games are a combination of skill and chance.
A set of playing cards is a deck. The cards held at any one time by a card player are a hand. A set of playing cards consists of face cards and pip cards. Pips are also the name of the small symbols that determine the suit of a card—spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs.
These suits originally represented the four classes of men: clergy, soldiers, merchants, and farmers. The spade is believed to be a combination of the sword from Italian playing cards and the leaf from German playing cards. But the spade ends up with a darker meaning, as we shall see. The club is derived from an acorn used by German playing cards.
Playing Cards Origins
It appears that playing cards were first used in China; spread to Muslim countries; and were brought to Europe by the Moors in Spain. But when we refer to a deck of playing cards today in America, we refer to the 52 card set that has its origins in France about 1480. Here we see the King and the Queen represented, as well as the Knave (male child) or Prince, though originally this was a Knight and now is commonly called a Jack—in the old days a vulgar term.
By the 15th Century, playing cards were ubiquitous in Europe, though banned in many places as a vice. The first major master of print making was a German known as the Master of Playing Cards. The word "card" comes from the Latin word for "sheet," as in sheet of paper.
Now legend has it that the King of Spades is supposed to be King David; the King of Clubs Charlemagne; the King of Diamonds Julius Caesar; and the King of Hearts Alexander the Great. There are further legends that the Queens and Jacks also represent historical figures but this seems less likely.
Three playing cards are known as "one-eyed Jacks," though one of them is a King. The Jacks of hearts and spades; and the King of diamonds are shown in profile while the rest of the face cards are shown full face. And the King of hearts is the only King with no mustache.
It is interesting that the Ace was originally the lowest card—representing a lone man. The word Ace comes from the lowest coin in usage back in the day. The King was naturally the highest card. But during the French Revolution, the Ace began to be used as the highest card in playing card games—Ace High—a political point made that a single man could be over the King.
The Ace of Spades is particularly important in that it came to stand for death and taxes. Later, as the history of playing cards unfolds, we see the Ace of Spades larger than other representations of suits as a political point of how large taxes were to the common man; and what a large spade it takes to dig his grave.
Some believe that there are 13 cards of each suit to match the 13 lunar cycles of each year, and that the 52 cards represent the weeks of the year. Since the Ace can be the lowest or the highest card, it could be considered the Alpha and Omega.
Americans Revolutionize Playing Cards
No country has done more to modernize playing cards than America. The first American playing cards were produced in 1800. The Americans set about to do to playing cards what they did to almost everything else in the world—make them better.
Americans made playing cards double-headed, so that you no longer had to turn cards right side up. They varnished the cards so they would last longer and be easier to shuffle. Americans put identifying marks in the corners of the cards—indexes—so you could hold them in fans. And they turned square cards into rounded cards to reduce damage.
The favorite card game of German Americans was Euchre. In the 1860s, they introduced two new cards to the deck as the highest cards, which they called Jukers. These cards were typified as jesters or clowns and became known as Jokers.
Playing Card Games
The most popular playing card games that use 52 cards in America are Poker, Blackjack, Rummy, Bridge, and Hearts.
POKER is the most popular of the playing card games in the world. Poker is a vying card game where players bet on who will hold the best combination of cards when the hand ends. There are hundreds of variations of Poker. I have read that Texas Hold 'Em is the most popular version of Poker.
Poker is of French American origin, being created in New Orleans shortly after 1803. Poker first became popular on steamships on the Mississippi River and in gambling saloons that lined its banks in cities.
The name Poker comes from a slang term used by pickpockets for what they intended to do to their victim (the mark); those they intended to "poke." So it was a word that meant to get into someone's pocket and take his money, which is what card sharks intend to do.
BLACKJACK comes from 17th Century France, where it was called 21. The name Blackjack comes from the best hand in 21: an Ace of Spades and a Jack.
RUMMY originated in New York City around 1900 and was quickly taken up by actors on Broadway and Hollywood movie types who sought a quick game they could play between scenes. Rummy became enormously popular during the Great Depression as cheap amusement.
There are many versions of Rummy but 500 Rummy and Gin Rummy have proven to be the most popular. It is said that 50 million Americans play Rummy at least occasionally. The name Rummy stems from an early practice of playing for shots of rum.
BRIDGE developed in the 19th Century from the old English playing card game Whist. Bridge is apparently an English pronunciation of the Russian word for Whist. Bridge is a more complicated, sophisticated playing card game than most.
HEARTS is derived from an 18th century playing card game from Spain known as Reversis.
Playing Cards Brands
Bicycle playing cards are the best known in the world and have been made for 120 years. The image inside the Bicycle brand large spade of the Ace of Spades is the same as the sculpture atop the U.S. Capitol building.
During World War Two, American prisoners of War in German camps received playing cards from the U.S. Government that when peeled apart revealed maps of escape routes.
In the Vietnam War, American intelligence learned that the Viet Cong were enormously frightened by the depiction on the Ace of Spades, believing it an omen of coming suffering and death. Decks of playing cards with 52 Aces of Spades were shipped to American officers to use for psychological warfare.
The brand used by most casinos is Bee, which are made tougher to last longer under commercial use, and feature borderless backs.
The Hoyle Playing Cards have a history dating back to 1672 England when Edmond Hoyle founded the brand. Hoyle was famous for publishing official rules for various games and that is where we get the expression "According to Hoyle." In 2001 the Hoyle brand was acquired by The United States Playing Card Company.
Aviator playing cards were created in 1927 to mark the trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh. Aviator playing cards have a smoother finish than the other brands.
All of these brands are produced today by The United States Playing Card Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, which created the Bicycle brand and eventually bought the other popular brands. All playing cards are works of art.
Playing Cards Slang
The impact of playing cards is felt around the world in catchphrases that are centuries old. Who doesn't know what it means to "hold all the aces" or to have built a "house of cards?"
What American does not know "when the cards are stacked against you" or what a "wild card" is? Don't we all hope to "play our cards right?"
Might I demand that you "lay your cards on the table" and hope you don't have a "trick up your sleeve" in case I "call your bluff?"