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The Re-Shuffled History of Playing Cards

Updated on October 15, 2016
Docmo profile image

Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

The Game begins...

No other game has influenced human thought, emotions, superstitions, language, art and entertainment since their inception centuries ago.

Whether it’s the solitaire played on a rainy day when no one else is around to give us company, the boisterous card games played with pretend money with family and friends or the high stakes poker games where millions can be made or lost, you can’t deny the power of the playing cards.

Millions of playing cards are in circulation and they are known to most of the civilized world. They inspire passion and panic, luck and loss.

So come with me and let’s journey from ancient China and India, take a ship with Marco Polo, cross the seas across to Europe, spread though Italian, Germanic and French cultures, travel across to the New World and go find fun and fortune among the desert lights of Las Vegas.

Dasavadhara Ganjifa
Dasavadhara Ganjifa
The Minature art in Indian Ganjifa cards
The Minature art in Indian Ganjifa cards
Chinese cards
Chinese cards
Mamluk card
Mamluk card

From the Orient..

As with most ancient origins, the stories have got blurred but most scholars accept that playing cards originated in the East. Both India and China have got their versions of ancient playing cards and either one could have started first. They date back as early as 9th Century AD.

In India the ancient cards called Dasavatara Ganjifa were based on the ten incarnations of the Hindu God Vishnu. They were circular picture cards where each of the ten avatars formed a suit. It is unclear whether the original cards were used for religious rites or for simple fun. As they were all created and painted by hand, they represent artistry of the highest order, a window into miniature paintings of that era.

In China, they were played by the royalty and have been mentioned in the memoirs of various ancient travellers. They were called ‘leaf’ cards. Some believe that the playing cards in those times acted as money too. So they were both the game and the stake itself. The one holding the highest card won the lot, much like the modern version of children’s card games like Top Trumps and Pokémon cards.

There are many theories on how the cards came into European society. Some claim Marco Polo and his sailors brought back the card after their travels in the East. Others prefer the land route and say the Arabs and Saracens introduced them into Italy through the Middle East. There are some ancient cards from the Ottoman times and from Egypt known as Mamluk cards that bear considerable similarity to the modern versions.

The Route of the Playing Cards

The Influence of Tarot
The Influence of Tarot

The Influence of Tarot

It is clear that the Tarot cards were in existence for foretelling fortunes and were used by the Romany Gypsies. In Renaissance Europe the Tarot and the Eastern playing cards became merged and resulted in the modern versions of cards.

The Renaissance Venetians may be credited for blending the two. As the Eastern Cards had no recognisable suits relevant to Europe, they probably borrowed the symbolism of Tarot- Swords, Staves, Chalice, Coins and re-mixed them with the Feudal hierarchy of King, Queen, Knight, Page etc.

The representation of the Fool or Jester in Tarot may be the precursor of the modern Joker.

The Tarot used to contain 22 cards and this was combined with the 56 card deck of those tiems. There are still packs consisting of 78 cards that exist in some countries in the eastern Europe that may be a medieval residue from this combination.

Royal Pastime
Royal Pastime

A Royal Pastime...

Most of the earliest mentions of playing cards and card games allude to Royalty. It is possible due to the fact that they had to be handmade, painted individually and illustrated, they were considered works of art and a luxury only affordable by the royalty in Europe. The earliest mention dates as far back as 13th century.

There is a possibility the Rudolf the First of Germany spent many amusing hours in the company of playing cards in the 13th century. There is a miniature painting featuring the playing cards that is dated back to 1352. There is a receipt dating back to 1392 that claims Charles VI purchased a pack of playing cards of ‘gold and diverse colours’. Good for him!

Didn’t think the Royalty kept receipts.

From Italy the cards spread across to Germany, Spain and France the then fashionable cultures. The English adopted the French pastime and cards still exist from Henry the VII courts.

The individual suits system can be divided into three subsets based on these cultural influences.

The Italian & German suits
The Italian & German suits | Source

The Suits unravel..

The modern suits of Heart, Diamond, Clubs and Spades although now pretty much standard weren’t so all the time.

The Italians who adopted the suits from Tarot and had Spada ( Sword), Denaro (coin) , Bas-tone ( rod or stave) and Coppa ( cup or chalice)

The Spanish adopted a similar style.

The Germans went for Grun ( leaf- maybe the forerunner of the spade) , Eichel ( acorn – then transformed to clubs or clovers), Herz ( Heart) and Schelle ( Bell)

The French adopted a system pretty similar to the modern versions Their spade was a ‘Pique’, their heart ‘Couer’ , their diamond is actually a ‘Carreau’ or a tile/square and their clubs is the ‘Tefle’ or the cloverleaf.

The English predominantly adopted the French system and went on to call them Heart, Diamond, Spades and Clubs.

Cezanne - The Card Players
Cezanne - The Card Players

The French Names of Kings, Queens & Knaves and Characters

Current Name
French Deck Name
Prbably named after
King of Hearts
Charlemagne the Great or King Charles VI
King of Diamonds
Julius Caesar
King of Spades
Biblical 'David'
King of Clubs
Alexander the Great
Queen of Hearts
Judith of Bavaria or Biblical Judith
Queen of Diamonds
Biblical Rachel
Queen of Spades
Greek Goddess Athena
Queen of Clubs
Anagram of Regina (Queen) or after Argos
Jack of Hearts
Étienne “La Hire” de Vignolles, companion of arms to Joan of Arc
Jack of Diamonds
companion of Lancelot or Greek Hero?
Jack of Spades
? Ogier the Great from the Song of Roland
Jack of Clubs
Arthurian Hero
Woodcuts/ Engravings
Woodcuts/ Engravings
German cards
German cards

The Materials and Methods

Earlier they were hand drawn and painted, sometimes made for gold or silver. They were made from pasteboard with two sheets stuck together and made with painstaking precision.

When the woodcuts were used to transfer print, the cards started to get mass produced for common consumption and not just the domain of the royalty. The woodcut manufacturers in Germany were making cards as far back as 1418. Since 1450 they were able to make stencils and this speeded up the process even more.

There was a Master of the Playing Cards working in Germany during the mid 14th century and there are some packs still surviving from this era.

The arrival of Guttenberg’s printing press and subsequently movable type hastened the spread even more.

The double ended printing design that makes us hold it any way up is attributed to a French manufacturer from 1745 and adopted to English and Spanish cards after that era.

The corner indices so you could hold them in a fan didn’t arrive until well into the 19th century. The patent is attributed to Samuel Hart in 1864.

The modern cards have the plastic coating that makes shuffling far easier.

Liberty.. French Revolution
Liberty.. French Revolution
Manufacturers mark on the Ace of Spades
Manufacturers mark on the Ace of Spades

Culture and Connotations ...

Originally a domain of the royalty, the mass production meant even peasants could partake in playing card. The Feudal system of taxation and the rise of the revolution meant that people were fed up of royalty.

In the original deck King was always considered the highest card. However, the peasants changed the rules and made the Ace which was originally the lowest rise as the highest card – indicating the rise of the commoner. This concept was hastened during the French revolution and has stuck. Aces high! comrades.

However, the French went one step further and refused to play with the King, Queen and Knave and changed the names to Liberties, Equalities and Fraternities after their motto. This didn’t last very long and reverted back during Napoleonic era.

The Knave only changed to Jack when corner markings were born as the ‘K’ for the King and ‘Kn’ for the Knave were very similar and confusing so the ‘Jack’ was born and became abbreviated to ‘J’.

As playing cards were largely imported in the Middle Ages, Royalty saw the opportunity to impose heavy taxes on them. This led to the tax stamp to be always placed on the Ace of Spades.

To this day this tradition means that the manufacturer’s logo is imprinted on the Ace of Spades.

French Revolution
French Revolution
Hindu Gods
Hindu Gods
European symbolism
European symbolism

Mystical Symbolism

The playing cards due to their links to the original Tarot are still meant to contain religious and astrological symbolism. The 13 cards in each suit represent the 13 lunar months (28 days each). This will equate to the 364 days.The 52 cards represent the 52 weeks in the year too.

The Ace itself represent the ‘beginning the end’ ( Alpha and Omega ) as it can both be the lowest order or ‘one’ and yet be the highest of the suit also.

The Ace of spades with its large black Spade in the middle is sometimes called a death card.

This fact was used as a psychological warfare against the Vietcong in the Vietnam war where officers requested decks just consisting of Ace of Spades and distributed them throughout the forest- the Viet cong were superstitious and viewed this as a harbinger of death!

Art Noveau  - copyright Dan Reaney
Art Noveau - copyright Dan Reaney

Art and Media

Since the inception of the printing press many saw the possibilities of advertising, propaganda, titillation and knowledge exchange on the back face of the card. Cards have since been used to promote products, produce erotica and pin ups as well as propaganda for various philosophies and religion.

Playing card games has also inspired many painting throughout history from Renaissance era to the art noveau.

There are countless films that feature the card game.. It has resulted in love, romance, heartbreak, loss, gain, death.The Quintessential Bond films have also glamourised gambling into a stylish diversion.

I do adore the opening credit sequence of Casino Royale that effectively captures the Gambling arts into a seamless exercise in digital wizardry where cards merge into scenery, become enticing, turn into weapons, and surround everything in a magical art form . Each suit is used to very effective symbolism in a beautifully rendered sequence.

Watch it below...

Casino Royale sequence

The Card players- Maler Lucas van Leyden
The Card players- Maler Lucas van Leyden

Facts and Trivia

  • The Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts and the Kind of diamonds are the only ones show n in profile. This led to the term one eyed Jack ’.

  • The King of Hearts has no moustache and is seen to be hiding a sword behind him. However there is an urban myth that the sword doesn’t really belong to him and that he is the ‘False’ King being murdered! Some even go as far to say that the sleeves of the hand holding the word belongs to the Queen of spades- go figure!

  • The King of Diamonds is the only one holding the axe while others hold a sword. He is known as the ‘man with the axe’

  • The Queen of Spades holds a sceptre and the Queen of Clubs, a flower.

  • The most common sizes for playing cards are poker size (2½in × 3½in; 63 mm × 88 mm, or B8 size according to ISO 216) and bridge size (2¼in × 3½in, approx. 56 mm × 88 mm)

  • Playing cards have been adapted for use by the visually impaired by the inclusion of large-print and/or braille characters as part of the card.

  • The United States Playing Card Company (USPC), located in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the world's largest producer of playing cards. Founded in 1867, USPC vends over 100,000,000 decks of playing cards annually and mostly to Las Vegas where the decks are only used once in a game and discarded.

Rembrandt - Young Man playing Cards
Rembrandt - Young Man playing Cards

I'll shuffle off, shall I..

Dear reader, hope you enjoyed this history of the playing cards.

Go on, grab a pack and shuffle it, feel it in your hands, fan the cards, admire their feel, finish, artistry and their history. But please don't gamble your life away. Have fun.

Really appreciate your visit and do leave your comments and feedback below.

If you enjoy what you read, share it with friends/family on Facebook/Twitter so others can enjoy and learn too.

I am grateful for your company. I'll leave you with a montage of some of the best gambling scenes in movie history from YouTube.


Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2011


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Wow...this is really detailed and well explained. I never would have thought cards were this old and this culturally diversified. I'm definitely coming back to this hub and reading it again later.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      6 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      This is beautifully illustrated and thoroughly researched. What a great run down on the history of playing cards. I loved the French Names of the face cards. We played penny poker and blackjack in my childhood family. This brings back great memories of learning to shuffle the deck and deal the cards.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Only you could keep a bunch of people reading about cards from inception to the current day! You've done a great job including so much information...lots of research here Mohan. The history was very interesting and the videos superb.

      So you've said you dabble in palm's your poker?

      Loved this and voted it up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Mohan, amazing hub. I loved all of the old cards and woodcuts but especially the paintings featuring card players. It is amazing to think how long people have been playing cards - still a New Year tradition in my family - we all play 'Horsey' (Newmarket to give it its proper name).

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 

      6 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Mohan (Docmo),

      I am so impressed with the thoroughness of this Hub. I had to come back and read your article a second time.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      6 years ago from Dubai

      Awesome hub, there is so much more than what meets the eye. So much more to the history of cards and how they came to be what they are today. Brilliant hub, fantastic presentation. Voted up.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Kelley - thanks- i love doing the research and putting these hubs together. They are long and ponderous but I feel it gives a one stop resource on the subject! appreciate the visit, comment and share!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Rachel- thank you for your comments.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What a great topic for a hub. I don't think I've ever wondered about the history of playing cards but this was an interesting read. You always do such fine work. Well-written, great pics, and so much more! Voted up, awesome, and shared! Kelley

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Fabulous article and great pics! What a fun and well-organized read. Voted up and awesome, and pinned. More, please!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      robie thanks for coming this way- really appreciate your visit and comments- glad you found this enjoyable!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      rahul I am pleased you like this work. much appreciated, my friend.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Thoughtsandwiches- I am delighted that the 'good Lord man' was an exclamation of appreciation. I too loved the many stories about the humble playing card- when I researched and wrote hubs on soap, kites, silk - I was blown away by the plentiful narratives that surround their journey. History should be taught this way!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Daisy- I am grateful for your constant support and comments. Really appreciate it and glad you liked this work - took quite some time to compile but I feel the effort was worth it.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      6 years ago from Central New Jersey

      fabulously informative and also very beautiful--- I could not stop reading once I started. Great hub and thanks for all that really amazing info on playing cards

    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 

      6 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Now this hub must have the chips rolling in! I did not know any of this stuff...

      Brilliant detailing and awesome research I must say....


    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      6 years ago from Reno, Nevada


      Good Lord, Man! This must be the definitive work on playing are awesome! I found myself taking notes so I could show off at the next party. Damn, this is very, very good.

      I particularly like how the crazy French revolutionaries promoted the Ace.



    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 

      6 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Mohan (Docmo),

      Your research, writing, illustrations, photographs, and formatting of your Hubs is always first rate. The more of your work that I read, the more impressed I become.

      This article brought back memories for me. I majored in Fine Arts in college and am certified to teach art in Kindergarten through the twelfth grade.

      For one of my classes in college, we worked on a group project. We designed a deck of playing cards and then created a mobile using them. Creating the cards was the easy part. Placing the cards in such a way that they were balanced and moved in a breeze was more difficult.

    • AureliaMilani profile image


      7 years ago

      A lot of interesting information, thank you!!!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Louise- thanks for dropping by - great to find a fellow enthusiast and artist- I will be eager to see your own line of cards... much appreciated.

    • La Papillon profile image

      La Papillon 

      7 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Excellent and informative hub, Docmo.

      I am passionate about cards, of the swap kind and have a huge collection. (I currently have in printing/production a collection of my art and photography - playing/swapping cards).

      But what you have written about in this hub is great ;)

      In my humble collection of cards (which is predominantly swap cards), I have cards which date back to the 19th century. Just love history.

      Voted you up!

      Cheers, Louise :)

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      Thanks for dropping by tonks! It is a great hobby and hope this history in someway cheered you up.

    • tonks814 profile image


      8 years ago from United States

      This is wonderful! I collect playing cards, and this article definitely made my day. Voted up! :)

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      @dahoglund- Thanks very much.

      @evvy_09 - thanks for dropping by! I think you can still buy handpainted cards by specialty artists. As you can imagine it is bound to be very expensive due to he amount of work involved. There are several designer sets available too.

    • evvy_09 profile image


      8 years ago from Athens, AL

      Well done! The pictures are beautiful and the history is so interestig. I wonder if anyone still makes handpainted playing cards? I would love to have a deck. Thanks for the hub, I really enjoyed it and voted up!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Interesting pictures. playing cards in one form or another are certainly a part of american culture.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      Denise, thank you for dropping by and enjoying these hubs. So talent runs in your family... fabulous to hear your daughter Cara is on hubs too. My daughter is only 9 and she is already an aspiring writer!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Fabulous hub, Docmo. I'm not sure which I enjoyed more, the artistry of the various decks, the videos, or the history.

      I have two tarot decks, although I don't practice with them much anymore. Thoroughly enjoyed following you on this one.

      BTW, I noticed you left a comment on cardelean's hub about corn flakes...I might have mentioned before this that Cara is my daughter? I'm so pleased she's joined hubpages now.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      @Amy, thank you so much- glad it brought back memories.. grateful for the compliments.. I also enjoyed watching '21' few years ago.. good script and nice little film.

      @Rose West, thank you for dropping by.

    • Rose West profile image

      Rose West 

      8 years ago from Michigan

      This was so interesting! I learned so much :)

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 

      8 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      My daughter was a dealer at AmeriStar Casino in St. Louis and made more cash than I, but had to walk away as the smoke filled environment landed her with an ENT who warned her about ominious changes in her sinuses. She brought home decks and decks of cards signed by the dealer that used them in a game. A little perk that made a great stocking stuffer.

      Recently I saw the true story in a very entertaining movie named "21" which starred Jim Sturgess as an MIT student that learned to count cards, with Kevin Spacey as the teacher that lead a mathematic group of students on weekend trips to Vegas where they cleaned up...for awhile. Very dangerous business with high stakes.

      I loved the artistry and history you entertained us with in this fascinating, informative piece, Docmo. My BFF bought a "fairytale" themed deck of Tarot cards of 78. She has two books that explain their complicated interpretation and now I am intrigued enough to look for a deck of my own! You just reminded me!

      Fascinating piece that stimulates the eyes and mind with beautiful artwork, some handpainted and a trip into the world of gambling, excitement and danger at the roll of the dice. I kept looking for that devil may care, James Bond, but did find what looks like, his playmates!

      Rich, comprehensive, colorful history of an enduring game, written by an author skilled enough to outwit Vegas.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 

      8 years ago

      I will never look at a deck of cards in the same way. What a fabulous article. Up and awesome!!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      You may dare, drbj,and it makes my heart warm. Thanks for your great comments and it makes all the effort worthwhile. what needs doing is worth doing well, in my book. A hefty return to the generous readers willing to invest their time.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      What a beautiful and dare I say, brilliant (yes, I dare) exposition of playing cards. You are both masterful and adept with your fascinating, enjoyable explanations. The graphics, too, are fabulous.

      Touche, Docmo, you are at the top of your game with this one!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      Thanks Nell ... My Grandad's hobby was palmistry and when I was little he taught me how to read palms. As I grew older I learnt to read partly the palm but a lot of people reading too.. and I got quite good at it. I have a pack of Tarot too and dabble in it but my palm reading comes off better due to practice! Thank you so much.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      8 years ago from England

      Hi, this is gorgeous! what a fantastic hub! I am very familiar with the tarot, in fact I have been reading them since I was 15! I go around to houses and parties to read them, I use a bit of psychology and the cards, I always tell people that I am not doing it as a psychic thing, it is part psychic and part person reading, they appreciate that, as I read them in my own way, but the whole history was fantastic with all of them. rated up and up and up! brilliant!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      You are way too generous, but I like it!

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Wow! This is fantastic! voted up up up....


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