The History Of Playing Cards

Maddy Marcus / July 15, 2020

There are thousands of card games out there, with new games still popping up from time to time. We often don't think about the history of playing cards, even when using them, but as it turns out they've had a rich, fascinating journey through the ages.

Whether you're a card lover or not, you'll find the history of playing cards beyond interesting. So, let's get into it.

Where Did Playing Cards Come From?

While there's some debate about the origin of playing cards, the most likely evidence points us to 9th century China, during the Tang dynasty.

The first reference to playing cards is in Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang by Su E. The text describes Princess Tongchang playing something called the "leaf game" with Wei clan members. It's believed that the "leaf game" is an early form of playing cards.

To back this up, a book called Yezi Gexi, written by another Tang dynasty woman is all about the leaf game. The rules to this game have never been found, but it’s believed that "leaf" is a reference to the pages of a book that was consulted during gameplay.

For a more solid start, scholars point us to the year 1294 -- the Yuan dynasty. On July 17th, 1294, two gamblers were arrested in Shandong. They had paper playing cards on them, as well as the woodblocks they used to print the cards.

Either way, the origin of playing cards is linked back to China.

Why Were Playing Cards Invented?

While the first playing cards looked a lot different than the cards we play with today, the idea was the same. Cards were invented to play games, pass the time, and gamble with.

Sinologist and card enthusiast William Henry Wilkinson believes the first playing cards doubled as a type of paper currency. The cards were the main stakes in any given card game, kind of like the trading cards of today. Rather than play for money, players put their cards at stake.

What Was the First Card Game?

The first playing card game we know about is Madiao, or "Paper Tiger.” It's kind of like Crazy Eights but more... confusing.

Madiao cards fall into four suits: Cash, Strings, Myriads, and Tens. The game is played with 40 cards total, and is considered a "trick-taking game,” like hearts. It's played with four players.

All players draw a card or roll dice; the highest number is the banker. The banker determines the stakes for each hand. The player to the right of the banker is the dealer.

Each player gets 8 cards. The remaining cards go in the center, flipped to reveal the bottom card. The players then check their own cards.

If a player has 5 cards from the same suit, they can force a re-deal. If a player has the four lowest cards, they automatically win a stake from each player. Certain hands lead to a player's automatic win.

The aim of the game is to take tricks, like any trick-taking game. Suit doesn't apply, but the highest-value card played wins. Players can discard cards face down if they can't win the trick.

In Madiao, it's every player versus the banker. If the banker loses they pay every winner. Any player who loses the first seven tricks automatically loses the last trick, no matter what their card.

After eight tricks, the banker exposes the stock card. If it's the highest card in its suit, the second-highest player pays one stake to each other player.

The rules of Paper Tiger can get complex. The game eventually led to the birth of Mahjong. Paper Tiger was very popular in its time, played by many government officials.

Playing Cards Spread Across Asia

Playing cards spread slowly across Asia. By the 11th century, they made their way to Egypt. Egyptian cards from the 12th and 13th centuries exist, with an almost complete deck found dating back to the 15th century.

Egyptian, or Mamluk, playing card decks consisted of 52 cards much like our own. These cards had four suits: coins, cups, swords, and polo-sticks. There were 10 "pip" cards in each suit: the king, the deputy king, and the under-deputy.

Mamluk cards didn't depict people or religious figures, but rather calligraphy and abstract patterns. We're not quite sure what games the Mamluk's played, but it's speculated they played basic trick games. The cards were also much skinnier, and more elaborately designed than ours.

Playing Cards Reach Europe (And Get Banned)

As far as we know, the first mention of playing cards in Europe comes from 1377, when they got banned across the country. They got banned for promoting anti-social behavior, attracting swindlers and card-sharks, and leading to further immoral acts.

The description of cards and their banning comes from a treatise by John of Rheinfelden. He describes playing cards in detail in his text, explaining that he doesn't know their origin. He talks about the moral meaning of the cards, how to play cards, and describes their appearance in detail.

The oldest known European card dates back between 1390-1410. It depicts a hand-drawn image of a man looking toward the sky, his dog underneath him. This coin is known as the Knave of Coins.

This treatise led to further bans across Europe, yet people kept playing cards illegally. They kept many of the suits from the Mamluk cards, changing the polo-sticks to batons. Between 1371 and 1380, cards made their way to Catalonia, Switzerland, and Paris.

Through 1418 to 1450, painted decks crafted by professional card makers were all the rage. The oldest known full set of cards -- The Flemish Hunting Deck -- is one of these, and depicts kings, queens, jesters, and huntsmen similarly to our modern decks.

Playing Cards Perfected

Playing cards continued to change and evolve over the centuries, with the French making considerable changes to the common deck.

People started painting the suits and values of the cards in the corners so they could determine them with one hand. The first deck of this kind was printed in 1864. 

Then came reversible court cards in 1745. This revolution allowed a player to hold their kings, queens, etc. either way. This is seen in most decks to this day, but the French government didn't like it at first -- they prohibited companies from printing reversible cards.

In the 1800s, sharp corners gave way to rounded corners. This reduces the chances of players seeing each other's card values. Then pictures, photos, and even ads were added to the backs of cards to hide wear-and-tear.

The US and Playing Cards

The Joker card officially made its way into decks in 1860 thanks to the US and their love of euchre. In fact, the name 'joker' comes from the word juker, an alternate name for euchre.

Americans were a little late to playing cards, since their only source of them for a long time was second-hand decks from England. English decks were seen as superior, which even led American card manufacturers to print "London" on their Ace of Spades cards. Americans loved cards, though, and even Native Americans used them -- the Americans taught them a few card games when they made contact.

Beyond jokers, America didn't contribute many lasting changes to playing cards. America is important in the manufacturing of cards, though. They produce a large number of custom decks today, and American companies like Bee and Bicycle are some of the most successful.

The Impact of Playing Cards

Playing cards have had a massive impact on the world.

Just about everyone on earth plays cards. Different countries still have different suits, albeit only vaguely. The French have hearts, tiles, clovers, and pikes, for example, while the Spanish have cups, coins, clubs, and swords.

Some countries include fewer cards in their decks, and some exclude jokers entirely. 

Cards are more widely available today than they ever have been. They're not hand-painted works of art anymore -- the trading-card aspect is all but gone because of this -- and the process is more or less automated now. However, there are still card collectors today who collect old and unique decks with more intricate artwork and high rarity.

Tony De Santis, an Italian man, has a world record collection made specifically of Jokers. He has over 8,500 unique joker cards!

Custom Decks

Custom decks of cards are commissioned all the time for both artistic and practical reasons.

London's JPL Gallery commissioned a custom deck in 1976, consisting of artwork from multiple British artists. These included heavyweights like David Hockney, John Hoyland, and Howard Hodgkin. The deck is fittingly called "The Deck of Cards".

2016 saw the British Council repeat this process with Indian artists, including Shilpa Gupta, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, and more.

Fear the Ace of Spades

During  the Vietnam war in 1966, soldiers began spreading a legend about the spade symbol meaning "death" to the Vietnamese. Because of this, American soldiers often left Ace of Spade cards as a warning sign.

Soon, soldiers started leaving Ace of Spade cards everywhere they could. They scattered grounds they planned to raid with the cards, and wore the cards in their helmets for luck. If nothing else, this act gave the troops a boost in morale and a sense of togetherness.

The US army ordered crates full of nothing but Ace of Spade cards so they wouldn't run out. Soldiers kept their cards in white cases labeled "Bicycle Secret Weapon.”

The History of Playing Cards Plays On

If the history of playing cards tells us anything, it's that playing cards aren't going anywhere any time soon.

They've persisted and evolved from generation to generation, offering one of the most popular ways to pass the time to this day. Whether you're a gambler, a casual player, or a collector, think about the history of playing cards next time you're staring at a hand of cards and consider just how important they are.

If you want to play card games online, we have tons of classic card games available right now!