CHARLOTTE, NC: At one time or another, each of us has picked up a deck of playing cards. But did you ever wonder about the history of a deck of cards and why they are designed the way they are?
Cards come from Ancient Asia
The first recorded account of using playing cards dates to sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries in the Orient. Until then, the Chinese used either bone or ivory tiles to play Dominos, but those were replaced with heavy paper cards.
The four suits are believed to have originated in the Middle East. At first they were represented by coins, cups, swords and sticks which eventually evolved into diamonds (coins), hearts which stood for “love” (cups), spades (swords) and clubs (sticks).
Today’s standard deck was developed by the French with face cards designed to refer to actual historical figures. Thus the King of Hearts is Charlemagne; the King of Diamonds represents Julius Caesar; the King of Clubs is identified as Alexander the Great while King of Spades honors go to biblical King David.
Unless a deck of cards has advertising or specific pictures on the back, card manufacturers have their own unique pattern with traditional colors printed in either red or blue.
By the way, the colored suits represent day and night, and the reason for 13 cards in each suit harkens to the four quarters of the year which each contain 13 weeks.
The four suits refer to the four phases of the moon; new, first quarter, full and waning or last quarter.
As might be expected, the American contribution to a deck of cards is the “Joker” during the 1870’s. At that time, it was used as the highest “Bower” in the game of Euchre.
A “Bower” serves as the top trump card, which in Euchre is the Jack. The word derives from the German word Bauer meaning “farmer.”
The glossy finish used in modern playing cards was designed to make shuffling easier.
At first cards were round, but square corners were later added to prevent wear by making them less difficult to handle.
Face cards eventually became reversed double images so players would not have to rearrange their hands every time they were dealt, thus speeding up the games by making cards simpler to use.
Since face cards represent royalty, they are obviously the most fascinating, except perhaps for the Ace of Spades.
The King of Hearts, for example, is sometimes known as the “suicide king” because of the awkward position of his sword. He is the only king without a mustache and the only one who is actively doing something with his weapon.
Playing cards were redesigned to become the modern standard we have today. Suit signs were moved to the top left and lower right of the cards, and some of the court cards (face cards) were turned to face in the opposite direction; queen and jack of clubs, queen and jack of diamonds, jack of hearts and the queen of spades.
At first, European face cards were all males with a seated king, a cavalier on horseback and a footservant or soldier. Each rank increased in the strength of the card sequence.
In the 15th century, the French substituted a queen for the cavalier for unknown reasons.
The jack, which represents the common man, was initially called a “knave” but when labeling the corners of the cards began, the symbol “kn” became confusing so the letter “j” for jack was substituted.
Originally the term “jack” was regarded as lower class as referenced in Great Expectaitions by Charles Dickens; Estelle sarcastically says of Pip “He called the knaves, jacks, this boy!”
Ultimately the word “knave” came to mean “scoundrel” allowing “jack” to officially remain as the third face card.
Playing cards in modern warfare
Strangely enough, playing cards have been used in modern warfare. Perhaps you recall the decks of cards that were issued in the Middle East following 9/11 that pictured the top 52 most feared terrorists worldwide.
During World War II, decks of cards were specially designed for American soldiers being held in German prison camps. When the cards got wet, they could be peeled apart to reveal parts of maps inside that could lead them to freedom if they managed to escape.
Later, in Vietnam, decks of cards were printed containing nothing but the Ace of Spades. Apparently the Viet Cong were extremely superstitious, believing the Ace of Spades represented death.
As a means of psychological warfare, thousands of Aces of Spades were spread throughout the jungles of Vietnam.
Speaking of the Ace of Spades, some French rulers saw an opportunity to raise money by placing a tax on that particular card. For that reason, the Ace of Spades has more open space than any other card. This makes room for a stamp to show that the tax had been paid.
The card players were more clever, however. They simply removed the ace and played with 51 cards, hence the well known expression “He’s not playing with a full deck!”
So as I get my “decks in a row” I can only add “suits me, knave.”
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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