The History of Playing Cards

Card games are tests of skill, judgement and more than a little bit of luck – they play a major part in gaming as we know it! Playing cards were first created as luxury items for people of royalty to while away their days with; elegantly painted at great expense long before the widespread reach of the printing press made playing cards affordable. It isn't known for sure whether playing cards swept the world from their place of origin, or whether different cultures came up with their own variations of decks and playing rules independently from one another – but the most likely theory involves a little bit of both.


Early playing cards – 9th century China

Although historians disagree on where the first playing cards were produced, it was most likely in China during the ninth century when, having already used their paper invention to create teabags and banknotes, imaginative inventors came up with an early version of the playing card as we know it, along with their more traditional games like mah-jong and dominoes. This form of playing card is much different from the one we've come to know. With the ‘suits' on these cards bearing similar marks to units of Chinese currency, it's quite possible that these were more like IOU notes passed from losers to winners of other games – like Monopoly money in a way!





The Mamluks of Egypt


Some variations of playing cards made their way into the Middle East and Africa in the mid-13th century. At this time many soldiers were Mamluks; well-travelled slaves from different countries around the region. It's thought that at some point during their travels the playing card made its first appearance in many of the places they'd been before settling in Egypt. A rare find, The Mameluke Deck was discovered in Istanbul in 1939 by LA Meyer - it comprised four suits: Swords, Staves, Cups and Coins, which reflect much less of the royal refinement we see in today's cards and a bit more about the day-to-day adventuring undertaken by the Mamluks. When played in the European countries they visited, these cards undoubtedly formed the basis for the modern variant.


Arrival in Europe

In the early 14th  century, likely as a result of visits by the Mamluks, card games were first documented in European countries. By 1380 playing cards had been mentioned in many historical documents as part of popular pastimes - although one reference in a document traced back to Spain in 1334 actually bans their military from playing!

Their size and portability is what most likely led to decks of playing cards finding their way across Europe; probably in the pockets of soldiers on the move, although royal and dignitary meetings will likely have resulted in the spread of card games too. While playing cards were still expensive to make, experts handcrafted and painted their decks for their employers in European royal courts; the designs made for the court of Rouen in the early 1400s - which depict the highest figures within royalty - are by and large the very same ones we have on standard decks today. By the 15th century when card decks were freely available at a decent cost, most of the basic design elements and numbering systems we recognise today were in place; although in Germany for example some cards still used different suits: acorns, bells, hearts and leaves. Such was the appeal of playing cards that many European rulers sought to ban them outright; while churches regularly preached upon the subject of wicked gambling games, some countries fined high-stakes gamblers, and the English parliament ruled that its citizens were only allowed to play card games during the festive season. The continued success of playing cards even caused some monarchs to place a tax upon their purchase.


Why the royal imagery?

The Jack in a deck of cards was originally known as a Knave; however, this was likely changed to avoid its initial being confused with that of the King. Around the time of playing cards' introduction into Europe, the Ace card began to take on its own sense of importance despite its place at the bottom of the order; this may be symbolically related to the ideals of the common man rising to the top during the French Revolution. Carrying on the royal court theme, the Joker was in fact not introduced to the standard deck of cards until their introduction to the Americas much later on. Playing cards have a long history throughout the world; from their use as a form of currency in the Far East to the French-styled designs we still know and love today, there is so much fun to be had from a simple deck of cards.