In the days before TV and computer games many families would gather around the table for a game of cards.
Recalling those days, members of The East Leake & District Local History Society were fascinated to learn that playing cards were invented in China as far back as the 9th century. Their popularity spread through the Middle East (12thC), Europe (14thC), to England (15thC), and eventually America, where history tells us that in 1876 Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead during a game of poker.
The first playing cards in the Far East were an oblong shape about 15cm x 5cm, with many cards in a pack but only three suits. As their popularity spread through Asia, most likely via merchants travelling The Silk Route, the number of cards was reduced for ease of handling. A variety of designs evolved for the suits appropriate to the continent or country, ranging from goblets, gold coins, swords, and polo-sticks. From the late 14thC decks in Italy included a King, a Queen, and a Knave – later called a Jack to avoid confusion with the King. Early in the 15thC, the French developed the icons for the four suits that we commonly use today, namely hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs.
When cards reached the UK gambling became a very common form of entertainment for the population in Coffee Houses, Parlours and Ale Taverns. In 1628 King Charles I issued a Charter for the establishment of The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards. Some incoming Worshipful Masters commissioned a design for the back of cards for sale during their tenure, and these packs are keenly sought by collectors. The Government spotted a potential for raising income, and in 1712 an Act was passed that packs of playing cards could not leave the factory without proof that the required tax had been paid. Tax on playing cards remained for over 250 years and was not abolished until 1965!
The Joker first appeared in the United States and was initially referred to as “the best bower”, terminology that originates in the trick game of euchre, which was popular in the mid-19th century, and refers to the highest trump card.
During WWII packs were produced showing silhouettes of enemy aircraft – a handy identification tool; and special packs were sent to prisoners of war in Red Cross parcels which revealed sections of an escape route map when the backing was carefully removed from the cards – ingenious!
Playing cards have undergone a radical transformation since their first beginnings several centuries ago. Who knew such history lay behind the pack of cards in your cupboard – a long and fascinating journey that took hundreds of years and involved travelling through many countries.
Written by The East Leake & District Local History Society