Playing cards are set of cards that are numbered or illustrated (or both) and are used for playing games, for education, for divination, and for conjuring.
They are typically palm-sized for convenient handling, and usually are sold together in a set as a deck of cards or pack of cards.
The standard 52-card deck of French-suited playing cards is the most common pack of playing cards used today. In English-speaking countries it is the only traditional pack used for playing cards – in many countries of the world, however, it is used alongside other traditional, often older, standard packs with different suit symbols and pack sizes.
Every deck is identical, consisting of four suits with 13 cards in each suit – clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades – ranging from a deuce through ten, followed by a Jack, Queen, King and Ace.
Playing cards were invented in Ancient China. They were found in China as early as the 9th Century during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).
The first reference to the card game in world history dates no later than the 9th Century, when the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, written by Tang Dynasty writer Su E, described Princess Tongchang (daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang) playing the “leaf game” in 868 with members of the Wei clan (the family of the princess’ husband).
The Song Dynasty scholar Ouyang Xiu asserted that playing cards and card games existed at least since the mid-Tang Dynasty and associated their invention with the simultaneous development of using sheets or pages instead of paper rolls as a writing medium.
By the 11th century, playing cards were spreading throughout the Asian continent and later came into Egypt. The oldest surviving cards in the world are four fragments found in the Keir Collection and one in the Benaki Museum. They are dated to the 12th and 13th centuries (late Fatimid, Ayyubid, and early Mamluk periods).
Playing cards first appeared in Europe in the 1370s, probably in Italy or Spain and certainly as imports or possessions of merchants from the Islamic Mamlūk dynasty centred in Egypt. Like their originals, the first
European cards were hand-painted, making them luxury goods for the rich.
The account book of King Charles VI of France (now lost) is said to have noted a payment of 56 sols parisiens to Jacquemin Gringonneur for painting a deck of cards “pour le divertissement du roy” (“for the amusement of the king”).
In medieval Europe, card games occasioned drinking, gambling, and a host of other vices that drew cheats and charlatans to the table. Card playing became so widespread and disruptive that authorities banned it. In his book The Game of Tarot, the historian Michael Dummett explains that a 1377 ordinance forbade card games on workdays in Paris. Similar bans were enacted throughout Europe as preachers sought to regulate card playing, convinced that “the Devil’s picture book” led only to a life of depravity.
From about 1418 to 1450 professional card makers in Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg created printed decks. Playing cards even competed with devotional images as the most common uses for woodcuts in this period. Most early woodcuts of all types were coloured after printing, either by hand or, from about 1450 onwards, stencils. These 15th-century playing cards were probably painted. The Flemish Hunting Deck, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the oldest complete set of ordinary playing cards made in Europe from the 15th century.
As cards spread from Italy to Germanic countries, the Latin suits were replaced with the suits of leaves (or shields), hearts (or roses), bells, and acorns, and a combination of Latin and Germanic suit pictures and names resulted in the French suits of trèfles (clovers), carreaux (tiles), cœurs (hearts), and piques (pikes) around 1480. The trèfle (clover) was probably derived from the acorn and the pique (pike) from the leaf of the German suits. The names pique and spade, however, may have derived from the sword (spade) of the Italian suits. In England, the French suits were eventually used, although the earliest packs circulating may have had Latin suits. This may account for why the English called the clovers “clubs” and the pikes “spades”.
The associations of cards with gambling also led many a government to seek a piece of the action. In 17th-century France, King Louis XIV’s finance minister Cardinal Mazarin nourished the royal purse by virtually turning the Palace of Versailles into one vast card-playing casino. Some countries made card manufacture a state monopoly under pain of fine, imprisonment, and even death to forgers. Others contented themselves with charging a tax on manufacture. The elaborate design of the ace of spades in British decks of cards recalls the (now defunct) 18th-century convention of applying the tax authorization stamp to this particular card.
During the mid 16th century, Portuguese traders introduced playing cards to Japan. The first indigenous Japanese deck was the Tenshō karuta named after the Tenshō period.
During the French Revolution, the Ace went from being the lowest card to becoming the highest card, as the peasants successfully pulled off an uprising and trumped the royalty.
The Joker is a playing card found in most modern French-suited card decks, as an addition to the standard four suits. The game of Euchre is credited with the introduction of the Joker into card games. However, Euchre began life with no Joker. In the earliest rules of 1844, 32 standard cards are used and the Right Bower, the trump Jack, was the “commanding card” with the Left Bower, the Jack of the same colour, as the second-highest card.
The royal figures on court cards were originally depicted at full length, a fact recalled in cribbage by the phrases “one for his nob [head]” and “two for his heels.” This had the disadvantage that observant players could identify courts in their opponents’ hands by their natural practice of turning them “right way up.” It was overcome by the invention of double-headed courts in the 19th century, which soon spread to most regional patterns, though some continue to resist it.