historic playing card image

Different Uses for Playing Cards in Previous Centuries - Part 1

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

For a long time I had the mistaken impression that customized playing cards were a relatively modern innovation. Ignoring for a moment all those cheap souvenir decks of bridge sized playing cards, most of us associate the traditional deck of playing cards with a Bicycle ride-back deck with a standardized set of court cards. Perhaps we've seen some minor variations, but this is what we thought a deck of cards has always looked like.

But then at some point, we discovered customized playing cards. And we found ourselves getting excited about the possibilities this opened up. I suspect that many of us also see these creative decks as a new development in playing cards. Certainly it's true that for much of the 20th century, a very fixed and standard deck was dominant in the world of professional magic and gambling, with its immediately recognizable set of court cards and other face cards.

It's also true that recent decades have seen an explosion of sorts in the playing card industry, with the emergence of customized playing cards as an established and rapidly-growing branch of its own. This has been accelerated with the arrival of crowdfunding about ten years ago. Platforms like Kickstarter have enabled creative individuals with good design ideas to get access to the financial backing needed for them to make their projects a reality. Other factors contributing to this growth include improved technology in digital design and manufacturing, and easy access to all these resources in a global community connected by the Internet. The rise of cardistry as an emerging art-form in the last half a dozen years has been a further catalyst to this process. With social media playing a lending hand, there is not only an increasing demand for highly customized playing cards, but also an increasing range of published decks available to meet this need.

If you've been a spectator to these exciting developments that have a radically changed the landscape of the playing card industry in the last 5 to 10 years, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the customized deck of playing cards is something not seen before. But it would be a mistake to think that customized playing cards are a new phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth, and when researching something of the history of playing cards in the 1800s, I discovered that in fact there have been previous times in history where customized playing cards were very common.

So over the course of two articles, I invite you to join me in a time machine, and let's travel back to the 1800s and learn what role customized decks from yesteryear had in the culture of their time. They may not have had Kickstarter back then, but creative designers and publishers certainly did exist, and so did their customized playing cards. So let's take a look at how playing cards were used in previous eras.

vintage playing cards

For Card Games

From the very beginning, the primary use of playing cards has been for playing card games. Adding gambling and alcohol to card games only served to accelerate their popularity. Some historians have observed that until the 18th century, hardly any games were played without gambling. Given that card playing was so closely linked with gambling, and almost inevitably resulted in drunkenness and fighting, it is not surprising that the church strongly condemned all card playing. Among the most important historical documents about the history of playing cards are countless sermons which deride cards as a tool of the devil and as an evil influence upon humanity. Edicts were passed that forbade playing cards, and fines were imposed on those who violated such laws. In the 15th century, card playing was forbidden in England except on the 12 days of Christmas. There is even one recorded instance in 1423 where playing cards were burned in a public bonfire. 

But playing cards weren't inherently the cause of moral decline, however, despite the many prohibitions against them across time by religious preachers, starting as early as the 14th century. Like so many created things, playing cards are not in themselves evil, and can be used for well or for woe. It is the fallen human condition that accounts for the many unsavoury contexts in which playing cards have played a role. But in themselves, playing cards are intrinsically a tool that can also be used for good ends. Card games can be attached to virtues just as much as they can to vices. Mankind has long enjoyed recreation and play, and playing games of cards is simply a way to give structure and rules to such activities of leisure. 

In fact, in Europe card games were originally a respected activity of the aristocracy. Initially, due to the high costs in making playing cards, each card was hand painted and made individually. That meant that they could only be afforded by the nobility, who typically used them for playing games that required skill. For the upper class, playing cards were primarily used to demonstrate real abilities to memorize cards and clever play in games of skill. One recorded example dates from 1643, when Cardinal Mazarin proposed a series of card games to help stimulate the royal mind of the eight year old Louis XIV, with a published explanation of these games as prepared by Jean Desmarets following in 1644.

It was the advent of the printing press around 1440 that made mass production of playing cards a real possibility. Their popularity for card games is what made playing cards spread rapidly and led to them being widely used throughout Europe. But for the lower classes, playing cards were often closely associated with and used for gambling - hence the previously mentioned religious prohibitions that often accompanied their spread. They also became a concern for military leaders, who found that playing cards would easily distract soldiers from their duty. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII complained that his bowmen were being distracted from their practice by too much card playing.

Today we witness a similar challenges as a consequence of technological advances. The invention of computers, the internet, and smart phones has facilitated new uses for games, both for well and for woe, and for purposes both noble and ignoble. This includes potential pitfalls, such as online casinos and addictive gambling. But the rise of online gambling doesn't negate the fact that technology has also opened up wonderful new possibilities for impacting the playing card industry positively. These positive developments include the ability to exchange and share information about playing cards with fellow collectors; the rapid rise of cardistry as a separate art-form largely with the help of social media and modern videography; and opportunities to use crowd-funding platforms to create a myriad of custom decks by connecting playing card designers with quality printers and with financial backers. If you enjoy playing card games, whether it is a game like Hearts or Poker, there are many wonderful websites and apps that allow you to enjoy these games with people across the world via your internet connection. Playing card games has always been a primary use of playing cards, and clearly this is still the case, even in our digital age.

historic playing card image

For Art

Playing cards especially enjoyed a place of honour at the tables and in the parlours of the wealthy upper class so they could be used for games of skill. But the truly rich could also afford very luxurious decks that were decorated with highly ornate illustrations, and even adorned with precious metals like gold. 

The usage of playing cards as works of art is closely connected to the way in which they were made. Prior to playing cards being produced by printing on paper, they were typically made by woodcuts or engraving. While the faces were usually blank, the designs of the faces were typically very ornate and varied. Medieval artists were fascinated with colourful and elaborate images, and so playing cards in many instances became their own art form. They were usually produced by card makers who were considered artists and tradesmen. Playing card artwork was considered to be a wonderful exercise of the miniature artwork. As a result, highly imaginative cards were produced, sometimes as a result of commissions. 

This attention to detail and luxury continued with the production of playing cards via the printing press. While the vast majority of playing cards from then on were produced for the masses to use for card games, high end playing cards continued to be produced as works of art for the rich and famous.

These artistic influences also lie behind the trend that produced transformation cards, which are sometimes also denoted as harlequin cards. With these ingenious cards, which are still popular today, the pips have been cleverly incorporated into a larger artwork or picture. Transformation playing cards primarily have artistic merit or are intended for amusement. They were especially common throughout the 1800s, and some delightful examples of transformation decks from this period have been reproduced in quality editions today.

Slightly less lavish - but still artistic - are the playing cards that pictured the rich variety in the clothing worn by the court card figures. In the 19th century there was a period in which there was a real fascination with costumes, and this is reflected by some of the splendid playing cards produced in that era. Royals and nobles are depicted dressed in elaborate robes, tunics, or tights; dresses with collars and frills; various shoe styles; and a range of accessories including hand held fans. As such, playing cards were not only works of art in themselves, but they also have become their own record of the art and fashions of previous eras.

Today playing cards still have an important role as works of art, and it is an important reason for the success of the modern playing card industry with its many customized decks. Popular creators like Steve Minty, Jody Eklund, and Uusi, are highly respected for their artistic creations, and enthusiastic collectors who appreciate their style of art quickly snap up each and every new project they produce. Such collectors would never dream of using these decks for game play, but purchase them simply to appreciate them as miniature art galleries with 54 individual works of art. Something similar can be said of many modern cardistry decks, many of which feature designs and colours that are intentionally geared to produce an aesthetic beauty when used for card flourishing. With the growing popularity of such custom playing cards, the time-honoured tradition of appreciating playing cards as works of art is set to continue in future years.

vintage playing cards

For Education

Mankind has always wanted to make a record of the information he learns, in order to preserve it for the future, or even in order to pass it on to the next generation through instruction. So it is no surprise that already in the 1400s and 1500s, there are many examples of decks of playing cards that were created specifically for the purpose of serving as teaching tools. After all, why not use this new canvas now available in the form of a playing card, to a good and noble end? 

Already from an early time in the known history of the playing card, instructive playing cards were created. One of the first known examples is a deck produced in 1507 by Dr Thomas Murner, who created a customized deck of playing cards as a new method of teaching. Educational cards were only more generally accepted much later, but it was only a natural development that playing cards would be produced to record basic tenets of botany and heraldry, and to summarize the important facts of astronomy and chemistry, history and geography. A series of self-study courses on a range of subjects was even created, with attention being given to subject areas like the alphabet, arithmetic, astronomy, proverbs, natural history, music, and much more.

Here are some examples of early decks of playing cards that fit into this category:

Heraldry: Due to the importance of heraldry as a branch of education in this era, in 1655 a deck produced by M. Claude Orence Fine appeared which displayed the rules for painting heraldic devices and coats of arms. Several heraldic decks appeared in subsequent decades, some of which showed reigning families in parts of Europe. M. Daumont similarly created decks intended to teach military science, each card having different scenes that illustrated a particular military operation. 

Geography: From 1665 onwards, a whole series of decks was printed in England that taught geography. For example, one deck featured different cities of foreign countries on each card. Another deck had a map of an English county, complete with chief towns, rivers, a compass, and details about the county. A deck published in 1799 by J. Wallis illustrated the geography of England and Wales, including boundaries, products, and more of each county.

History: Several decks were created which pictured famous historical personages, or renowned members of royalty from the past, as a way of educating young nobles. Decks exist from the 17th and 18th century with titles like "The Events of the Reign of Queen Anne". 

Often the imagery on these educational playing cards had a moral or instructional content. But there were also instances where the artist took the liberty to express his own political or religious views, in the form of satirical artwork that functioned as a political or social commentary, or reflected elements of the popular culture of the day. That was especially the case with playing cards depicting historical personages, and some artists were rather unkind to their subject material, and used these as opportunity for political satire or even propaganda. Many of these playing cards give us an insightful glimpse into how the past and the present were viewed by the people of the time, and so these playing cards continue to be an important resource for historians. 

Today there are still creators producing playing cards with an educational element, with Jody Eklund being one of the best examples from our modern era, having produced decks on themes such as important inventors, influential businessmen, famous airmen, or railroad tycoons. In most cases these modern decks don't have the primary purpose of being educational, however, but are collectors pieces and works of art that portray important and interesting historical information at the same time. But in the large range of modern decks that are readily available, you will find many wonderful examples of decks that depict birds, animals, cars, and much more.

vintage playing cards

About the writerEndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.

Last update date: 08/08/19

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.


Jeff Daymont on 2019,06,28

It’s great to see that combining education with games has such a long history. Thanks for the article!

Tim on 2019,06,27

I just wanted to thank you for putting out this article. It’s a great read and this isn’t the normal kind of information you find when researching playing cards. So many young people today have no clue about the history of playing cards and these kinds of articles help enlighten them on the historical significance of playing cards. Keep up the great work!

Regards, Tim

Related posts

Playing Card Articles

Playing Card Articles

  We love all things Playing Cards here at PCD and love to share it with our customers or anyone who...
Card Game Rules

Card Game Rules

In this section you will find rules on how to play many popular card games. This page is in progress and...
Soldier Soldier General Card Game Rules

Soldier Soldier General Card Game Rules

 Soldier-Soldier-General   Introducing "Soldier-Soldier-General," a fun and engaging card game designed to help kids enhance their math skills, particularly in...
How a California Middle School Uses Playing Cards to Teach Their Students About Math and More

How a California Middle School Uses Playing Cards to Teach Their Students About Math and More

  Dr. James Prager of Painted Hills Middle School in Desert Hot Springs, California recently reached out to PCD to...