Jason McKinstry

Interview with Playing Card Historian and Antique Collector Jason McKinstry (author of Paper Empires)

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

Who is Jason McKinstry?

Any respectable field of interest doesn't just have aficionados and enthusiasts. It also has historians, who systematically and carefully study the past, and document their findings. In the world of playing cards, Jason McKinstry is one of those unique individuals. There is certainly no shortage of playing card enthusiasts - you only need to visit online playing card forums to see how many passionate collectors are out there, or check out the thriving membership list of the 52 Plus Joker playing card club. Plenty of people are interested in playing cards, and even in their history. But true playing card historians are a rare breed. And that puts Jason McKinstry into a special category, occupied by few others.

Jason's name may already be quite well known to some readers, because he has earned a significant amount of respect as a writer. He's an established author and writer, and his regular contributions of interesting and historically informed articles in Card Culture, the monthly magazine put out by the playing card club 52 Plus Joker, ensures that some reputation precedes him. But arguably his biggest contribution yet as a playing card historian is his landmark book Paper Empires. The importance of this volume can't be under-estimated, because in this ground-breaking work Jason documents the lives and stories of America's earliest playing card manufacturers, exploring playing card history in a manner that hasn't been done before. It's a work that is quickly becoming regarded as an essential reference point, much like Tom and Judy Dawson's Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards.

With such eminent qualifications and expertise, Jason is the ideal person to sit down with, in order to learn a thing or two or three about early American playing cards, about collecting, and much more. He was kind enough to agree to this interview, and let me tell you in advance: this is good stuff. Jason knows his material, is well-informed, and is an expert in this field. But he also has a way with words, and I'm sure you'll be just as enthralled as I was, learning from him on a wide range of playing card related subjects. So let's put on our listening hat, and give a big hand and warm welcome to our playing card historian and friend, Jason McKinstry!

Jason McKinstry

The Interview

General Background

For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself?

It's wonderful to speak to you today and everybody reading about the subject that changed my life. It might change yours too. Before all of the antique playing card collecting, research and writing, I was a contractor by trade. My wife and I specialized in century home restoration/renovation projects. Together we would take old run-down houses and transform them into places people would want to spend their lives in. Not your typical origin story for someone who researches and writes about playing card history.

How did you get involved in collecting playing cards?

Interestingly I received my first taste of antique playing cards when standing in one of my finished renovation houses. It was ten years ago, and one of the tenants had a deck of Bicycle Heritage (2012) sitting on a coffee table, and I ended up handling them for a few minutes. I remember thinking to myself that "I bet I can find a real one of these online." That was the start of something extraordinary, an all-consuming topic that's grown into what I believe is one of the greatest untold stories in American History.

How did your interests as a collector develop over time?

I've always been a collector. In my younger years, I would collect stamps, coins and paper money, but as I grew up, so did my tastes. We could say that I found that deck of playing cards at precisely the right time. That very night I had my introduction to the world of antique/vintage playing cards. At first, to satisfy my collector instincts, I wanted one deck that would do a good job representing the whole subject. A deck like that doesn't exist in reality, but that's what I thought on day one. I ended up purchasing a British Chas. Goodall deck from the 1880s. My decision to buy that one wasn't entirely unfounded. I knew Goodall had a connection to American playing cards, and I also knew that because the United States is a melting pot, many decks of all types would have been used there. After waiting two weeks, I received my package in the mail and had my first experience opening a 130-year-old pack of cards.

You aren't just a collector, because many consider you to be a playing card historian and researcher. What has led to this reputation?

Well, that started while I was waiting for that first deck of Goodall's to arrive. I love history, so I began researching early American playing cards right away. Thankfully I found The Hochman Encyclopedia by Tom & Judy Dawson. As it turned out, playing cards have been collected and studied for over one hundred years. There are a handful of big names in the community whose work is a basis for everything I started with. Initially, Catherine Hargrave and Gene Hochman provided many of the seminal facts I used to construct this new and incredible narrative. But the more independent research I did, the more I realized that we were only scratching the surface of a much larger story.

You are known for specializing in American playing card manufacturers. What got you interested in that area of focus?

My interest comes from the possibility to tell a story that not many have heard of. It's taken a century to gain an accounting of the thousands of decks that were produced in the old days and exactly who made them. My contribution to the subject is creating the historical biographies of the individuals and companies that made all the cards we know about. Once my curiosity piqued, I began to write a series of notes explaining key dates and a little bit about each maker. But like a real-life pandora's box, I quickly saw that the story I was discovering was absolutely incredible, and things very much snowballed from there. I found that playing cards and the people that made them were fully ingrained into the nation's fabric, and they both interacted with every aspect of life from colonial times forward.

vintage playing cards

Your Contributions

You are the author of the book Paper Empires. What is your book about, and what topics does it cover?

I cover the section of time known as the "Golden Age" of playing cards. 1835-1935 was a century of rapid development, invention and tremendous competition. From the ether, seven manufacturers rose to the surface. I call them the Big Seven. My book Paper Empires Volume I, follows the lives of the first four makers, L.I. Cohen, Andrew Dougherty, John J. Levy and Samuel Hart. These men perfectly represent the early days of playing cards in the United States, and each was the height of the industry for a time. Paper Empires takes you on the same journey that they took as they brought to life America's favourite pastime.

How did this book come to be, and what was involved in writing it?

I suppose I'm one of the fortunate modern-day researchers who enjoy the benefits of the technological age. I hunt information and imagery by employing a variety of techniques. For me, this usually begins by sifting through all of the fragments of history on Ancestry. There I find out exactly who the individual truly is. Where were they born? Where did they grow up? How did they get into the playing card industry? Who did they marry, and who were their children? Did they travel? What did they enjoy? How did they live their final years? When did they die, and what legacy was left behind? Once I have a basic timeline established, I combine this life history with the known facts about the business. The advertising produced by card makers provides another vital puzzle piece.

Then I turn to the playing cards themselves. Because I've had the opportunity to collect so many of the cards manufactured by these great companies, most of my research can happen right within my cabinets. Through Paper Empires, I'm able to provide high-quality colour images of near every deck ever made by each of these fantastic playing card makers. I also document the changes and evolutions that playing cards went through over the years. I'll just say that it was an exciting time of innovation and invention. The history told through the playing cards is also a perfect reflection of the broader picture of American life throughout the golden years. These themes include everything you'd expect, such as expansion, the wild west, the civil war, the industrial revolution. What makes Paper Empires different is that you can view these subjects through the lens of what people were really doing back then... playing card games.

paper empires book

Your book is subtitled Vol. 1. Does that mean we expect further volumes, and what are your plans in that regard?

You bet! Volume II is nearing completion as we speak. It picks up right where the first one leaves off. I'm covering Lawrence & Cohen; they were the true successors to L.I. Cohen's playing card empire. Then we move on to The New York Consolidated Card Company. They were possibly the most successful playing card company in the early American scene. Although they, like many others, would be crushed by the weight of the final subject of Volume II, The United States Playing Card Company. Everybody's favourite playing card brand! The history of the USPCC is massive and extraordinary; I can't wait to share it with the world.

I plan on releasing future volumes as well. Volume III will be necessary to address the many peripheral makers that existed. Even though they were smaller, they also had rich and meaningful stories. Beyond that, I hope that people find my work (and others) and demand to know more. The history of early American playing cards is something everyone should be aware of. Considering how important I've found it to be, I'm surprised that historians haven't picked up on the subject before. Forget the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Henry Fords and Samuel Colts of the era for a minute. The history of a maker like Andrew Dougherty will blow your mind.

You also write actively on a monthly basis for the Card Culture magazine. What kinds of topics do you especially write about?

Paper Empires keeps me focused on the makers and topics needed; Card Culture gives me an excellent opportunity to write about everything else I find. Playing cards were pivotal in the everyday lives of people until only a few decades ago. Because of this unwavering connection, there's a lot of fantastic playing card news to speak about. It would be an understatement to say that the well of antique/vintage playing cards information is deep. In reality, I find out something unbelievably cool all the time. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day. When the time comes to write my Card Culture article each month, I can't wait to show my readers all of the great discoveries.

Where do you go for your source material for your research on playing cards?

My source material comes from everywhere, but it typically starts with my collection of playing cards and ephemera. I've had great success from searching online museums and newspaper archives. But of course, there's no comparison to the amount of work and research our club, 52 Plus Joker, has created over the years. The history of the best collectors/researchers that came before me live on today as part of the club, and all members have access to it. For anyone interested in playing card history, whether it be antique/vintage or current deck releases and events, 52 Plus Joker is by far the world's best playing card club.

playing card book

What can we expect to find on your website (worldofpaperempires.com), and what should we know about it?

My website worldofpaperempires.com is where you can begin a more serious introduction to my research topics. You'll meet the playing card makers and learn some of the basics about each one. A lot of their outstanding work is on full display. Of course, you can purchase my book Paper Empires in various formats. I also have available Collector's Corner Annual, the 2019 collection of my Card Culture articles. To complement everything that I've done up until this point, I've been working on mini-documentary series. The first video is on the website now; it's called The Forgotten History of Andrew Dougherty & 80 Centre Street. Another feature you will encounter is my Image & Art Gallery; this is where I post digital art, animations, colourizations and more.

Do you have any plans to develop your website beyond what it presently has?

Absolutely. I want my site to be everyone's connection to my books and research, and I also want it to be the premier destination for all things antique/vintage playing cards-related. In time, I'd like to offer more of the history of each maker, more playing cards and more documentation. Another thing is like to offer is the antique playing cards themselves. Once enough people discover the World of Paper Empires, I would love to be supplying them with the same decks of cards that wound up my enthusiasm in the first place.

What can you tell us about your youtube channel, and the kind of content there?

YouTube has been the perfect outlet for me, and I suspect that most people purchasing my books in the future will have seen some of my video content. I'm very excited about the mini-documentary series. There's currently little to no content about antique/vintage playing cards on YouTube. At the same time, I know that everyone loves watching various history subjects through the service; I think it's just a matter of time before people find the card makers. My channel offers most of what I've done to date, Mini-Docs, convention videos, themed promos, animations and more.

In the past you've mentioned the idea of a series of unboxing videos that shows and discusses antique decks. Is there anything you can share about that?

I have big plans for Paper Empires, and given how much viewers enjoy regular unboxing videos, I figured why not make an unboxing event two hundred years in the making. I constructed a ceremonial "unboxing vessel" for the reveal, and the idea is that together we will unbox and discuss the historical deck inside. These decks are unlike anything seen by most typical playing card collectors, and I think they'll be impressed with the concept and the cards. These are the actual decks used by the real card players 1835-1935, and they're incredible. I hope within the coming months; we'll start seeing some of that content released.

vintage playing cards

Vintage & Antique Decks

Is there a difference between "vintage decks" and "antique decks"?

For me, there is a difference! I define anything one hundred years or older as antique. And similarly, anything under 100 years is vintage. I know there are a lot of opinions as to the answer to this question, and that's ok too.

Many readers are only familiar with collecting modern decks. In what ways is collecting vintage and antique decks different?

Collecting modern decks is awesome! In fact, we're more than likely heading into another golden age of playing cards, thanks to the current designers. Collecting modern cards is a lot like collecting antique/vintage. Once you familiarize yourself with what was available, you can start purchasing what you like. Most parts of American history were displayed through playing cards, so I always recommend that collectors think about the period they're interested in.

What are some key things we should know about vintage and antique decks, and about collecting them?

First of all, playing cards and history go back a long time together. It's good to understand that the only reason we can own these decks currently is because regular researchers and historians do not yet know the story of the American playing card industry. Once this undocumented industry is discovered, I have a strong feeling that much of what remains will end up in museums and high-end collections. Right now, maybe the last opportunity to own a piece of history like an antique deck of playing cards.

What are the qualities of antique decks that especially appeal to you?

One of the things I find the most astounding about antique playing cards is how beautiful the cards turned out even though old world makers were using more limited technology. At times, that technology was both proprietory and experimental. Yet, we were left with finely detailed designs that are miniature works of art. Nearly everything that makes up an antique deck of cards appeals to me. But if I were to narrow it down, I'd say that watching playing cards evolve from square corners, full courts, no indices to the modern snappy cards we all know and love was a remarkable thing. The position of the cards in history is also important (civil war, the new century, roaring twenties.)

vintage playing cards

What makes something a genuinely "rare" deck?

This is a surprisingly tricky question. Many factors are considered when determining the rarity of an antique/vintage deck. First, you can look at the maker. Did they manufacture for long? If so, is this one of their popular brands, or something made in smaller numbers? A good general rule about makers is that the earlier you go in their catalogue, the rarer the decks become. This is because fewer were made. If you're looking at something expensive, then it's best to rely on the expertise of a seasoned antique/vintage collector. As a community, we've had a hundred years of studying the playing card market and the different trends along the way. This is one of the main differences between modern and antique rarity; in the contemporary world, it's typically known how many decks were produced. We simply don't have that luxury in the antique/vintage world.

It's also important to remember that historically playing cards were not designed to be collectible. They were made to be used and disposed of. If you contrast that with today, you'll find most decks are intended to be collectible, and hundreds, if not thousands, stay in their wrappers waiting to appreciate. What will this factor do to the future market for modern cards? Only time will tell, but for now, we can say that the steady rise in population can potentially increase the later demand. This same premise is true for antique/vintage; the more people there are, fewer decks will be available to satisfy them.

Last but not least while determining rarity is the condition of the deck. The condition can make all the difference in the world when buying any deck of cards, both modern and antique. Collectors across all spectrums/topics care about condition, and they are usually willing to pay high prices for top quality.

What are the rarest decks you know about?

Wow, there's some scarce stuff out there. I would say that the rarest decks would be the ones we've only recently found. These playing cards are so rare that it's taken 200 years to discover them. But I think that for someone just starting, rare decks that fall into the middle of the timeline are what you're looking for. Maybe even something you're familiar with. Everybody knows Andrew Dougherty's Tally-Ho No. 9 playing cards. But did you know that Dougherty was a prolific manufacturer who had been in operation since 1848? Tally-Ho was released in 1885 and spent many years evolving. This created a variety of Ace of Spade designs and an entire line of back styles. This might make you wonder why you only know of a handful of Tally-Ho backs, usually Circle and Fan?

52 Plus Joker Club President Lee Asher and I have been collaborating for years on the Tally-Ho brand, trying to determine how many individual backs there were. I just released some of our findings in a Card Culture not too long ago. So far, we've identified 28 plus individual backs for the Tally-Ho Brand. That's a far cry from the two backs most people know and love. Examples of these non-typical backs are rare, but they do come up occasionally. Because even new collectors are familiar with Tally-Ho, these decks have inherent popularity. A great place to start looking for rare decks!

In the world of early American playing cards, any of the big seven manufacturers will be considered somewhat rare especially pre-1900, but the further you go back, the scarcer decks become. Makers to look for are L.I. Cohen, Samuel Hart, John J. Levy, Lawrence & Cohen, Andrew Dougherty, The New York Consolidated Card Company and The United States Playing Card Company. Other makers to look for: National, Russell, Standard, Perfection and Pyramid Playing Card Companies.

You may be thinking, wow, that's a lot of makers to look for, but this brings me to the most important point about rarity in general. Rarity doesn't always affect the value of a deck of cards. It will if enough people know about the importance of the deck or how rare it is, but most often, these things never meet, and rare decks sell all the time for either low or affordable prices.

If a deck is very old, does that automatically mean that it should be considered "rare"?

Not necessarily. Even in the 1800s, playing cards were manufactured in high numbers and eventually mass-produced. The best thing to do is a little research into the brand/manufacturer that you're considering. Tom and Judy Dawson (authors of The Hochman Encyclopedia) put together a price guide for all decks covered in their book. Although the prices may be a little out of date, that guide, if appropriately deciphered, can tell the tale of a decks rarity. It can also give you a good idea of value.

vintage playing cards

How do you go about dating an older deck of playing cards?

You can use a lot of different methods to determine the date of a deck. Although today a simple internet search should provide a good approximation for most decks you'd encounter. If we look to more traditional methods, here are a few tips. Square Corners, Full Courts, No Corner Indices, Thick Stock, are usually pre-1870s. Most decks with round edges, corner indices and double-heads are from after 1870. There's an overlap in the dates of the features; for example, rounded edges were available in the 1850s, and corner indices were invented in 1864. Thin and snappy cards are typically from 1880 forward.

Tax stamps on playing cards are also an excellent way to date a deck if you have the box. All decks of playing cards required a US Internal Revenue stamp before leaving the factory. The stamps were started in 1862 and rescinded in 1884. They came back in 1894 and lasted until 1965 when they ended for good. If you have the stamp, there is a cancellation date on it. The history between tax stamps and antique/vintage playing cards is fascinating, and some great stories revolve around those tiny little stamps.

Circa 1906, The US Playing Card Company began implementing a dating code system for their decks. Because the USPCC also owned many of the other manufacturers by then, the code was eventually used for them too. There's a great chart with the codes/dates on Lee Asher's website.

How does grading work? What kinds of things would you look at to determine an antique's deck's condition?

The first thing to look at is completeness; does the deck have everything that originally came with it? This includes the correct number of cards, 32 for Euchre and Piquet, 48 for a Pinochle, 52 for a Standard, 60 for a 500 deck, etcetera. Does it have the Joker and any extra cards that may have come together? Does it have the wrapper and seals? Does it have the box and appropriate tax stamps? All of these factors go into determining if your deck is complete. Now you can look at the condition of each of those pieces of the deck.

Condition for antique/vintage playing cards has long been established, and I'll directly quote the Hochman for its breakdown.
• As issued – a complete deck, in mint condition, with all cards, jokers and extra cards contained in the original packaging when first distributed for sale. It might be unopened or carefully opened for examination, but not played with. If applicable, the tax stamp, not necessarily unbroken, would be attached.
• Mint – a complete deck showing no signs of use. Normally all cards would be present as would the original box in mint or near mint condition. The inside wrapper would not need to be there.
• Excellent – a complete deck that has been occasionally used, but still in first class condition. Gold edges would still be intact and you would be proud to use this deck in your game.
• Good – A complete deck showing signs of repeated use, but still useable. There would be no serious creases or bent/broken corners. The deck would not be swollen or misshapen and would fit comfortably into the original box.
• Poor – A deck not good enough to fit into one of the above categories. It likely would have at least one of these serious faults such as bent or broken corners, bad creases, heavy soiling, etc.
• With Faults – A deck in one of the good or excellent categories, but with a serious fault like a missing or damaged card or a damaged, incomplete or missing box."

vintage playing cards

What kind of condition should we expect for a 100 year old antique deck, in terms of damage, wear, and signs of age?

It's a mixed bag, but surprisingly, you will find many Good to Excellent condition examples. I collect antique playing cards because of the history behind the cards. So having a deck of cards that shows the honest wear helps me get to the story. I own every condition you could have, from demolished relic decks to As Issued/Mint decks from the 1840s. The best strategy when looking at condition is to decide what kind of experience you want to have with antique/vintage playing cards.

What impact on collectibility and value do missing cards have?

Great question, and it gets asked a lot—missing cards matter. But like most things, it's on a sliding scale. It's always best to have a complete deck. But there are a few things to remember. The rarer a deck is, the more likely a collector will be to accept deficiencies such as missing cards. Also, in the early days (pre-1870s), many people would use a deck of playing cards as a quick source of writing paper. This produced many early decks with missing cards as a result. From my experience, complete decks matter the most from the 1870s forward, but there are still exceptions.

Do sealed antique decks exist, and is there anything you can share about this?

Sealed decks are rare, and you may wait a while, but they exist. Like everything we've discussed today so far, the further back in history you go, the harder they are to find. Pre 1900, you'll be more likely to find a perfect deck that's been opened for inspection. This can be for various reasons, but most often, in the collector community, sealed decks are opened to verify that the correct deck is inside. Sealed decks are not plentiful, but a little persistence can pay off.

In what circumstances would you personally open a sealed vintage or antique deck?

Most sealed decks I have date from the 1920s-1940s. So there's no desire there to open them. I know exactly what they are, and those decks are not particularly rare anyway. I may open a sealed deck if I don't have representation in my collection. Or if it's one of a handful of brands that could have a different deck inside. Lastly, I may open a deck if something looks off with it. This would be to verify the contents. It's a good thing sealed decks don't come around too often.

Why are some of these antique decks so hard to find, and how many copies of them typically exist?

It's impossible to give an accurate answer to this question that would cover over a century and a half of playing card making in America. What I can say is that for some early decks, there may only be one or two. These numbers generally go up as you move forward through time. By the 1880s and beyond, playing cards were being mass-produced on a much grander scale, and many copies have survived.

How do dedicated collectors go about sourcing these and other hard-to-find decks?

The hardest-to-find decks will usually circulate within our 52 Plus Joker community auctions. Access to the club auctions comes with membership, and we see a lot of great decks move there. With that said, 99% of my collection was sourced outside the club. I've owned nearly one of every Dougherty deck ever made by waiting for the right opportunity. I say owned because I don't necessarily keep everything anymore. I sell parts of my collection to help fund further research so that I can keep telling this incredible story. The reason I mention this is because it's people like me who bring these fantastic decks into the regular collectors market. Most of my cards came from eBay, to begin with, and that's also where I sell. I'm user suddsmcduff77 for anyone interested in having a look.

The generation before ours sourced their cards in flea markets and thrift shops all across the country. Today we have an assortment of online auctions sites available; even the big auction houses are online, streamlined and easy to use.

What kind of prices do antique decks go for?

This is a sliding scale answer for sure. Some early American decks can fetch thousands of dollars, but most rare decks typically encountered fall in the $200-300 range. From the 1890s forward, you can see anything from $60-200. It's safe to say that there's something for everyone collecting antique/vintage playing cards. I think most people would find them quite affordable given today's designer-fueled playing card world. Antique playing cards can also provide a much different experience than what people are used to currently. A tremendous personal connection can be made with a deck of cards that travelled through time for you.

vintage playing cards

Antique American Playing Cards

What would you consider to be some of the biggest developments in playing card history in the late 19th century?

This question is the heart of the story of antique playing cards. We take for granted today the way that playing cards work and the features that went into their development. Each manufacturer was responsible for at least some improvement, but if I were to single out the most important, then you'd arrive at this list.

• Double-Heads or Two-Way Courts. The seemingly simple transition from single-ended courts to double was a game-changer for card players because after, it didn't matter which way your cards were orientated. We see the beginning of the Double-Headed decks in the 1840s and early 1850s by manufacturers like L.I. Cohen, Samuel Hart and Andrew Dougherty.

• Round Corners. Believe it or not, rounding the corners of a deck of cards makes them much less susceptible to chipping and having the corners rounded through play. Before their implementation, Square corner decks were the standard, and they couldn't be shuffled in any reasonable way. Like double-headed courts, round corners arrived in the late 1840s early 1850s. Rounded corners, coupled with John J. Levy's patent for bevelled edges in 1868, created a perfect combination for easy shuffling.

• Corner Indices. Can you imagine fanning a poker hand and not being able to read the corner indices? Imagine instead that you have to separate each card to see what you have. The invention of corner indices in 1864 was one of the single most important developments the industry had ever seen. Cyrus Saladee patented the development, and Samuel Hart purchased the rights to exclusivity. Hart promoted the invention for over a decade while other manufacturers scrambled to catch up. It was at this point that the battle for playing card supremacy in America heated to a boiling point.

• Best Bowers & Jokers. During the 1860s, Euchre was becoming one of the most popular games in the country (and overseas.) Circa 1865, cardmaker Samuel Hart introduced many decks 32 card decks, especially for the game. He also began including an exclusive "High Trump Card" or "Best Bower." This extra card gained popularity and soon began to accompany many other decks. Hart's Best Bower was, of course, the precursor to what would become the Joker, and by the mid-1870s, almost every deck made came with one.

• Other Developments. After the era when the fundamental features were implemented, playing cards continued to evolve and refine, and so would the machinery that made them. It would take until the turn of the century before they would become an exact reflection of what we use today.

Is there anything that makes 19th century American playing cards distinctly different from European decks from the same time period?

Our American playing cards were initially based on British designs. This means the history of our playing cards and theirs follows a very similar path. It's important to point out that most European nations had their own types of cards and a lot still do. Germany, Hungary, Russia, for example, all had very different styles and were unique compared to British design. With that said, there are many similarities to each other too, like suit management, number of cards etc.

us playing card factory

Is it true that some of the leading figures in the American playing card industry had connections with important politicians of their day?

With an enterprise as large as the early American playing card industry, it's only natural that they became a considerable interest to the government. Playing card sales would represent a distinguishable portion of the GDP of the United States throughout the 19th century. This would also equate to a lot of revenue gain from their taxes. If we narrow it down, we know of some interesting and powerful relationships between card makers and politicians. The best example is New York manufacturer Andrew Dougherty.

During the Civil War, Dougherty lobbied the government for higher taxes on playing cards to assist with the effort. President Abraham Lincoln embraced his plan, and he was invited to Washington for a meeting to explain the merits. An 1895 newspaper article for Dougherty's retirement paid tribute to the events of that day.

One can imagine the warmth of which the noble-hearted martyr to liberty shook hands with Andrew Dougherty when the feasibility of the scheme was made clear. It was the imposition of a tax of five cents per pack of playing cards. This tax was a heavy loss financially for Andrew, but he had the president's gratitude which were expressed in the words - "It is citizens like you, Mr. Dougherty, who make the liberty of the United States indestructible."

Of the big names like Lewis Cohen, John Lawrence, John Levy, Samuel Hart, Andrew Dougherty, Russell, and Morgan, who do you consider to be your "hero", and why?

I love all the playing card makers! They all have fascinating histories, and each was dovetailed to the industry in some way, shape or form. If I had to pull favourites, I would say that Andrew Dougherty was very different than his contemporaries, and he was undoubtedly the underdog of the tale. He created his empire from basically nothing. Most makers were able to rely on predecessors to teach them, or in many cases, they were banded together competing against Dougherty. All of this adversity would only move to strengthen Dougherty's resolve. And he pushed through and built something unique and very much of his design.

Andrew Dougherty was everything you ever hoped a character could be. He had a larger-than-life personality and was a bombastic promoter of his work. But he wasn't just a gregarious businessman; he was also a charitable man who used his financial means and respectable reputation to assist those less fortunate. With the help of deep political connections, Andrew championed fairness for immigrants and helped arrange funds for the civil war. He was also the Director of The Museum of Natural History and a member of The Historical Society and Art Association.

Dougherty was known affectionately as "The Cardman of New York." When he died in 1901, there was a massive outpouring of love and support for his life. One of the many articles punished at the time was by a reporter named Ricardo, who had been covering Andrew's career for thirty years. I think his final caption described Dougherty the best. "He leaves an enviable name for business integrity, moral probity and all the attributes which go to form a `manly man,' which will be more lasting than silver or gold or earthly possessions. Peace to his memory."

Have decks of playing cards always been mainly red-backed and blue-backed, and why?

Red and blue have always been around in a way, but not in the brilliant hues we're used to today. Early decks dating from 1810-1840 usually carried a basic snowflake back. These would come in various shades of red, blue or even black. As we moved into the 1850s-60s, Fancy Back playing cards were offered in a rainbow of colours and colour combinations. If we moved to when back design colours were more standardized (the 1880s-1910s), we'd find red, blue, brown, green, yellow.

By the 1920s and certainly during the great depression, the life and colour were gone from the industry. Everything that the card makers did between 1890-1930 was intended to save on costs. Less intricate designs meant less ink used, and the dies wouldn't wear down as fast. They switched from elegant printed paper wraps to simple wax paper. Everything was to cut costs! Then the great depression knocked out what was left quality-wise. After that, red and blue were left as the standard. It was cheaper and took less man power.

vintage bicycle playing cards

Your Own Collecting

What is it about collecting playing cards that you especially and personally enjoy?

For me, it's the history behind the cards. The lives of the makers, the people who bought them and the families that looked after them for all this time. But the playing cards also clearly represent the stepping stones of American history. This can be viewed in many different ways, but it's easiest to say that the cards can represent anything you want them to. Art and beauty, technology and advancement, eras and events can all be viewed through the window of playing cards.

What types of decks do you especially focus on collecting, and what are your favourite types of decks to collect?

I'm a full-spectrum golden age collector. That means I'm most interested in decks from 1835-1935, with some exceptions. There's so much goodness crammed into that one hundred years that it's kept me busy for almost a decade so far. If I had to zero in on two areas, I say Samuel Hart & Andrew Dougherty in the 1850s-1870s are my favourite decks to find. That was an extraordinary time in playing card history.

How many decks would you estimate that you currently have in your collection?

I have over 275 decks in my collection. I used to think I had a crazy amount of cards but seeing what some modern collectors have, I don't feel so bad anymore. My focus has narrowed substantially in the last few years. I try to stay focused on the big seven, and as I mentioned before, I don't keep everything anymore. Once I've had an opportunity to research them and take pictures etc. I can let them fly. Of course, I'll always keep my core collection of impossible-to-find top-shelf decks.

vintage playing card collection

Which deck (or decks) in your collection is your favourite, and why?

Oh, man, that's like asking which is your favourite kid. It's such a tricky question. When I look into my cabinet, the first deck I always see is the George and Martha Washington Illuminated deck made by Samuel Hart in 1866. The Ace of Spades is heavily ornate and has two miniature portraits of the first couple in colour. The deck is illuminated, which means there is a decorative use of gold accents. It is incredible!

The second deck that I might choose is my Thomas Crehore deck from approximately 1825-1830. It's the oldest deck in my collection. For me, this deck represents everything that the playing card industry was before the golden age (which also so happens to be the industrial age of playing cards.) Drawn by stencil and coloured by hand, but with a level of intricacy and human precision, rarely seen again afterwards.

A third deck would be a perfect example of Andrew Dougherty's American Cards from 1870. This convex-corner deck featured Dougherty's second "Excelsior" Ace of Spades, and it was unreal-looking!

What is the most valuable deck in your collection? What accounts for its value, and what else can you tell us about it?

From what we've seen over the years, my Samuel Hart Transformation deck likely has the most value. Transformation decks feature various imagery filling the white space of the cards. The courts and pips were usually incorporated into the design in some comical fashion—a unique type of card and an exceptional deck. Most mid-century makers are known to produce at least one transformation deck. As for value, most that come to auction sell between $1500-$2000, with perfect examples realizing considerably more.

You also collect historical playing card related ephemera. What are some of your favourite items, and why?

You'll come for the decks, and you'll stay for the ephemera. In many ways, ephemera tells the other half of the story of playing cards. It's been my experience that some people aren't sure what ephemera is. But it's simple; ephemera is anything that falls within a subject that's not the actual item. Types of ephemera are paper/non-paper advertising, stamps and seals, store displays, subject-specific literature and more. In my collection, I have a bit of everything, but a few of my ephemeral favourites are.

Samuel Hart Travelling Bottles: Many people don't know that Sam Hart produced a lot more than just playing cards. He was also a major manufacturer of glass travelling bottles. I have two beautiful bottles in different sizes. Hart's Bottles were sealable and came with a cup or shot glass and a leather case. These bottles wouldn't usually be considered playing card ephemera, but because they were made by one of the biggest card makers in the country, I let them in.

John Omwake Business Card - If someone asked what item I treasure the most, I would say a business card belonging to John Omwake would be the one. John began employment at The Russell & Morgan Company in 1883 as a 27-year-old and became President of The United States Playing Card Company in 1902. The business card is from his time as Chairman of the Board, his final position before retiring in 1937. John Omwake was an incredible figure in playing card history. He was with the company from infancy all the way through its astonishing rise and eventual total domination of the market. He was even there throughout most of the great depression and saw the downsizing that happened at the time. His business card embodies an entire era of playing card history.

How do you organize or display your collection of playing cards?

I've been fortunate to display my collection in full-size glass cabinets. My decks are kept safe in plastic cases and arranged first by the manufacturer, then by age. I do my best to tell the story of early American playing cards through the cabinets, making it's easy for me to demonstrate anything I need to by simply pointing at the cab.

I also have binders where each deck has a page of representation. There I keep the Jokers, Extra Cards and Back Designs and Court samples. My binders make research a breeze because everything can be instantly compared in a like-wise fashion. To add to the collection of binders, I also keep a few stock books for deck wrappers, stamps & seals and paper ephemera.

historic playing cards

How do you go about adding new decks to your collection?

I've gone through different phases of collecting, each with its own set of criteria and level of intensity. These days there's only a handful of exceptionally hard-to-come-by decks that I'm looking for, so I don't get to play as much. I miss the old days of discovery when every deck was something I hadn't touched before. They were exhilarating years. I still watch the various auction sites, and occasionally I'm approached by a club member looking to part with something special.

Are there any specific decks you are chasing for your collection, and why?

You know it's been interesting to observe playing card collectors and the white whales they chase. One of the decks I've been hunting for since I started collecting is Andrew Dougherty's 1865 Army & Navy. Sometimes referred to as the Monitor & Merrimac, this transformation deck is filled with incredible naval imagery. The Ace of Spade proudly stated the reason for the deck and read, "To commemorate the greatest event in naval history, the substitution of iron for wood." This was a reference to the 1862 "Battle of the Ironclads." The deck was one of the most beautiful ever made, and it's a tough find.

Do you prefer the Ace of Spades or the Joker, and why?

I enjoy both of them the same, but there's a caveat. When you drop below 1865, the Jokers disappear entirely. When you get into these earlier periods, look to the AOS and the many old-world features. Back designs, Courts, finishes and paper types are all intriguing things to check out.

What do your family and friends think of your interest in playing cards?

They've been entirely supportive of my new direction. Believe it or not, my wife likes most of my social posts! What's true for my family and friends is the same for everyone who hears the incredible story of the playing card makers; they feel it needs to be told. I'm sure that they wish it were someone else telling it occasionally.

ace of spades collection

Other Collectors & Advice

If you would start collecting all over again today, would you do anything different?

No, I couldn't change anything that's happened. Each deck was part of the journey that's still unfolding today. But I can offer advice to those just beginning to collect playing cards and hope they have the same great experience. The best piece of guidance I could give would be to pick the era of time that most interests you and find out what was available at the time. Then let your collector instincts be your guide. Also, don't be afraid to reach out and ask questions and get opinions. There are plenty of experts in our community (myself included) that are there to help.

What interest do you have in collecting modern decks? How does their appeal compare with vintage/antique decks?

I collect modern decks too. There's no doubt in my mind that one day, people will look back at the current 2022 playing card scene and see that it was history in the making. Beauty, originality and innovation were more or less absent in playing cards from the time of the great depression until after the new millennium. Those lost qualities are back now, and we have our modern-day designers to thank for it. With that said, my collection of modern decks is small compared to my antique ones, but it's very potent!

I recently had an opportunity to work with Kings Wild Project on their Vintage Reimagined Series, and I can tell you that there is about to be an exciting blending of the vintage/antique world and the modern. I foresee a time in the future when the history of playing cards, past and present, will be one and the same, with a united goal of looking to the future with a complete understanding and appreciation for the past.

vintage playing cards

What can you tell us about your involvement with the 52 Plus Joker club? Do you belong to any other playing card organizations or connect with other collectors, either online or in any other way?

52 Plus Joker is an American playing card collector organization founded in 1985. In a nutshell, we give collectors the tools they need to access antique/vintage playing cards in a safe and trustworthy environment. 52 Plus has an impressive roster of members across a broad spectrum of playing card-related interests. Vintage, antique and modern collectors, magicians, illusionists and sleight of hand artists, poker players, historians and enthusiasts, and card players from all around the world are part of our club.

My contributions to the club include writing monthly for our online magazine Card Culture. My Collector's Corner articles cover many fascinating discoveries and topics relating to playing cards history. They're a good reflection of everything I do and encounter outside of the realm of my primary research for Paper Empires. I also create presentations for our annual 52 Plus Joker Conventions and other videos and promos for the club.

Outside of 52 Plus Joker, I've also been able to connect with people and organizations all over the globe. This typically happens through my website or social media, and it's always amazing to see how much influence and intrigue playing cards have.

What role does social media play for playing card enthusiasts and collectors?

A significant role and getting more important all the time. I would imagine that in the future, most people's first experience with the history of playing cards, and the potential to collect them, will happen online. This is the reason I've been getting my playing card maker mini-documentaries ready to go. As we move into a new technological world, we need to provide innovative and interactive ways to learn.

vintage playing cards

Concluding Points

What can we expect from you in the future, and do you have any special plans or projects in mind?

I do! Paper Empires Volume II is coming soon, and I also hope to have another edition of my Collector's Corner Annual available in the near future. Upcoming projects include the maker mini-docs and unboxing videos. There are also some great things under wraps waiting for the time to come.

Where can we follow you on social media or elsewhere online? (e.g. websites, blogs, etc.)

My website www.worldofpaperempires.com is your best place to start, and from there, you can access all of my social media channels. I post regularly on Instagram and Facebook/Meta and upload most of my video content to YouTube. You can also find me on eBay if you're looking for antique/vintage playing cards.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

You've done an excellent job selecting the right questions to ask, and I can tell you're now formally under the spell of Early American Playing Cards. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to an audience I may not have otherwise and hope that everyone reading this has the notion to find out a lot more about this extraordinary subject. When I first wrote Paper Empires, I came up with a tag-line that I believe is still as effective today as it was back then. Once you meet the makers, you'll never look at playing cards the same. Thanks for having me!

Jason McKinstry
World of Paper Empires

vintage king of spades

Final Thoughts

Wasn't that fantastic? Jason is a real expert with a wealth of knowledge at his finger-tips, especially when it comes to the period that he describes as the golden age (1835-1935). But he is also a true gentleman, and just loves sharing with other collectors, and talking about playing cards. He's a treasure trove of information and expertise, and it was absolutely fascinating to read his answers.

But he's not just a man who knows a lot. His wide range of knowledge is matched by real passion. And that's what makes Jason so much fun to read or listen to - whether it's this interview, his Card Culture articles, his Paper Empires book, or the video presentations he's done for the 52 Plus Joker club. He's an experienced writer and interesting speaker, who is good at telling a story and engaging his audience. Whatever the format, Jason's enthusiasm immediately shines through. And it's infectious, and you can't help but get carried along with his eagerness, and his love for the history behind the playing cards that is our shared passion.

We're fortunate to have men like Jason McKinstry on our team, so to speak. As he himself explains, it was really just a chance meeting that led him to discover antique playing cards. And did the rabbit hole he dived into as a result ever prove to be a deep one! I'm grateful that Jason has been so generous with his time in carefully answering all the questions I put to him, and in sharing so much valuable content in response. After all his years of research, he's well-positioned to share with the rest of us.

I particularly appreciated his careful answer on how to determine the rarity of a deck, his tips on dating playing cards, and his overview of the key developments in how playing cards changed in the 19th century. But don't stop with this interview. Follow Jason on his social media, and check out some of the delightful images he shares of antique playing cards, and of the people, places, and stories behind them. Then go deeper by reading some of his articles in Card Culture, or pick up his book Paper Empires.

As collectors of playing cards, whether it is the antique or the modern that fires your passion, we need each other. And we need to stay connected and learn from one another. Modern collectors need to appreciate that the playing cards of today are standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past. And antique collectors need to appreciate how their beloved playing cards have given birth to a new generation that has inherited the genetic stamp of its ancestors, but also builds on it in new and interesting ways. And together, we can appreciate the important lessons that playing cards convey about our history and about ourselves.

Each deck of playing cards has a story behind it, as a result of there being a living and breathing creator that helped produce it. And the history of playing cards doesn't just tell the story about individual persons, but also of whole communities and cultures. I'm just glad that we have people like Jason McKinstry willing to find these stories, and tell them to us.

old playing card advertisment

Want to connect with or follow Jason McKinstry?
● Website: World of Paper Empires
● Social media: FacebookInstagramYoutube
● Marketplace: WebshopeBay

Want to watch some of Jason McKinstry's video presentations?
● Presentation: The Inspiration behind Paper Empires
● Lecture: Antique Playing Cards (52 Plus Joker's 2020 Convention)
● Q&A: Antique Playing Cards (52 Plus Joker's 2020 Convention)
● Presentation: Rare Playing Card Items (52 Plus Joker's 2021 Virtual Day)
● Mini-Documentary: The Forgotten History of Playing Card Maker Andrew Dougherty (1826-1901)

faro playing cards

About the writerEndersGame is a well-known and 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: 04/05/22

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