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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  The History of Playing Cards


   The earliest European cards were hand-made and beautifully painted but the exhorbitant cost made them available only to the very rich, the nobles and royalty.

   In the 15th century German cards were printed from wood-blocks by the "kartenmachers", then put in small casks and exported to Italy and other countries overseas, often bartered for spices and other wares.

Artist's drawing from 16th century German card.
Artist's drawing from 16th century German card.

   Italian artists in Venice complained that their craft was suffering because of heavy importation and in 1441 the Venetian magistrate banned importation. In 1463 an English petition also forbade import of foreign cards.

   Invention of the printing press in the 16th century accelerated card manufacture and copper plate engraving replaced the slow process of wood-cutting and hand-coloring. In the wood-blocks, the backs were often left plain. In early printing they had flowers or coats of arms. In 1860, Owen Jones made the first artistic development in back-designs for a London card-maker.

   In some early Spanish and Italian packs, the four kings represented the great world monarchs of the Middle ages. In an engraved deck of 1780, the kings represented the flourishing monarchs of Britain, France, Spain and Prussia. Modern double-headed court cards appeared in France in 1827 and were altered versions of the following:

Julius Caesar
Alex. the Great

La Hire


Artist's drawing from engraved deck of 1780
Artist's drawing from engraved deck of 1780

Modern double-headed court cards
Modern double-headed court cards

   Many governments used card manufacture as a source of revenue through taxation. In 1615 James I of England granted a letter of patent for duty on imports to Sir Richard Coningsby. In 1628 Charles I agreed to bar all imports but he placed a heavy tax on native manufacturers.

   After 1765 the tax paid had to be printed on the Ace of Spades, and this accounts for the ornate designs of this card. The stiff duty created a boom in secondhand sales and heavy traffic in forged Aces.

   Such taxation is now universal and in Spain and France card manufacture is a state monopoly.

   Columbus brought them to the New World. Later they came to the American colonies through the migration of the English, Dutch and French settlers.

   In 1765, the year of the Stamp Act, every pack was taxed one shilling and cards could be used for class admission at the University of Pennsylvania. In early America, cards were also used as calling cards and invitations to balls and parties.

   During the French Revolution they were used as Ration Cards by Napoleon. In 1685 playing cards served as the first paper money in Canada where French governor Jacques de Muelles paid off some debts with this 'currency:

   At first cards were exclusively a royal game but with mass production it became popular among other classes. Since the game involved 'chance, and very often played for stakes, it was condemned by the clergy and the Puritans as "Devils Tickets:" It was considered sinful to even have cards in the house in the early Puritan settlements and offenders were severely punished in a public display.

   The modern set of 52 cards is referred to as the 'pack: In Shakespeare's time it was known as the 'deck: ln his play of Henry Vlll (Act V sc. i) Shakespeare tells that the king was playing cards with the Duke of Suffolk the night the future Queen Elizabeth was being born.

Anyone for Rummy?


Tarot - Ace of Swords
Tarot - Ace of Swords

Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved. 


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