I have been fascinated by cards as long as I can remember. One of the reasons I liked hem was for their colourful illustrations of , not simply the Kings and Queens in the standard decks, but the illustrations in the many single-game card-decks that abounded, like “Donkey” “|Noddie’s Happy Families”, “Contraband” and so on, as well as all the cigarette cards, and various other forms of card including business cards, “French Model’s” cards tucked into public telephone boxes, and many other collectible cards that presented themselves. In fact, the more I looked, the more I found, including a deck to teach people the new decimal currency system that came out in the early 70's... all in all, there was, and still is, an amazing amount of art produced on a daily basis, for all the cards that advertised, promoted, enlightened and thrilled those that used them, collected them, as well as those that played with them.
I played and delighted in each new game I discovered, visiting the Cotleigh Road library just off West End Lane in Hampstead, to drag a huge tome bigger than I was, off the reference shelves and read it till the librarian announced they were closing and I knew I was in for another telling-off for being so late. As I grew older, cards gave me that sense of suspended reality that we sometimes search for in a painting, a dream, or at a movie, to get us away from the sometime drudgery of life, or sad memories. As well as games, of course, cards have been used for almost every conceivable educational and informational use, as well as divinatory purposes using various different systems from the “I Ching” to Native American “Animal Totems”. In this first part of two, we shall take a brief view of the history and forms of playing cards and divinatory decks... leaving for part two, the other aspects of our thin rectangular card, although some decks, notably Indian ones, when Maharajahs held sway in fairytale castles, were in fact circular; and many modern ones are triangular, wavy, hexagonal, and various other shapes that we’ll see further down... There are very few credits for the illustrations in this article, by the way, since almost all the illustrations in this article, come from my personal collection of card decks and samples of individual cards.
ART TIMELINE LINKS
FOR A QUICK LOOK AT TRENDS HAPPENING ALONGSIDE THE EVENTS IN THIS ARTICLE....1400CE TO 1600CE
; 1600CE TO 1800CE
; 1800CE TO 1900CE
; 1900CE TO PRESENT
B: BRIEF HISTORY / ORIGINS: FOLLOW THE MONEY
By the time the 1530's arrived, in France, a certain gentleman called Rabelais, the same man who had uttered: “Science sans conscience n’est que la ruine de l’ame” foreshadowing Oppenheimer..., (fr: “Science without conscience ruins the soul”), was able to name at least 30 different card games. Many of these were used to gamble away, bit by bit, the sou’s and chattels of many an unsuspecting or incautious Frenchman... The China Origin
Unfortunately, the very earliest examples of cards , mostly being paper-based, although some early versions were painted on broad leaves, (like papyrus), and wood; have mostly been lost, like the evidence for another interest of mine: knots and fibres, due to bio-degradation, and the fact that generally, cards are an ephemeral, disposable object. Cards, it was generally agreed, originated in China with “Money Cards” , see fig 1, A,D, which were, by the way, copied from real Chinese banknotes, like dominos and mahjongg, the latter of which has coins and bamboo sticks which actually represent “sticks” or columns of coins. The Chinese had invented paper and printing, so it was unsurprising that a leisure use of paper developed in some form.... the form of playing cards. The attraction also, was, inevitably, gambling... Cards were imported by the Japanese, (fig 1, C), possibly brought by visiting dignitaries from Taiwan, or their bodyguards who were previously soldiers, and, like many of their comrades, helped to distribute cards and card games whilst on campaigns in foreign climes... It’s a plausible theory.. but, it has now been more or less been discounted due to an absence of traceability from the Chinese character-driven cards and the later 4-suited European versions that mirrored so many decks in a diasporic circle emanating from the central near east...The Persia Origin
Another school of thought favours Persia, (Iran), as the origin, which under the famous Darius and Xerxes, spread their empire to most of the then world, ... including India and fringess of China in the east and westwards towards Europe’s Italy and France. France became the de facto centre of card design and printing in Europe. Even though many card-printing companies have been swallowed up in “Take-overs” names like Grimaud are synonymous with fine card decks. At the time that those old money cards were being used in China, the famous “Silk Road” trade routes were disseminating cultural ideas and technologies, despite the legally enforced restriction; and, bit by bit, via Japan in the 15th-18th centuries, where cards were rapidly translated into “home grown” versions like “Hanafuda” (the flower card game), a favourite of the Edo Period of woodblock prints Oiren and Geisha. Japan’s Shoguns like Tokugawa Ieyasu banned gambling with cards, in fact, they banned cards altogether, as part of their isolationist policy until the USA, via Commodore Perry, opened the country to trade by coercion. Before that, however, the Portuguese, who had established a foothold in an isolated port on the south coast, on their trips back to Europe brought cards as well as the more expensive products of Japan’s amazing crafts workers.The Indian Aspect
The cards that developed in India were, like their festivals and their chess games, ...huge! Some of the earlier Indian Chess Games had as many as 300 pieces... which included elephants and other animals - Chinese chess is actually: “Elephant Chess”. Like the reputation of Texas situated not far from the centre of the Americas, India does things big! It was the one place that Alexander The Great couldn’t in the end, defeat! With it’s Dhiwali festival, Kite festivals and overwhelming colours and scents, it’s cards were no different. They were, like playing cards in Europe of the renaissance, hand-painted for the rich and landed potentates. A typical Ganjifah, (see fig 1,F), deck could have as many as twelve suits with a King, Advisor and number cards from 1-10 in each one. In fact, whilst we are on the subject of men only suits, (numbers were treated as “male”), it is of interest to note that most decks didn’t have queens, (and some still don’t), until the introduction of the French standard deck.
C: THE TAROT AND OTHER DIVINATORY SYSTEMS
The first packs of cards in Europe, (early to mid 1300's), had the well-known 52 cards in four suits each with three court cards: king, knight, and Page, and were used for leisure and gambling, generally clandestinely. Some games used temporary trump cards or suits, like hearts... then someone had the bright idea of of adding an extra trump suit which gave rise to a new game: “Tarot” or “Tarock” which is played to this day far into the night behind closed doors in french cafes, a fact that I can personally testify to, as my friends in France and I would regularly have a tarot night with hot fresh bread, honey and cheese with a few bottles of various vintages... The Tarot Nouveau est Arrivé
At roughly the same time, late 1300's, an extra court card was added to the deck for each suit called a queen, and placed between the king and the knight, so that, with the extra 22 non-suited cards, a pack of 78 cards was created. The deck we are now familiar with, for most games, had the page card removed, and the ace promoted to the top position. This new 78 card deck provided the framework for a divinatory deck commonly referred to as” the tarot”, (thereby sowing confusion amongst many countries that don’t play “Tarot” as an ordinary game like “Bridge”), with each of the trump cards being ascribed an archetypal condition or quality, Like “Love”; “Judgement”; “The Magician” etc. - and the four “mundane” suits, of coins, batons, cups and swords being substituted for, respectively: diamonds, clubs, hearts and spades...”spades” for example, coming from: “Espada” or sword There are hundreds of card decks used for divination derived from the “Tarot” including, arguably, the most famous one: “The Ryder-Waite Deck” see fig 2, A. Just as there were, and are, different schools of thought in most areas of human knowledge, Tarot is no exception, and various of these schools, like the “Order of the Golden Dawn”, have produced their own versions. One noptable member of one of these Orders, a certain Aleister Crowley, with the help of the painter Lady Freda Harris, see fig 2, D, inset, produced a revolutionary deck called “The Thoth Tarot”, fig 2, D, which rearranged much of the juxtapositions and relationships within the deck. Fig 2, B shows a 15th century tarot, reminiscent of the work of the Limbourg Brothers who created the Tres Riches Heures du Duc Du Berry” a famous Medieval/ Renaissance manuscript to rival the book of Kells. Books of hours could be considered, obliquely, to be a forerunner to the tarot in that they depicted current thinking and knowledge of spiritual and temporal thought gathered in one volume.... Vive la Difference!
However, just as Christianity was not the only belief, neither was the patriarchal tarot and it’s variations the only divinatory card set. The Pagans and Wiccans, fig 2, E also had their sets in due course, as did those who believed in Angels guiding us, Fairies influencing our events, and those who were aware of guiding spirits from nature like Animal Totems, fig 2, C, in Native American theology. Books of divination were also converted into cards like the Chinese “I Ching” composed of 64 hexagrams, fig 2, F, which are consulted in pairs to provide guidance, (originally, to governors and rulers to help them to act wisely). There are many interpretations of this venerated guide which became popular in The West particularly in the “Flower Power” decades of the 60's and 70's with the introduction of Indian practices like Yoga and Meditation into those homes possessing well-trimmed lawns and a desire to keep up with the Jones’.... as well as the accompanying “Eastern Martial Arts” that were also manifest on card game decks and a vogue in the era of Civil Rights, Feminism and a fervour of “Revolution” with the ubiquitous, (then), poster of Che Guevara on everyone’s walls...Mix ‘n Match!
There are now hundreds of card decks used for divination, and more variations are being produced every day. Popular TV and Movie themes are often incorporated into their design. The proliferation of so many obviously, in certain cases, commercially oriented decks, has given rise to an understandable cynicism about much that is “New Age”.... In a world where people are more and more cynical about everday life, their government, and civil organisations - and the motives of so-called “green” companies and businesses, not to mention the recent financial crises and their consequences; ...many have turned back to “Spiritual” and “Alternative” beliefs and practices seeking for some or other verity to bolster their hopes for the future... The proliferation of divinatory practices testify to this....
Having made this start on the history and origins of cards and tarot decks let us return to them later after a little break to look at some of the lesser-known facts about our ubiquitous playing cards....
The 1350-ish Egyptian/Iraqi/Iranian Mamluk
deck, (Mamluk: A much-feared Moslem Warrior Clan), contained four "suits:" polo sticks (clubs), coins (diamonds), swords(spades), and cups (hearts). Each suit contained ten "spot" (number) cards and three "court" cards named Malik (King), Nā'ib Malik (Viceroy), and Thānī Nā'ib (Deputy-Viceroy). Following the dictates of the Moslem faith, the Mamluk court cards showed abstract designs ... ie: not depicting living beings. This deck has the most plausible claim as the ancestor of the 52 card deck particularly as now a 12th century version exists. The Italians refined this Mamluk deck creating the wands-coins-cups-batons configuration, and the court figures we recognise today....
With printing and mass distribution, cards became progressively cheaper and more accessible to all rather than merely the wealthy, and gambling became such an issue in many countries that many rulers and governments banned their use... unsuccessfully... The church, ...particularly, villified and condemned their use, they also, incidentally, called the “Tarot”: “The Devil’s Picture Book”
In 1423, Saint Bernadine of Sienna’s exhortations against the use of cards resulted in a public bonfire... where thousands of decks were burned.
The core elements of the deck and major suit systems were established by the end of the 15th century, the red and black colour scheme was invented in France for it’s clarity and readability and very little has changed since.
To prevent tax evasion, the Ace of Spades was held back by English Customs & Excise. The Ace was only issued once duty had been paid by the card makers. One man was even sentenced to death after forging an Ace of Spades!
In 15th century England, playing cards were forbidden by an Act of Parliament, except during the 12 days of Christmas.
In the 16th century, Henry the 8th felt that the use of cards was distracting his bowmen from training.
: In 18th century Holland, mothers would leave a card with an abandoned child to signify that fact. If the card was torn in half, it meant that the mother would someday return with her half of the card to claim the child. If the card was whole, it meant that the child was fully abandoned and the mother would not return.
Many theorists believe that the Freemasons concealed messages in the cards. For example, the Jack of Hearts holds a sprig of Acacia, which was used in Masonic rituals. (unproven...)
"Pharoah" or "faro" was a ubiquitous card-gambling game that used a "bank" or "shoe" to deal cards, in the Old West. In certain editions of the famous: "Hoyle’s Rules of Games" they began their faro section warning readers that: "...not a single honest faro bank could be found in the United States..."
In 1935 card manufacturers attempted to introduce a fifth, green suit called the "eagles" in the US and "crowns" in the UK. It is a dismal failure.
After the French revolution, in 1793, the authorities ban depictions of royalty on playing cards. Kings, queens and jacks became liberties, equalities and fraternities. This remains in force until , just over a decade later, Napoleon tells them: “don't be so stupid!”
: During the Vietnam war, US Soldiers received decks of cards containing nothing but Ace's of Spades in plain white cases. They were used in psychological warfare because The Viet Cong were very superstitious. The French had occupied Indo-China, and in French fortune-telling the Spades predicted death and suffering. These decks had , and The cards were deliberately scattered in the jungle and in hostile villages during raids.
Playing cards were also used for much more than playing games. For a long time, only the faces of cards were printed, leaving the backs blank. These blank backs were one of the most convenient sources of paper, so they were often written on and used as coupons, love letters, invitations, and even currency.
Most of the games played today are the descendants of those invented by the Spanish (bezique), the Italians (primero, which engendered ecarte, trumps and, ultimately, whist), the English (cribbage), the Uruguayans (canasta) and even the Amish (euchre).
D: THE MASS PRODUCTION OF CARDS
By the time that, in England, Victoria had departed and bequeathed us: All those tartans!, Puritanical Black Clothing, an ethic insisting that every Englishman should know their place, and the women even more so, a few bits of fancy lacework, not to mention sowing a “Princely” confusion in many, many, countries of the Empire... and many others besides!...., most of which I’ve never heard of, (Machiavelli would have been so proud!); progress in technology, particularly printing and mass production , had enabled the dissemination of cards as a household pastime par excellence. Society’s Study Books and Satire
Many of the illustrations on cards depicted the studious child, the hardworking father proud of his family and, in short, were designed to inculcate “Good Values” into those who played with them- at least that was the theory. With the widespread, and ever-widening, consumerism that wasn’t yet called that, wily manufacturers came up with the idea of advertising, subtly, by inserting cards into product packaging like cigarettes and tea, the two, almost universally consumed products of the 19th to 20th centuries in the UK. These cards were of course collectible, some of them had a playing card value on them, eg: 8 of spades, ace of diamonds, 10 of clubs - rather like the old South Sea Bubble cards of the early18th century, (first published in London by Thomas Bowles in 1720), that satirised the swindles and Share Trading that earned a very few a fortune, but made the majority miserable paupers (see fig 3, A) - including people who were poor already and were hoping to alleviate their life ....just a little bit...., that tiny bit that makes so much difference... as Jean-Baptiste wrote: “plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose”, (fr. things only ever change superficially). Cards satirising politicians or informing on many subjects from bird species in the UK, to a history of army uniforms were created to subliminally sell products and ideas.
In the fervour of 18th and 19th century philanthropy by the “enlightened wealthy”, like Ruskin, Peabody, Morris et al, cards also became part of the thrust to educate the poor who couldn’t afford books, never mind an actual education...Not “Getting Away From It All”
Pastimes in the 16th to 19th century were necessarily simple and usually required little in the way of material other than what can readily be found in ones environment at little or no cost. The advent of cards as a very cheap product that could be adapted to play many different games, changed the whole world of pastimes from a mostly physical affair: playing tag, hide and seek, cricket, rounders etc, (for the majority who couldn’t afford chess sets, go, mah jongg etc), to a more cerebral activity, which, I’m sure, helped prepare the ground for the advent of general public education that in an excruciatingly slow, grinding way, eventually arrived. As mass production arrived, or more truthfully, became more widespread and efficient, with the age of reason and the industrial revolution, peoples tastes expanded with a greater awareness of the world they lived in, plus the first notions of “holidays” arrived. These vacations were not for all however, and were often taken to “resorts” that were fairly close to the major industrial conurbations as the transportation infrastructure was just beginning to be implemented in the 1840's... Many people did have, however, bank holidays and holy days, the origin of “Holidays”, and often used cards as a way of enjoying some of this “time-off” The Rise and Rise of The Thin Rectangle...
More and more games were invented, particularly with the onset of the 19th century, including “Happy Families” fig 3, B. and other card-based games like dominoes, “snap”, “old Maid” and card decks based on those in neighbouring regions, relatively, like the Thai Pai playing cards, (see fig 4, A), made in Bangkok that are similar to the Chinese contemporary ones... and others derived from Chinese domino cards like the pictorial cardboard dominoes in fig 4, B... There were also decks that were designed to play a single, unique game. an aspect of cards that we shall now look at.
E: SINGLE-GAME CARD DECKSSingle Decks
The natural heir, (which pleased bankers and retailers very much for obvious reasons!), to the multi-use traditional decks, was the single-use deck. Naturally there were and are, those designers who like the idea of “the thin rectangle” as a medium. Some of these were also games designers, although, usually, the designer of the game seldom also created the graphics or illustrations; anyway, new games were devised like “Snap”, “Happy families”, “Donkey” and “Old Maid” etc, that captivated younger minds and were often produced in different themed versions according to the current favourites of the public like music hall artistes, circus folk, occupations, aeroplanes, sailing boats etc. Later, 2oth century decks would be themed with chibi’s, Mario Brothers and other video games, but, strangely enough, many of these were the same games that had been invented and played since the 18th and 19th centuries. The major toy and games companies produced various games using cards as the medium of play, or as a functioning section of games like the “Chance” cards in a property trading game, or “encounter” sets of actions that occur within rpg and other games.The “Golden Age” of Card Games
The “Golden Age” of card games was, very arguably, the 1950's - 1970's. There are several reasons for this: the second world war had ended, family life was returning to “Normal”, people were thinking more positively about having children, leisure hours of the working class was slowly ameliorating and resources that were consecrated to the war effort were now freed up for other more pacific purposes. A lot of people had travelled all over the world and had been influenced by, after being introduced to, foreign cultures.. and their games like go, mah jongg and the like. Thus, many games were based on international and exotic environments like smugglers, oriental secret societies, spies and general intrigue a la Ms Marples, “Raffles” and other heroes and villains. See bfig for some examples of these.
There were new games designed, some of which, like “UNO” were based on games that were already played with a standard deck, but with different qualities associated with various cards like”laying an “8" reverses the direction of play” etc. Uno codified and structured a set of variations into a single coherent game, one of the best-ever sellers... “Multiple” Decks (Trading cards and others)
The main genre of multiple deck games, ie “a deck that may be constructed from a “pool” of available cards” (that may or may not repeat), is “Trading Card” decks like “Magic”, “Yu-Gi-Oh” and similar types. Arguably, the most famous one is “Magic: The Gathering” published by Wizards of the Coast and designed by Richard Garfield who was a pre-doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania at the time. Magic was unique in being not only the first internationally popular contemporary trading card game, (the Chinese, omg! not them again! (afraid so....ed.) money game, mentioned earlier in this article, was said to have used real banknotes, thus the “cards” were, like trading cards, the game and the stake... simultaneously.), but also by recieving a patent for it’s “tapping” mechanism of upending cards to signify a “different state of being” There was a popular theory about playing this game that included the ideas that it helped “improve” the .mental acuity of participants and provided an alternative to drugs and violence...this was not proven, however, the game became so popular that the publishers founded a “Pro-Tour” with prizes of up to $40,000; and a fund was established to award educational Scholarships.
(NB: There were also many two deck games like “Canasta”, a S. American export, that used standard decks sold to play this specific game but could be used for other games. many of these had advertising on their backs, or scenes of interest / souvenir photos. These are therefore not “True” one game decks) “Indie” Decks
Another area of contemporary single use games are the proliferation of independent designers and games creators that, due to the internet, have a worldwide market at their fingertips and publicise their work via social networks and online communities like DeviantART. The author is one of those who have chosen this avenue of publication methods. There are “Print on Demand” sites that can produce prototypes for presentation at meetings and play-testing, as well as individual examples of decks that may be bought by interested gamers / card players, anywhere on the globe...almost... A few of these “Indie” decks are shown in fig 5 with the trading card games like “Magic”.... There are links included for deviants who may be attracted by the idea of producing their own card game, or sell a new version of a traditional game or 52 card deck. NB: Be careful of the game mechanics used in any card game you design as some are patented. However: many card designers “perch on the shoulders of giants, like any area of activity, so do use traditional concepts that are easily assimilated by new players...Fig 4, D, centre emulates the 1935 attempt to introduce a further green suit into the standard deck... will it work this time around?....
E: ART AND DESIGN CARD DECKS
Nowadays there is a vast market in cards including trading, indy and other types of playing cards that can be found in a bewildering array of themes from football players/colours, famous painters or genres like japanese woodblock prints (”Ukiyo-E “ or “Binjin”cards), decks based upon ships, seasons, flowers and almost anything else you can name and, which is the last thing we shall take a look at in part one of this article: Specially designed “Art Decks”. By “Art Decks” I mean standard 52 or 78 etc card decks with illustrations commissioned for them in whole or for each card. One of the most famous of these is “The Deck of Cards”, fig 5, which features 54 painters including the likes of Hockney and Allen Jones.... I was lucky enough to get no 243 of the original limited edition from the arts and crafts shop I was quite well-known at when I lived in Cambridge, UK. The range of this particular deck is phenomenal and it is still on sale in a standard edition type of plastic/layered deck. There are many artists like myself who have created new decks as much for the joy of decks as for the art of it... OK, That concludes our brief look at playing cards and tarot, but! we are by no means finished with our thin little rectangles! Part two holds even more unlikely and fun examples of art and artifice...
ALL USEFUL AND RELEVANT LINKS FOR THIS ARTICLE
WILL BE FOUND AT THE END OF PART TWO OF THIS ARTICLE
WHICH WILL BE POSTED IN THE NEAR FUTURE
THANK YOU! PETER.
Written by Peter-The-Knotter for the Art History ProjectJoin the Project
| AH Project Team