By Cindy Regnier
Many old western movies show us a scene depicting men around a poker table with a handful of cards, but playing cards go back way further in history than the American cowboy. People have been enjoying cards for centuries, though no one is quite sure where and when they originated. Some believe playing cards developed in China as far back as the 9th century. Others believe playing cards were developed alongside tile games like dominos or mahjong, or even have connections to chess or dice. There is even some speculation that playing cards served as “play money” for gambling games before eventually being integrated into the games themselves. Kind of like using toothpicks for the poker ante, I suppose.
The earliest confirmed record of playing cards is in the writings of a monk named Johannes in 1377. Johannes wrote about the variety of games possible with a deck of cards. However, those first decks were hand-painted, many very elaborately, and the number of cards per deck varied depending on the country and the games played.
Because of the skill and time involved in producing them, playing cards were mostly owned only by wealthy nobility. As they became more popular, new methods were found for quicker and cheaper production. When cards became popular in Germany among soldiers, the Germans began to produce them in large quantities and exported them all over Western Europe. The Germans changed the suits to custom images reflecting rural German life: Hearts, Leaves, Acorns and Bells. The Queens were replaced with a secondary Jack and the Aces were taken out making Twos the highest card, creating a 48-card deck.
During the early 15th century, the French played a part in the development of playing cards by developing the suit imagery we find on playing cards today. They were also the first to divide the suits into two colors, red and black. Simplifying the colors and symbols allowed playing card printers to create special stencils that drastically improved card manufacturing speeds.
19th century Americans mostly wanted cards from England to meet their demand. Some American makers even printed the word "London" on their Ace of Spades, just so people would buy them.
About 1860 American companies produced the first playing cards with numbers so a player didn’t have to count the emblems each time. Among American manufacturers, a leading name from the 1800s is Lewis I. Cohen, who began publishing playing cards in 1832. In 1835 he invented a machine for printing all four colors of the card faces at once. About 1860 American companies produced the first playing cards with numbers so a player didn’t have to count the emblems. This was called corner indices and made it easier for players to hold and recognize a poker hand by only fanning the cards slightly.
One final innovation that we owe to the United States is the addition of the Jokers. They are an innovation from around 1860 that designated a trump card for euchre games. The word euchre may even be an early ancestor of the word "Joker". A variation of poker around 1875 is the first recorded instance of the Joker being used as a wild card.
So next time you pick up that old familiar deck of Bicycles, think about all the history you’re dealing, bidding and shuffling. Pretty fun stuff, huh?
Scribbling in notebooks has been a habit of Cindy Regnier since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Born and raised in Kansas, she writes stories of historical Kansas, especially the Flint Hills area. Her experiences with the Flint Hills setting, her natural love for history, farming and animals, along with her interest in genealogical research give her the background and passion to write heart-fluttering historical romance.