A Brief History of Playing Cards


Did you know that at one time, the king of hearts represented Charlemagne, the king of Diamonds was Julius Caesar, the king of clubs was Alexander the Great and the king of spades was King David from the Bible? These fascinating identities, along with special designations for the other court cards, were bestowed by the French who were instrumental in bringing the pleasures of card play to people in Europe and the New World.

The earliest playing cards are believed to have originated in Central Asia. The documented history of card playing began in the 10th century, when the Chinese began using paper dominoes by shuffling and dealing them in new games. Four-suited decks with court cards evolved in the Moslem world and were imported by Europeans before 1370. In those days, cards were hand-painted and only the very wealthy could afford them, but with the invention of woodcuts in the 14th century, Europeans began mass-production

It is from French designs that the cards we use today are derived. France gave us the suits of spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts, and the use of simple shapes and flat colors helped facilitate manufacture. French cards soon flooded the market and were exported in all directions. They became the standard in England first, and then in the British Colonies of America.

Americans began making their own cards around 1800. Yankee ingenuity soon invented or adopted practical refinements: double-headed court cards (to avoid the nuisance of turning the figure upright), varnished surfaces (for durability and smoothness in shuffling), indexes (the identifying marks placed in the cards’ borders or corners), and rounded corners (which avoid the wear that card players inflict on square corners).

Americans also invented the Joker. It originated around 1870 and was inscribed as the "Best Bower," the highest card in the game of Euchre. Since the game was sometimes called "Juker," it is thought that the Best Bower card might have been referred to as the "Juker card" which eventually evolved into "Joker." By the 1880s, certainly, the card had come to depict a jocular imp, jester or clown. Many other images were also used, especially as Jokers became vehicles for social satire and commercial advertising. Similarly, the backs of cards were used to promote ideas, products and services, and to depict famous landmarks, events — and even fads.

During this same period, cycling — on unicycles, bicycles, and tricycles — was taking the country by storm. It was also in the latter part of the decade that Russell & Morgan, the forerunners of the United States Playing Card Company, decided to produce a line of cards of the highest quality. Employees were asked to suggest an attractive name for the new product, and a printer, "Gus" Berens, offered "Bicycle." His idea was enthusiastically accepted, and the Rider Back made its debut in 1887. Since then, while the Bicycle brand has featured dozens of different designs, the Rider Back has never gone out of production.

Today, people all over the world are familiar with the traditional red or blue back showing cupid astride a two-wheeler. The brand has become synonymous with quality and is still "the world’s favorite playing card."