The Origin of Playing Cards

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Sitting in most homes is a deck of playing cards.

Cards and card games have become almost ubiquitous They are played by children and in retirement homes. They are played at family picnics, and there are also televised games played with millions of dollars on the line. 

You can play games with friends, or you can even play them by yourself.

Despite how common they are, most people don’t realize that they have a very ancient heritage. 

Learn more about the origin of playing cards on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The first thing that we could call a game that resembles cards comes from the land which invented both paper and printing: China.  This should not come as a surprise to any long-time listeners of this podcast.

These first card games weren’t really cards like we know them today. They weren’t stiff cards so much as they were just sheets of paper. They also weren’t necessarily in a deck, nor were they organized by suits. 

The earliest reference we have comes from text from the year 868 in the Tang Dynasty from a writer known as Su E. He writes of the daughter of the Emperor, Princess Tongchang, playing a game known as the ‘leaf game.’

We don’t know exactly what the rules of the game were, and it might not even have been exclusively a paper game. Other writers later wrote about it being a game also played with dice and that the leaves in question were just pages of a book.

Some researchers think the first games with paper might have just used paper money, which originated in China. This could have been how cards were associated with a rank or a number. The number was what the paper note was worth. 

Playing cards in China evolved in its own way, starting around the 11th and 12th centuries. They created stiffer pieces of paper that could be handled like actual cards and developed different types of cards. Domino cards were developed, which were very similar to regular dominos, except in card form. 

The path we need to follow to get to the modern-day playing card takes us, not surprisingly, through the Middle East. As with so many Chinese inventions, they were taken west by Islamic traders. Around the 11th Century, playing cards were common in much of the Islamic world.

Persia and Arabia had cards that started to show similarities to the cards we have today. Cards were divided into groups of four suits, with twelve cards in each suit. There would be ten numbered cards, pip cards, and then a card with a king and a vizier card. 

Cards became further developed when they moved west to Mamluk Egypt. The oldest existing playing cards found are a set of Mamluk cards found in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. They were discovered after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and sultan. 

These cards are clear ancestors of modern playing cards. They have four suits: polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit had 13 cards. Ten numbered cards plus three royal cards: the king, the viceroy, and the under-deputy. 

While the royal cards were given those names, there were no images on the cards due to the Islamic prohibition against depicting images of people. 

At some point, playing cards were brought to Europe. We don’t know exactly when or where it happened, but they almost certainly came to Europe via the Islamic world. 

The earliest mention of playing cards in Europe comes from an edict in Bern, Switzerland, in 1367, which banned playing cards. Likewise, a ban on playing cards was enacted in the city of Florence, Italy, in 1377. 

A Swiss monk, known only as Johannes, also wrote in 1377 about the various games that could be played with cards.

Certainly, playing cards must have been quite popular well before 1367 if they made it all the way to Switzerland and if they caused enough problems to result in a ban. 

There are many mentions of playing cards appearing in the records around the same time in the late 14th century. 

There were also changes to the suits from the Mamluk playing cards. Different parts of Europe developed different types of suits. 

In Italy and Spain, the four suits were cups, coins, clubs, and swords.

In Germany, it was hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves. 

In France, it was clovers, tiles, hearts, and pikes. 

The other changes had to do with the royal cards. The king, for the most part, remained the same. The viceroy became a queen, and the under-deputy became a knight, or sometimes a knave. 

Some 15th-century decks actually had 56 cards with both the knight and the knave. 

As playing cards were taking off in Europe in the early 15th century, something else was happening that dramatically facilitated their spread: printing. 

Many of the first centers of printing in Europe, in particular Ulm and Augsburg, also had printers that specialized in playing cards. 

These printed cards didn’t require the fancy movable type printing presses of the type that Gutenberg developed. These were just simple wood block presses, although there were some fancier decks that were hand-painted.

France took another major step towards modern cards in the 15th century when they divided up the suits by color. Hearts and tiles were red, and clovers and pikes were black. 

Despite the early popularity of card printers in Germany, it was French playing cards that eventually became the most popular in Europe. The French suits were kept the same but given different names in English. Pikes became spades, clovers became clubs, and tiles became diamonds. 

In the 16th century, French cards developed some unique features which still exist in playing cards today. Each of the royal cards were given a unique personality. 

For example, the image for each king was modeled after a famous historical king. King David was Spades, Alexander the Great was Clubs, Charlemagne was Hearts, and Julius Caesar was Diamonds.

For the queens, the Greek goddess Pallas Athena was Spades, Judith from the Old Testament was Hearts, Jacob’s wife Rachel also from the Bible was Diamonds, and the queen of Clubs is known as Argine. There is no queen Argine, but it is an anagram for the Latin word “regina” which means queen. 

For the knaves, Hearts were represented by La Hire, who was a French general during the Hundred Years War. Spades were Charlemagne’s knight Ogier, Diamonds were Hector of Troy, and clubs were represented by Lancelot.

The word ace comes from a Latin word by way of French. The original Latin word was “as” which is the word for “single undivided unit,” and it was the name of a Roman coin. The French used the word to describe the side of a die with just one pip on it. 

As the lowest card in a deck also had just a single pip, the word carried over from dice into cards. 

In the late 17th century, another innovation came to playing cards when small abbreviations were placed in the upper right-hand corner. This allowed for cards to be held in just one hand in a fan shape, yet they could still be read. 

1628 saw the creation of a guild of playing card manufacturers in London known as the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards. They are one of London’s 110 livery companies which are guilds. The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards still exists today and has 150 members.

The 18th century saw the development of the reversible royal cards. Previously, players would have to turn royal cards around, which was a giveaway as to the type of cards they held. 

The French Revolution saw a change in the value of the ace. Traditionally it was always the lowest card, but having gotten rid of their king, the French began to use it in games where the ace was now higher than the king. 

Today, aces can be high or low, depending on the game. 

Speaking of aces, did you ever wonder what is so special about the ace of spades?

The British declared a stamp tax on all playing cards. Beginning in 1765, each printing house had to show it paid the tax in the deck and on one card in particular: the ace of spades. After a change in the law in 1862, many printers began to create elaborate ace of space cards where they would  put their logo.

So, if you ever wondered what Lemmy from Motorhead was singing about, it was an 18th and 19th-century British tax on playing cards. 

The tax on playing cards in Britain existed until 1960.

One final 18th-century innovation was rounded corners. This was simply a measure that was taken because sharp corners tended to wear out faster. Worn-out corners make it easier to mark and spot cards.

The 19th century saw the development of many of the printing quirks that are on today’s cards. The king of hearts, for example, is the only king without a mustache. No one is sure why, but the most common explanation is that it was a printing error that stuck. 

Likewise, the king of hearts is usually shown with a sword pointing at his head. Known as the ‘suicide king,’ it actually shows the king with his sword raised behind his head. Before this point, the king of hearts had an ax instead of a sword. 

There were two 19th-century innovations in playing cards that came from the United States

The first was the change in name of the knave card to the jack. The knave had always informally been called “jack,” which is just a generic nickname for a man, like in the phrase Jack-of-all-trades. 

In 1864, the American Samuel Hart published a deck of cards where the initial in the corner was a “J”. This caught on because it was clearer than having a confusing Kg for King and Kn Knave. 

The other American innovation occurred around the same time. It was the inclusion into the deck of a new card called the joker. 

It was included mostly for the game of euchre, which was a European game that had spread to the United States in the late 18th century. Today the joker is usually where the printer’s logo is placed in modern decks. 

Because the joker doesn’t have the historical lineage that the other cards do, card printers have far greater artistic variation in how they make the joker. 

One thing I haven’t mentioned so far is the backs of playing cards. Cards all used to have a uniform white back. The problem was even the slightest bit of dirt would make it very easy to mark cards. 

This led to more elaborate designs, and in the 19th century, photos were often used. 

The back of the card is the one area where manufacturers can individualize their products. Today most backs of cards are a geometric pattern, colored either red or blue. 

The deck as we know it was firmly established by the late 19th century. Most of the innovations in playing cards came in the area of printing and security. 

Today, the single largest manufacturer of playing cards, by a wide margin, is the US Playing Card Company. They purchased almost all of their competitors and still operate many of their brands, including Bicycle, Bee, Tally-Ho, Congress, Aviator, Aristocrat, Mohawk, Maverick, KEM, Hoyle, and Fournier. 

By far, the biggest consumer of playing cards is casinos. They will often order their own customized decks of cards. Most blackjack tables will only use a deck of cards for two to twenty-four hours, depending on the number of decks in use and the policy of the casino.

This security procedure ensures that no cards become marked or damaged. 

The Las Vegas, Nevada casinos will collectively use 27 million decks of playing cards every year. 

Playing cards have become something that almost everyone can relate to. They can be used for fun or for gambling millions of dollars. While playing a game of cards, few people realize that the cards in their hands are part of a set of traditions that go back over 1,000 years. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener ITwastoken, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. He writes:

A truly all-time great

It’s increasingly difficult to write a 5-star review for this podcast, given its immense success and the great intellect of its loyal following. It’s almost impossible to listen to one episode and not start listening to all of them. An alluring delivery mixed with unbeatable content cooked to perfection with great technical production at just the right amount of time. Like a master chef, Gary has cracked the code for a truly all-time great podcast.

I love podcasts. Since discovering them, I have gone through a lot of shows due to an insatiable eclectic appetite for knowledge. I usually devote time exclusively looking for episodes to add to my feed, which I later listen to before looking for some more. Since discovering Everything Everywhere Daily, my feed has gotten stalled because for every good episode I find, I have to listen to 4 of Gary’s episodes. I think I’ve even started to infect some of the people around me with my condition.

It started small, but now I’m up to 65 old episodes from other shows that are waiting for me to finish listening to my daily dose of Everything Everywhere Daily. I feel like I owe an apology to those other shows, but to be honest, I just can’t get enough of Gary’s. I’m sorry, people. It’s all Gary’s fault. With that said, keep up the great work. Unwilling followers like me can’t do anything but listen to your show daily, in triple and quadruple portions.

Thanks, Itwastoken! The first step is admitting you have a problem. Steps 2-12 are just listening to the episodes over and over. There really is no cure.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.