Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pick a card, any card

The incredibly inexpensive but image-laden volume Collectible Playing Cards will pique the curiosity of anyone interested in art—or the use of playing cards, whether the approach be cartomancy, card-sharpery, or good old-fashioned fun. Many of the illustrations (such as the 18th-century Portrait Figures of Bourgogne at left) come from the Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer, which has 6500 decks in their collection.
The ancestors of modern cards came to Europe in the late 14th century. Very expensive, they were made by hand, one at a time. Before modern printing, woodcuts were also used. The four suits (hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs) currently seen in most of the world originated in France. German suits are hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns, while Spanish and Italian decks use clubs, coins, swords, and cups. The court cards (king, queen, knight, and knave) remained full-length until the 19th century, when double-ended courts were introduced by Victorian manufacturers. The rationale was that opponents could infer things from the way you turned your cards around.
From the WOPC (World of Playing Cards) website.
Jokers began as substitutes for lost cards; now many people collect them. The early Jokers above by Charles Goodall & Son, London, were produced during the 1870s-1890s. The intricate designs and manufacturer's logos often displayed on the Ace of Spades began under the reign of England's James I, who passed a law requiring an insignia on that card as proof of payment of a tax on local manufacture. 

"Transformation" decks, sometimes called "harlequin cards" (left), have suit symbols  integrated cleverly and seamlessly into the design. The image below is from the "Vanity Fair" set, first published in 1895 by the US Playing Card Company.
 Some cards became rounded, as in these "Mogul Ganjifa" cards from India, 20th century.
© Cl. MFCJ / F. Doury
In Japan, the Nintendo company was famed for their cards long before they ventured into game design.
These early 19th-century tarot cards come from Besançon, France.

It wasn't until the 1900s that offset printing enabled complex, decorative designs to adorn the backs of cards. After that, the sky was the limit... poodles, horseracing, geographical vistas, Black Power, every souvenir the advertising mind could dream up. Have you ever collected card decks as a hobby? I think it would be a hoot.

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