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.|
"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.
|© Cl. MFCJ / F. Doury|
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.