Many of us are familiar with the standard European pack [AmE deck] of 52 playing cards which are used for playing both solitaire and competitive games. The pack is divided into four suits; hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs . What is the origin of playing cards? Why do the suits have these names? How did we standardise the design of the picture cards?
From history, we know that both Egyptians and Romans played number games. We have found numbered stones, used as dice, by Romans. Playing cards were first used in China during the 9th century. A woman from the Teng dynasty, in this period, published the first book of card games. By the 11th century, playing cards were used throughout Asia. Playing cards were used for informal games, gambling games and even for predicting the future.
Playing cards were introduced in Europe in the late 14th century, probably from Mamluk, Egypt. This pack of 52 Egyptian cards was organised in four suits; Swords, Sticks, Cups and Coins. In 1367, the authorities in Bern, Switzerland, passed a law making card games illegal. There is evidence of card games being played in Catalonia in 1371. Playing cards were being used widely in Europe from 1377.
Different European countries developed their own versions of the Egyptian cards, using different suits.
Countries Italy & Spain France Germanic Nations
Hearts cups coeur (heart) hearts
Spades swords pique (pike) acorns
• Diamonds money carreau (tile) bells
Clubs batons or clubs tréfle (clover leaf) leaves
We can see these examples of early Spanish cards from the 18th century, the King of Coins and the King of Clubs. These cards were designed to celebrate Spain’s overseas possessions.
The number cards were more simple. Here we can see the 9 of swords and the 9 of clubs.
Notice there were no letters or numbers on these cards.
First references to Playing Cards in Britain
It is very difficult to know when people in Britain started to use playing cards. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales  refers to people playing dice or dicing, but does not mention playing cards. If card games had been popular at this time, Chaucer would probably have mentioned them.
It is possible that playing cards were imported from mainland Europe because, in 1466, King Edward IV banned the import of “Cardes de Jouer”, or playing cards. This law was to protect English manufacturers, so we can assume that cards were being made in England from about 1450. In a letter written in 1484, Mary Paston describes playing “table card games.”
The evidence that playing cards were being used often comes from attempts to stop the games. In 1526, King Henry VIII, passed a law against “all unlawful games” including dice, cards and bowls. It seems that card games were often played at Christmas time, the only ‘free’ time which most families had. King Henry VIII loved gambling and often lost more money than he wanted.
There is evidence of widespread use of playing cards in England in about 1575, during the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. From this time, there were reports of people playing card games in small, rural towns outside London such as Stansted and Saffron Walden.
Origins of the English names for suits
The design of the English pack of playing cards is mostly based on French and Italian packs. The clothes worn by the characters on the picture cards reflects a stylised version of royal robes during the 16th century.
Hearts is a simple translation of the French suit, coeur.
• Diamonds is more complicated. It is a translation of the French word, carreau, meaning a floor tile. But why should a floor tile be a replacement for coin, or money? In medieval times, decorated ceramic tiles were used by rich people to decorate and add colour to their palaces and castles. Tiles were an indication of wealth.
Spades is also a translation. This time it is an attempt to copy the Italian word, spade, meaning a sword.
Clubs has a more complicated history. The meaning is connected with sticks, bastone. In the early designs for this suit, the stick or club was shown as if it had been cut from a living tree. The icon for this suit is derived from the leaves growing from the stick or club.
What is a ‘knave’?
In some packs of playing cards, the second male member of the ‘royal’ family of picture cards is considered to be the ‘prince’, the son of the king and queen. In fact, a knave is a servant. In French, this card is called valet, meaning a male servant. In everyday speech, the knave is often called the jack and we can see the letter J on the card. Jack is an old English word meaning a person of ‘low’, or non-aristocratic birth. William Shakespeare makes a contrast between gentlemen and jacks.
The Joker is an extra card added to the pack of 52 playing cards. It is usually a decorated card with a picture of a clown or jester. The Joker is a very lucky card, because, in some games, it can be used as a substitute for any other card in the pack.
If we look at modern playing cards, we can see that they are ‘double-headed’ so that the top and the bottom of the cards are identical. Notice also the edge markings of the cards so that their value can be seen even when the cards are ‘fanned’ in the player’s hand.
The reverse of all cards in a pack is printed with the same simple design. This is so that, when ‘face down’, it is impossible to distinguish one card from another. Cards printed on stiff card and covered with plastic can be used for many years without any noticeable damage.
Computer based card games
Traditional card designs are also used in computer-based games. These include a wide variety of ‘solitaire’ games for single players.
There are also many internet websites where players can play against distant opponents. Currently, these websites focus on casino-style gambling games such as poker and blackjack. There are also a few sites where players can play for simple enjoyment which do not involve money.
Today, cards are printed in a size so a collection, a ‘hand’ of cards, is easy to hold in one hand. They are printed on stiff card which is covered with plastic so that the cards are durable and can slide over each other very easily.
This makes it easier to ‘shuffle’ the cards: mix them up into a random sequence. Before a game is played, usually one player will shuffle the pack. Another player will ‘cut’ the pack by taking some cards from the top of the pack and moving them to the bottom of the pack.
For hundreds of years, playing cards have generated hours of simple enjoyment for families and groups of friends. In many families, children learn to assess and organise the resources in their ‘hand’. They learn to ‘take turns’ as they play. They learn to observe how their opponent is playing. Finally, when the game reaches its conclusion, they learn how to win or how to lose gracefully.
Nick Dawson 2013