A History Of Playing Cards

Ray Allen

A History Of Playing Cards

Playing cards is one of the most common practices of entertainment in modern society. Everyone can play cards, it doesn’t really matter from which social class they come from. Though, this is only about modern society. Did you know that the humble deck of cards was once a luxury only the aristocracy could afford?

Cards have a history just like everything else has. It has been part of the culture for at least eight countries and 1200 years.

History Of Initial Technology

The concept, and the technology of making the paper they are printed on, probably originated in China around the end of the first millennium. It was during the Tang dynasty of the 9th century AD, a Princess Tongchang is said to have played the “leaf game”. The leaf game is most probably the older version of domino rather than the modern cards. It was already one century after when Emperor Mu-Tsung is said to be shuffling and dealing with the real cards.

Though this happened quite early in China, cards did not arrive in Europe until the mid-14th century either in Islamic Spain or as the result of trade between the Mamluks of Egypt and Italy. By this time they were already in something like their current form. It’s reasonable to assume that the basic mechanics of cards – the four-suit system, royalty, and for sure the concept of taking tricks – were established either in India or the Middle East.

As far as in the past there did not exist any technology of printing or production, the first year of cards arrival, they were painted by hand. Due to the reason that all of them were handmade, they were quite expensive and consequently the meaning of luxury only the aristocracy and high-class representatives could afford. As the demand increased and new technologies were introduced by Germans, with the hardware easily obtained, consequently they were affordable by all classes.

The First Comers

The very first pack that was issued and introduced to society, consisted of four suits. Those coups were cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks. Moreover, the first edition does not offer us any female faces on the illustration of the cards. It was mid-15th-century France, where card fever really took hold, that invented the suits and court cards that most countries use today.

Britain appeared to be the latest comer to the games. The first recorded mention of cards is in a statute prohibiting their importation in 1463. But here too the law failed to contain the new craze, and by 1629 British card manufacturers had their own union.

By the end of the 16th century, there were already plenty of card games known to the public. By the mid-16th century, the French writer Rabelais could name around 35 different card games. The games played today are the descendants of diversions invented by the Spanish the Italians, the Brits, Uruguayans, and even the Amish.

There were further contributions to the development of the card games. The New World pilgrims were manufacturing their own decks within decades of arriving, and it was American devotees who gave us rounded edges, the joker card (originally a special card in the game called euchre), the process of lamination, and dozens of games including the most famous out of all, poker.

The Most Dominant Moments


Cards are invented in China, during the Tang dynasty. The first packs are the representation of currencies mostly, coins, strings of coins, myriads of strings, and tens of myriads which suggests they may have been derived from actual money.

Early 14th century

This is probably the moment when cards arrived in Europe. They have traveled from China via India and the Middle East, and specifically with the Mamluks of Egypt.


First documentary evidence of cards in Spain. In a Catalan rhyming dictionary, of all places.


First instructions given on how to play cards in Europe, provided by a Swiss monk named John of Rheinfelden.


Cards spread all over the world.


The first payment with cards is recorded. The payment was for the painting, recorded by Charles or Charbot Poupart, the treasurer of the household of Charles VI of France.


Johann Gutenberg invented the first printer or printable press. This affects the printing of the cards instead of illustrating them by hand and thus encourages the mass production of cards, making it affordable for everyone.


The earliest reference to cards in Britain. Those references are mostly regarding the banning, as an evil of gambling or notices of arrests for playing cards.


The four suits now commonly seen worldwide are first used in France, adapted from the German suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns.

The 1500s

Card-makers make the most common illustration of cards, known today.


The first attempt to come up with the authoritative rules for cards and dice involving games.


The first paper money is issued in North America.


First systematic tax on packs of cards introduced.


Post-revolutionary French authorities ban the depictions of royalty on playing cards. Kings, queens, and jacks became liberties, equalities, and fraternities.


First documented the game of poker on a Mississippi river steamer.

The Mid-1800s

Card names abbreviated and placed in the corner for the first time. The first introduction of the joker.

Early 20th century

Canasta is invented in South America and it becomes globally popular after WW2.


In a New York club, ET Baker invents gin rummy. It catches on in Hollywood, and subsequently the world, in the 1940s.


Soldiers also took up card gaming. Pontoon is the game of choice among soldiers in first world war trenches.


Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, on a cruise from San Francisco to Havana, perfects the rules of contract bridge, which becomes the most popular card game in the west.


There was an attempt to introduce the fifth suit called “eagle”, which would have been the color of green. It was supposed to happen in the US and the UK. The attempt failed.

Cards have a huge history and they still carry the spirit of the old centuries when the games were actually invented.