At any party or get-together, fun card games for adults are guaranteed to put everyone in a good mood. After all, pretty much everyone owns at least one basic deck of cards!

But have you ever wondered about the history of your humble deck of playing cards?

Playing cards have been around for over 1,000 years and have traveled across the world to get where they are today. And throughout that time, they've gone through many changes big and small.

But get this:

Yet throughout all of this time, you might be surprised to learn how little has actually changed.

So where did the modern playing card deck actually originate? And what role has this deck of cards played throughout history?

The World's First Playing Cards

In truth, nobody really knows where the first playing cards originated. But we do have some theories.

Why don't we know when the first playing cards appeared?

Well, playing cards have pretty much always used paper. And, unfortunately, paper isn't known to withstand the wear-and-tear of over 1,000 years.

"In order to win you must be prepared to lose sometime. And leave one or two cards showing."

 -- Van Morrison

Most historians believe that the first playing cards, at least those that closely resembled the cards we use today, first appeared in Asia or the Middle East.

We don't have solid proof that any one civilization invented the playing card. However, there are two important facts that point to China as the most likely origin point:

  • The Chinese were the first to invent paper (needed to make said cards)
  • The earliest written mention of playing cards comes from Ancient China

The first written reference to playing cards dates back to the Tang Dynasty. In 868, Su E wrote about Princess Tong Cheng and her husband playing a "leaf game."

Let's look at the evidence:

Although China seems to be the most likely inventor of the humble playing card, most scholars believe that Arabs were ultimately responsible for introducing this pastime to the Western world.

Why?

Arab traders likely picked up playing cards and even some games from the Chinese, Koreans, Indians, and other Asian cultures. When trading spices, fabrics, and other valuable goods to their European customers, the Arab traders also passed along the concept of playing cards.


Through this slow process, playing cards would eventually gain immense popularity in Italy, England, Germany, and other European countries.

Playing Cards Make Their Way To Europe And The Americas

While we can trace back the use of playing cards in China to the mid-800's, we don't have proof of playing cards in Europe until the 1300s.

And it would be another century or so before renditions of the modern suits — hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs — would appear on some decks.

Did you know?

The first written mention of playing cards in Europe was actually a ban on said cards in the village of Bern, Switzerland

As the idea of playing cards spread across Europe and, eventually, the United States, different artists and card makers used different designs.


Knowing this:

How did we get from this point to the modern deck that we all know today?

deck of card

Cards travel to the boot

While playing cards have gone through many iterations, the 52-card has been popular since the beginning. This deck also featured four different suits.

However, the first suits were not those we know today.

Instead, these suits included swords, clubs, cups, and coins. Most historians attribute these suits to Italy.

In fact:

These suits are still used in Italian and Spanish decks to this day.

Italy was also the first known user of face cards that resemble our playing cards today. But instead of a Jack, these decks featured a Knave (a type of royal servant).

Down the road... the Knave would eventually be swapped for the Jack to avoid confusing this card with the King.


As one of the first European adopters of playing cards, Italy viewed these items as decadent, luxury goods only belonging to the upper class.

"Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well."

 -- Jack London

Eventually, as happens with many trends, playing cards began to be mass-produced and sold to the lower classes.


While these versions were not as intricate and decorative as those used by the upper classes, it was the popularity among the working class and soldiers that would allow playing cards to spread to the rest of Europe.

The land of knockwurst and schnitzel


Germany was the next European country to leave its mark on the playing card. As Italian card decks moved into Germany, typically in the hands of soldiers, they grew in popularity and Germany began to print its own versions.

Instead of the swords, clubs, cups, and coins used in the Italian decks, Germany created its own suits: bells, leaves, hearts, and acorns.

Also, Germany did away with the Queen and instead included the King and two Knaves to fill out their deck's court cards.

And that's not all:

Custom decks were also extremely popular in Germany during this time. Like our novelty decks today that feature cartoon characters, animals, and other images, these decks were tailored to the owner's hobbies or occupation.


But Germany's biggest contribution to the history of playing cards actually came in the form of making cards.


With printing technology that used carved wood blocks to create playing cards faster than ever before, Germany became one of the leading card manufacturers and exporters in the world.

screening deck of card

Skipping over to croissants and berets...

While Italy and Germany were the first major adopters of the playing card, France is where the suits and face cards used today first appeared.

Here's what happened:

Until the 1400s, playing cards were intricately painted or printed in full color. French card makers came up with the idea to divide the four-suit deck into two clear, easy-to-read colors:

There are many theories about why the suits of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs became the go-to choice in most of Europe and the United States. But the most popular theory is that they represented the social classes of the time:

  • Spades represented the nobility
  • Hearts represented the clergy
  • Diamonds represented the merchants
  • Clubs represented the peasants

While there's no real way to confirm this theory, it's a neat origin story for the suits we all know today.

"I want to lay all my cards out on the table and walk away with no regrets."

-- Katarina Johnson-Thompson

In France, card makers also focused on developing the court (or face) cards. It was common practice to assign different religious or historical figures to each of these cards, and we still see some of this symbolism in our face cards today.

France might have helped develop modern suits and face cards, but different regions still had their own unique decks.

Cards march for tea


Around 1480, playing cards from Belgium and France made their way across the sea to England.


For around 400 years, most playing cards in England were imported from Belgium or France or printed by small independent card makers in Britain.

abandoned plantation

But all that changed:

In the 1800s, a British man named Thomas de la Rue developed a cheap and efficient way to mass-print playing cards.

And since he was able to sell his decks for less than the competition, his decks were soon the most popular on the market.

While independent card printers had developed their own design for centuries, these mass-produced cards would eventually drive them out of business.

And believe it or not:

The designs used by Thomas de la Rue in the 1800s are still used in most playing card decks today.

And they traveled across the pond


We have one more stop in history before our modern deck of cards is complete.

In the United States, euchre was an extremely popular game.


Originally, some decks included a "Best Bower" card just for this game. But eventually, in the 1870s, this card was replaced by the Joker.


Over the course of the next decade, the Joker card made its way back to England and the rest of Europe.


While not a part of the standard 52-card deck, you'll find these cards in pretty much any French-based deck you can find today.

Playing Cards And Power

Most of the playing card's history involves changes in design and printing methods.

But playing cards have also had major social influence throughout history.


And get this:


Two of the most interesting examples of this are the use of tarot cards and the role of politics in playing cards.

Tarot cards

Believe it or not, tarot cards were around for hundreds of years before they were picked up by the occult.

Historians believe that tarot cards started out just like any other playing cards. These cards were likely traded and used to play games throughout the Middle East before appearing in Europe.

According to what we know about the first tarot cards, they were used together with numbered playing cards to play a game called tarocchi (derived from the French word tarot).

And that's not all:

In addition to more traditional card games, these cards were also used to make playful predictions about other players at the table.

"Last night I stayed up late playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died."

-- Steven Wright

But in 1781, French and English occult followers began using the symbolic pictures on tarot cards to practice more serious divination.


And as you may know:


Those who believed in the fortune-telling properties of tarot cards claimed that these cards were remnants from an Egyptian holy book. But countless historians refute these claims.


The truth is:


While the history of tarot cards might not be as mystical as you imagined, these cards have played a major role in how we understand magic and religion throughout time.

"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the game."

- Randy Pausch

Politics and playing cards


Politics and playing cards are surprisingly intertwined.


In early Europe, court cards regularly depicted the nation's current king, queen, and other royalty in place of generic figures.


Some historians even call these playing cards some of mankind's first political cartoons.

Once the 15th century came to a close, though, card makers began printing historical figures in place of the current aristocracy. And, eventually, these designs returned to generic royal figures.


But this wasn't the end of political influence on the playing card deck.

cards neatly lined up

The High Ace

Some claim that during the French Revolution the Ace was re-assigned to the highest deck position. This bumped the King from the highest position — an extremely symbolic change given the times.

While some cases of the Ace as high-card predate the French Revolution, it's quite possible that this practice grew in popularity during the uprising.

The Ace of Spades

Speaking of the Ace, why do we consider the Ace of Spades to be (often) the highest card in the deck?

For much of history, playing cards went hand-in-hand with vices like drinking and smoking. And these items are subject to hefty taxes from the overseeing government.


But then:


After the English government passed a tax act requiring that playing cards could not leave their factory until appropriate taxes had been paid. It was the Ace of Spades of each deck that received a handstamp as proof of tax payment.


In 1828, the government took this one step further and required that all Ace of Spades come from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties to stop tax evasion.


But some things stick:


And while these laws changed a few decades later, the Ace of Spades is still the highest card in the deck to this day.

Ancient Card Games We Still Play Today

What are some of your favorite card games?


Chances are, there are some classics in that list:


  • Poker
  • Blackjack
  • Cribbage
  • Euchre
  • Gin-rummy

Well, did you know that all of these card games have historical roots? That's right, these classic card games have been around for much longer than your grandparents' weekly poker night!

card of ace

image via Unsplash​

Poker

Poker is one of the most popular card games out there. And it hasn't just become popular in recent decades.

“I don't gamble, if you will concede that poker is a game of skill.”

- Robert A. Heinlein

There are two popular origin stories for this game:


  • A domino game played in 10th-century China
  • A card game, called As Nas, played in 16th-century Persia

More recently, poker dates back to the French game of Poque. This game spread across Europe and over to the French colonies, such as Louisiana, which officially became a part of the United States in 1803.


Between the French and English settlers of this territory, modern poker began to take shape. Over time, the game went from a three-card hand to a five-card hand and adopted the 52-card deck that we currently use.


From the Louisiana territory, poker spread with the boat crews traveling up and down the Mississippi River.

"The cardinal sin in poker is becoming emotionally involved."

-- Katy Leder

Eventually, the game of poker found its way to its most famous home: the Western Saloon.


Way back when:


Soldiers in the Civil War and both World Wars carried playing card decks and enjoyed games of poker when they had time to spare.


And, in the 1970s, Texas Hold'em became the most popular poker variety when it was included in the annual World Series of Poker.


Here's how to play:

playing blackjack

image via Pixabay

Blackjack

Blackjack is another wagering card game with a rich history.

Most experts believe that blackjack began in France or Spain, with the games Vingt-et-Un ("twenty-one") or One and Thirty, respectively.

And since cards apparently travel:

Like the game of Poque moved over to the United States with French colonists, so did the game of Vingt-et-Un. While the rules varied slightly, this game shared the same basic setup with our blackjack of today.

Vingt-et-Un spread throughout the United States, again, much like poker, and continued to be a popular pastime among soldiers and workers looking to past the time.


Then, in 1931...


Nevada legalized gambling. This is where and when blackjack's popularity really took off.

"Las Vegas is the only place I know where money really talks – It says, Goodbye."

-- Frank Sinatra

The name "blackjack" comes from a special rule cooked up by the casinos:


Hold both black Jack cards in your hand and your bet will pay out 10-to-1.


This rule didn't last long (probably because the casinos grew tired of paying out) but the name stuck around.


Ever been to Vegas?

Cribbage

An English poet invented the game of cribbage in the 1600s.

This man, Sir John Suckling, took inspiration from an older card game called Noddy.

However, the scoring board commonly used with cribbage predates both the games of cribbage and Noddy. This board, now often called a cribbage board, was first used to score countless pub games before it was appropriated for this new game.

And again:

Like poker and blackjack spread to the United States with French colonizers, cribbage crossed the pond in the hands of English colonizers.


While cribbage remained fairly consistent throughout U.S. history, some changes did occur. The most obvious is the switch from a five-card to a six-card hand.


Fast-forward to today:


Cribbage leagues get together across the United States and cribbage is the only game you can legally wager on in an English pub.


Here are the basics:

cards piled up

image via Unsplash

Euchre

As we mentioned above, the game of euchre is the reason for our modern Joker cards. But where did the game itself first emerge?

Most historians credit the Spanish game of Triomphe or the German game of Juckerspiel as being the inspiration for modern euchre.

Europeans first played euchre in the 1700s, and from this point, the game would grow rapidly.

Euchre followed French settlers to the Louisiana territory, spread up the Mississippi, and the rest is card game history!

Did you know?

Euchre was the most popular card game in the United States 100 years ago!

Gin-rummy

Unlike the other card games on our list, which all originated in Asia or Europe, gin-rummy has roots in Central America.

The most likely predecessor to this card game is the 17th century Mexican game of Conquian.

From Mexico, this card game spread up through Texas and eventually throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

But then, in the 19th century:


Gin-poker was a popular city card game, with games hosted in barber shops and saloons. This game used a different scoring system than what we would eventually know as gin-rummy.


But the two games otherwise share much in common.


Finally, in the 20th century, a father-son duo introduces their original rules for the game. Combining the names of two liquors — gin and rum — gin-rummy is born.


Throughout the 20th century, gin-rummy was an extremely trendy game. The game showed up in all types of media. And it quickly became popular among socialites in New York and Los Angeles. It was also a favorite among early movie stars.


This is the gist:

But here's the truth:


While gin-rummy is nowhere near as popular as it once was, it played an important role in the history of card games as we know them today.

Enjoy Fun Card Games For Adults With This New Knowledge

Now that you know a bit more about your deck of playing cards and where they came from, do you have a newfound appreciation for these simple pieces of paper?


Playing cards of all types have held an important place in human history.


From colonizers crossing the ocean to military troops fighting overseas, these cards have kept mankind busy during some of the worst times.

And while the designs we see on today's playing cards certainly have an interesting past, the games we play with them are also rich in history.


So do you think our ancestors will continue to play the card games we enjoy today?

Or will new games continue to emerge as time goes on? Tell us what you think in the comments!

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