What is the Meaning of the Playing Cards with Pictures?

Playing cards with pictures on them
Card Symbols. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Playing cards with pictures of kings, queens, and jacks have bemused and puzzled players for generations. However, contemporary cards trace their origin back to Middle Ages, with their format and meaning changing considerably over time.

We’ve all used a standard deck of 52 playing cards at least once, whether for playing card games, gambling or even on rare occasions for magic endeavours such as fortune telling. We are all familiar with the deck’s top dogs; the queens, kings, jacks, and aces – followed by a numerological entourage of lesser card symbols.

However, the card deck you are familiar with today looked very different a few centuries ago in its appearance and the titles assigned to the “cards family” characters. Let’s delve deeper into the evolution of playing cards with pictures and how their appearance has evolved over the years.

The Origin of Pictures on Playing Cards 

Playing cards have a long and fascinating history, with their origins shrouded in mystery. However, historians generally believe that the ancient Chinese invented playing cards during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).

The earliest known references to playing cards in China came from the 11th century when a writer named Ouyang Xiu described card games such as the game of leaves. This game involved players drawing cards and matching them to win. The early cards were likely hand-painted on paper or silk and featured various images, such as birds, flowers, and Chinese characters.

Over time, playing cards spread from China to other parts of Asia, such as India and Persia. In these areas, natives adapted and changed them to suit local tastes. It wasn’t until the late 14th century that playing cards made their way to Europe, likely through trade routes in the Middle East.

People most likely introduced the first European playing cards with pictures in Italy. These cards featured four suits similar to modern decks, including swords, cups, coins, and batons. The cards were also hand-painted and often featured religious or mythological themes.

From Italy, playing cards spread rapidly throughout Europe, becoming popular in France, Germany, Spain, and England. Over time, different regions developed their unique styles and designs. Ultimately, the French invented the standard 52-piece deck of cards used in most Western countries today.

Deck Size

As mentioned above, different countries adopted different deck sizes. Besides the standard 52-card French deck, there was the 40-card Spanish deck and the 32-card German deck. In the end, the 52-card deck made its way to England.  From there, the cards made their way to North America and other parts of the world.

Playing Card Suits

The original Italian suits were coins, cups, clubs, and swords. The French modified this to the more familiar hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades. Historians believe each suit symbol represented a different social echelon of French society. The exclusively red and black colour scheme was chosen since these two colours were cheaper to print.

The Famous Characters Displayed on Playing Cards

In the medieval European patriarchal society, card symbolism spared little room for women. As a result, the first cards had kings, cavaliers, and knaves (jacks) as the picture images. A nod to chivalry prompted the French to substitute the cavalier with a queen, thus making the deck more equitable. Similarly, players often confused the knave, whose side symbol was Kn, with the king symbol K. Subsequently, they changed the name to the modern jack.

In a standard deck of playing cards, the kings and queens are generally thought to represent historical figures from European history. King of hearts represents Charlemagne. The king of diamonds equates to Julius Caesar. The king of clubs is Alexander the Great. And the king of spades represents King David from the Bible.

The queens on face cards represent the four legendary or mythological figures. That is, the queen of hearts representing Judith from the Bible. Queen of diamonds represents Rachel from the Bible. The queen of clubs is often associated with the Greek goddess Athena. And the queen of spades is believed to represent Pallas, another Greek goddess.

These associations have varied across time and locations, with different cultures assigning the cards various meanings.

The Ace of Spades

In the standard deck of playing cards with pictures, it’s hard not to notice that the ace of spades has a more intricate design than the rest of the aces. This goes back to the 19th-century tax laws in the UK, when all cards had to be taxed.

Since ace of spades was the first card in a deck, it had a unique design as it was a “duty” card. This meant that people would stamp a tax mark onto it to indicate that the tax had been paid on that deck. Forging the ace of spades was a capital crime, with one individual even being sentenced to death.

The Joker Card

Original playing cards didn’t contain jokers. Jokers only debuted in the 1860s when people had to add a unique trump card to the deck for the game of Euchre. It is believed that the word joker derives from the game name Euchre.

Backgrounds of Playing Cards that Incorporate Pictures

Original cards had white backgrounds that were often used to scribble messages, etc. However, individual scribbles or smudges made it easy for an opponent to identify a card. For this reason, designers introduced patterned backgrounds to counter this predictability.

Indices and One-Way Cards

Manufacturers also introduced small indices at the edge of each card showcasing its value in the 1870s in order to resolve the need for players to spread out their entire deck in full to see what cards they had. Similarly, court cards before the 19th century were all one-sided and turning a card around was a dead giveaway that you held a court. So people introduced double-ended court cards to assist players in more effortlessly concealing what they were holding.

In conclusion, while the exact origins of playing cards with pictures are uncertain, it’s clear that they have a long and fascinating history that spans continents and centuries. From their humble beginnings in ancient China to their global popularity today, playing cards have remained a popular pastime for millions worldwide.

Frequently Asked Questions

Picture of Bojan Lipovic - Digital Project Manager

Bojan Lipovic - Digital Project Manager

Besides polishing his SEO skills, Bojan has a penchant for creative writing. With over half a decade of experience in the online gambling industry under his belt, his written take on the latest news from the Canadian and global gambling industries is an indispensable source of information for the CASINOenquirer team. Bojan’s primary goal is to ensure that players get a superior experience through the top-notch content that he shares.

Gambling News