What is the Meaning of the Images on Playing Cards?

cards-images-meaning image

The images depicted on playing cards have bemused and puzzled players for generations.  However, the modern appearance of cards traces its origin back hundreds of years, with their format and meaning changing considerably over time.

We’ve all used a standard deck of 52 playing cards at least once, be it for playing social games, gambling or even on rare occasions for mystical endeavours such as soothsaying and fortune reading.  We are all familiar with the deck’s top dogs in the form of the queens, kings, jacks and aces, as well as their numerological entourage of lesser numbers.

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

The Origin of the Cards

Although no one can say for sure, it is believed that the first playing cards originated in China at the turn of the second millennium.  These cards gradually made their way to the Italian peninsula, where they first made an appearance during the late 14th century.  From here, the cards spread to the German states of the Holy Roman Empire and then onwards to France.

The face cards and suits that comprise the modern playing deck trace their way back to the French decks of the early 1400s.  Each new region where the cards entrenched themselves birthed a unique format of deck sizes, suits and court cards.  Among the various designs, the French deck grew to become the most popular, based on its more straightforward design and cheaper printing, which made it accessible to both rich and poor alike.

Deck Size

As mentioned, different states 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, and from there, to North America and other parts of the colonial empire.

Playing Card Suits

The original Italian suits were the coins, cups, clubs and swords.  The French modified this to the more familiar hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades.  It is believed that the suits symbolised the different social echelons of French society.  The exclusively red and black colour scheme was chosen since these two colours were cheaper to print.

Images and Characters on the Playing Cards

In the medieval European patriarchal society, there was little room for women.  As a result, the first cards had kings, cavaliers and knaves (jacks) as the picture images.  It was perhaps a nod to chivalry that prompted the French to substitute the cavalier with a queen, thus making the deck more equitable.  Similarly, the knave, whose side symbol was Kn was often confused with the king symbol Kn, so their name got changed to the modern jack.

Additionally, each king was associated with a real-life historical figure.  Clubs represented Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar stood for diamonds, the spades denoted King David and hearts symbolised Charlemagne.

The Ace of Spades

In the standard deck of cards, it’s hard not to notice that 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, onto which a tax mark would be stamped, to indicate that the tax has been paid on that deck.  Forging the ace of spades was a capital crime, with one individual even being sentenced to death for doing this.

The Joker Card

Original playing card didn’t contain a joker.  Jokers only made their debut in the 1860s when a special trump card had to be added to the deck for the game of euchre. It is believed that the word joker derived itself from the game name euchre. 

Backgrounds

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

Indices and One-Way Cards

Small indices at the edge of each card showcasing its value were introduced in the 1870s, to resolve the need for players to have 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 double-ended court cards were introduced to assist card players more effortlessly conceal what they were holding.

Playing cards have progressed by leaps and bounds from the original decks, that originated in the far east, centuries ago. Today, the French deck has become the benchmark across the globe as the standard for playing cards design.  And, the future might hold even more fresh variations.

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