Playing cards existed in China before 1000 AD. Such cards would have been narrow
slips of paper, essentially dominoes with dots imitating the twenty-one
combinations possible with the throw of two dice. Paper was in fact the original
material for dominoes; wood and ivory came later. Domino cards are still known,
as is another early Chinese type: money cards, so called because the suit signs
are Coins and variations (Tens of Coins, Myriads of Coins.) The use of coin
emblems may have derived from the association of cards and money in gambling.
Early Middle East Cards
By the thirteenth century, the concept of playing cards had travelled to the
Middle East. The Islamic types are represented by a deck preserved in the
Topkapi Museum, Istanbul. These hand-painted cards, potentially the world's
oldest survivors, originated in Mamluke Egypt before 1500. The deck is
fragmented but clearly consisted of 52 cards arranged in four suits, each with
ten numeral cards and three court cards (Commander, Lt. Commander, Second
Lieutenant). These courts are not figures but merely elaborate suit signs with
labels declaring the ranks. Pictorial courts were probably already known in the
Middle East, but no early examples have actually been found. The Islamic suit
signs were coins (perhaps descendants of the Chinese Coins), Cups, Swords and
Polosticks. Some experts see these signs as emblematic of four officers serving
in the sultan's court: perhaps treasurer, cupbearer, swordbearer and polomaster.
Islamic cards were introduced into southern Europe about 1350. The suit
signs—again Coins, Cups, Swords, Sticks—were variously adapted. The Polosticks,
still unfamiliar to Europeans, were changed to Sceptres, Batons or Cudgels.
(Note that one of our own suits is called "Clubs.") An early Swiss report, c.
1377, says that Europeans experimented with different kinds of courts, sometimes
as many as six (King, Queen, Knight, Lady, Valet, Maid).
Italian cardmakers preserved the Queen, along with a King, Knight and Valet, for
use in a new game, c 1420, called Tarocco. Also added were a wild card (the
Fool) and 21 special cards, mystical symbols that served as trumps (originally
meaning "triumphs"). Among the Florentines, the trump suit expanded until their
Tarocco totaled 97 cards. The game spread northwards, called Tarot by speakers
of French and Tarock by speakers of German. In Germany and Austro-Hungary, the
trump cards were allowed to illustrate any variety of new scenes and subjects.
In all nations, the concept of trumps also came to be applied to common cards,
no longer requiring any picture cards beyond the usual courts. The Tarot did not
acquire its modern use by fortune tellers until the 1780s when French scholars
interpreted the old Italian symbols as "hieroglyphs" from ancient Egypt, the
reputed source of Western magic and occult philosophy. Now, Tarot decks are
made, sold and advertised for divination, with no awareness that they were
originally used in common games.
a pack of an early form of north Italian playing cards. Believed to be Venetian, dated
Among the early cardmakers of Europe, surely the Germans were the most
imaginative in revising and multiplying suit signs and courts. German cards also
tended to be decorated with lively scenes and caricatures. The German national
pattern finally settled on four suits (Leaves, Hearts, Acorns and Hawk Bells)
from which the Queen was banished.
French cardmakers, c. 1470, invented the familiar suit signs of Spades, Hearts,
Clubs and Diamonds (which the French call Spearheads, Hearts, Trefoils and
Squares). The first three are presumably adapted from the German Leaves, Hearts
and Hawk Bells. The first European cards, like their Mamluke models, were
hand-painted and therefore reserved for the nobility who could afford to hire
special designers and craftsmen. Surviving examples of such cards are of
generous size and lavish handiwork in delicate colors on backgrounds of gold,
silver or floral tracery. Popular demand led to mass production through the new
technique of the woodcut. Designs for whole sheets of cards were drawn and
carved on woodblocks, then inked and printed on paper, finally separated and
glued on cardboard. Woodcut cards, including the suit signs, were rendered
carefully with shading and detail. When the fifteenth-century French designed
the modern suit signs, card manufacture was greatly simplified. Spades, Hearts,
Clubs and Diamonds, rendered as flat silhouettes in only black and red, no
longer required carved blocks but could be quickly and cheaply made from
ordinary stencils. This efficiency gave French cardmakers an advantage over all
others. A notable printmaking center was Rouen, France, and from this city cards
were imported by the English. Thence, by stages, the same designs reached the
American colonies, the entire U.S.A and the world.
After 1860, Europeans and Americans came to accept card indices, markings on the
faces that declared their values. Early indices included:
- triplicates, when the standard card face bears miniature faces in two
- border indices, when numerals and suit signs line the edges of the card
- numerals inscribed within the suit signs
- large numerals dominating the card face
The most popular indices proved to be the small markings in diagonally
opposite corners, or, less frequently, in all four corners.
Other improvements included reversible (double-ended) figures, round corners and
refined finishes. These features had occurred in isolated instances in Europe
but were not promoted consistently and simultaneously. Americans recognized the
efficiency of the new improvements and readily accepted them.
ferment, the Joker was born. It was formerly believed that the Joker evolved
from the Fool, a kind of wild card in the Tarot deck. However, we now know that
the Tarot had not yet entered the U. S. when the Joker first appeared.
The Joker seems to have its origins in a special card used in a particular form
of Euchre. In this game, which began in Alsace-Lorraine, two Jacks of the same
color are designated as being especially powerful. When immigrants carried the
game to the US, they also brought some of the specialized German terms, such as
Bauer (= Jack). Euchre players still speak of their two highest cards as "the
left and the right Bauer," but the key word is envisioned as "Bower". Americans
added to the Euchre deck a card even higher than the designated Bowers. It was
called the Imperial Bower or the Best Bower. This was the genesis of the Joker.
According to the latest theory, the Best Bower alternatively was called "the
Euchre card". This could have been mispronounced as "Juker card," which then
gave rise to "Joker card". A possible problem attaches to this theory. We have
old cards labeled Best Bower and, thereafter, cards labeled Joker. But "Eucher
card" and "Juker card" have not been found inscribed on actual cards. Perhaps
those transitional terms only existed in the speech of cardplayers.
The very word, Joker, naturally could have inspired card designers to depict
jesters, clowns and other pranksters. Oddly, however, the Best Bowers and early
Jokers show much greater diversity. We find not only the trickster types but
also children, stage characters, animals, etc.
A more simple theory is possible. After the introductions of the Best Bower
into Euchre, Americans equipped other card games with an extra card (usually as
a wild card). Perhaps this is the stage in which the extra card became known as
the Joker—meaning one that changes character or pops up unexpectedly. Designers
would have tried to create some new imagery for this wild card. The choice of a
jester is logical, not only because of his unpredictable behavior, but because
he complements the court cards. In Europe, after all, the royal court really was
home to jesters, jugglers and other entertainers.
Nevertheless, it is certain that the Joker card itself was not a European
invention. It is one of America's most picturesque contributions to the history
of playing cards.