Playing Cards


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.

Introduction into Europe

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 1462.

German cards

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 cards

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 corners
  • 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

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.

 During this 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.

Joker development

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.