Cards and their history

Cards have been around for a long time, and have been used in many ways - in fortune-telling, games and even wars. Few people know it, but we can trace the history of cards back to ancient China. How did something as seemingly simple as cards evolve throughout history, what games were played and why was their use sometimes prohibited?
Playing Cards

Interest in the origin of the cards themselves and their journey towards Europe is relatively recent. Various sources mention that they were first invented in China during the Xun-Chu dynasty around 800 AD. Others disagree and claim that they originated in India, then travelled to China, and only reached Europe after the fierce Crusades. They were introduced by nomads from the Far East in the 13th and 14th centuries.

One of the card researchers, E. S. Taylor, has his own history and version of the origin of cards. He claims that cards were brought to our continent by nomads with Roma roots. It is believed that the Roma travelled along the already well-trodden paths of Persian traders in the North African region.

The Roma, who came from this region in the Middle Ages, spread the cards to southern Europe. Sources say that the Moors brought the cards to Spain and the Saracens to Italy. This version is based on surviving examples of Arabic cards and medieval written sources.

Cards then spread from Spain and Italy to Germany and Switzerland. The composition of the cards also varied, with Chinese cards depicting various symbols, Indian cards with bright colours, and French cards being simpler. The "characters" of the cards also changed - there were no more queens, no more kings, no more knights.

Thus, different images of the cards have developed in different parts of Europe. The symbols of the families, the colour scheme or even the symbolic meanings and styles differed.

In the Early and Middle Middle Ages, it was very important to have high-quality, unique cards, as a handmade deck of cards was a status symbol.

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The emergence of standard cards

Today we play with French cards, which came into use around the 15th century, and their simple form, symbols and colour minimalism made them very quick and effortless to produce.

There were only 12 cards in the manor, and there were already ladies among them. This is thought to be linked to French court etiquette and the gallant attitudes towards women that go with it. The simpler production of cards, the easier to understand symbols and therefore fewer mistakes in games, and the cheaper production made France the most important supplier of cards in Europe in the 16th century.

Another interesting fact is that in the mid-18th century, craftsmen in a small French town came up with the idea of drawing cards in mirror image form, so that the cards looked the same when turned over. This innovation sparked a revolution in the card business, which was further accelerated by the invention of a card-making technology by the British card manufacturer T. de la Rue, which allowed cards to be coloured in as many as 4 colours at once.

Thanks to all the innovations and favourable economic conditions during the Enlightenment, by the mid-19th century English factories were producing cards by the hundreds of thousands.

A little later, in addition to the usual playing cards, the production of one-off sets depicting not only aristocrats, but also literary, cultural and political figures and historical figures began. However, these were impractical, except as fashionable souvenirs.

Card production

The very first cards were drawn, and stencils were later used to make them faster. This method was not efficient, as only the richest could buy such cards. Cheaper ones were also produced, but they wore out very quickly.

The first professional production methods in the history of cards date back to the 15th century in Germany, when the reproduction of cards began xylographys by stamping the images onto painted wood carvings. This technological advance, however slight, helped the cards to spread throughout Europe, as many more could be produced.

In the 16th century, wood carvings were replaced by copper engravings. The woodcut cards were obtained by cutting out the background of the drawing, while the copper cards were obtained by carving the drawing itself. This way, more copies could be printed and the prints were sharper and of better quality.

At the beginning of the 19th century, cards began to be printed lithographs technique - using limestone plates (lithographic stone) for the glue. Later, colour lithography (each colour of the drawing was printed on a different glue) and other printing methods became common. This made it possible to produce coloured cards and made them available to everyone.

Today's cards are usually made of several layers of paper. This type of paper is obtained by gluing individual sheets of paper together and is therefore much more durable. To make the decks durable and not wear out so quickly, they are covered with a thin transparent film - laminated.

In addition to paper cards, there are also plastic cards, which are highly resistant to damage and moisture and are therefore of higher quality. You may not have noticed that often the surface of the cards is not perfectly smooth, but almost imperceptibly rough to prevent them slipping out of your hands.

The variety of cards is staggering: they come in all sizes, shapes, styles and themes, but so far the most common choice has been the classic card wood.

Cards as a tool of war?

The cards were not only used for games or divination, but also as weapons in the field of war. During the Second World War, Bicycle, one of the largest card manufacturers of the time, produced special cards in the USA, in secret collaboration with the US government, which were sent as gifts to American soldiers imprisoned in German military camps.

No one had any idea that they were the means of committing yet another crime - the exact plans for escaping from a particular camp were hidden between the special sheets of paper that made up the cards, and all you had to do was wet the cards and the layers would easily peel off.

During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), the company received another request from the US Army to produce cards made entirely of the ace of spades. The soldiers used them in psychological warfare. It turns out that French fortune-telling with cards was widespread in Vietnam (Vietnam had long been a French colony). The Ace of Spades meant death and suffering. The Vietnamese were extremely superstitious, so seeing the Ace of Spades made them feel discomfort and fear. Even more interestingly, Bicycle printed this card with an elaborate design: The Statue of Liberty in the middle of the spades symbol.

The superstitious Vietnamese believed it was the goddess of death. Thousands of such decals were sent to Vietnam for US troops. The soldiers threw the aces of spades everywhere in order to psychologically influence the enemy. Even today, card manufacturers profit from Ace of Spades by printing advertising, your company name or other symbols representing your company on it.

Cards and their origins in the Vietnamese ace

Interesting facts about cards

There have been repeated attempts to ban cards in Europe. The Church tried to convince the faithful that it was the devil's fiction, as some people were getting rich from playing for money, while others were losing all their wealth.

The United States Playing Card Company, or USPC for short, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the world's largest card company. It was founded in 1867. It currently produces over 100 million decks of cards every year! They produce Aristocrat, Aviator, "Hoyle","Bicycle and many other popular patterns.

The 52-card deck can be used to make as many as 2,598,960 different 5-card combinations. And did you know that a deck of cards can contain more combinations than there are stars in the Birdwalk? There are about 400 billion stars in the Milky Way.

Another interesting fact about card games. In China, the number "4" is considered unlucky, which is why some of the most luxurious casinos in Las Vegas do not have a fourth floor in their hotels, and the third floor is immediately followed by the fifth.

And once upon a time, you could use cards to pay for services! In 1865, a Canadian governor used a deck of cards as currency to pay his taxes. This was the first use of paper currency in Canada.

It is no news that Queen Marie Antoinette of France was an avid gambler and had a very strong addiction. Her husband, Louis XVI - the Sun King - had even ordered his wife to stay away from the gambling table. Legend has it that she begged him to let her play one last time. The King relented, and Marie Antoinette made sure that the gambling lasted 3 days.

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In 1937, an attempt was made to introduce a fifth type of card into the regular deck of cards, but it quickly failed because there were too many people unhappy about having to buy new cards.

Card World Records

As well as playing strategy games, cards can be used for more exciting activities such as building card houses.

The most recent record ( 23 January 2023) for building a house of cards belongs to Arnavio Dagai from India, located in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. The giant playing card structure measures 12.21 metres (40 feet) long, 3.47 metres (3.47 feet) high and 5.08 metres (16 feet 8 inches) wide.

Arnavas has been playing cards since the age of 8, and during the Covid-19 pandemic he made it a big goal to win a Guinness World Records title. After years of training, he believed he was finally ready for it.

He created a building with around 143 000 playing cards. The building depicts 4 famous places in Kolkata: the Shahed Minar, St Paul's Cathedral, Salt Lake Stadium and the Writer's Building. This project took 41 days to complete.

The cards have also attracted the attention of collectors. The Dutch-born American J. K. van Renseler, a Dutch-American, has one of the largest collections in the world. Her card collection consists of as many as 900 card woods - of different origins, types and periods.

The Italian collector T. De Santiso has amassed as many as 8520 different jokers. The collection is special because there is no single laughing stock, but rather drawings from all over the world, in different ages and shapes - square, round, fish, starfish, even bone-shaped, or just a few millimetres across.

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