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Adrienne Bernhard is a writer based in New York.{/INSERTKEYS}{/PARAGRAPH} Jokers first appeared in printed American decks in , and by , British card makers had followed suit, as it were. Playing cards have been a popular format for advertisements. As the Spanish adopted playing cards, they replaced queens with mounted knights or caballeros. Sign in My Account Subscribe. Cups and chalices modern hearts might have stood for the clergy; swords spades for the nobility or the military; coins diamonds for the merchants; and batons clubs for peasants. Unlike tarot, however, pips were surely meant as diversion instead of divination. {PARAGRAPH}{INSERTKEYS}Playing cards are known and used the world over—and almost every corner of the globe has laid claim to their invention. This simple innovation, patented during the Civil War, was revolutionary: Indices allowed players to hold their cards in one hand, tightly fanned. In this way, the humble playing card sometimes becomes an important historical document, one that offers both scholars and amateur collectors a window into the past. Bostock notes that queens have not enjoyed similar reverence. In medieval Europe, card games occasioned drinking, gambling, and a host of other vices that drew cheats and charlatans to the table. The Print Edition. Curiously, few games employ them. The Atlantic Crossword. For this reason, perhaps, the Joker is the only card that lacks a standard, industry-wide design. British and French decks, for example, always feature the same four legendary kings: Charles, David, Caesar, and Alexander the Great. And the British allege the earliest mention of a card game in any authenticated register. This post appears courtesy of Object Lessons. Hand craftsmanship and high taxation made each deck of playing cards an investment. Cards have served as amusing pastimes, high-stakes gambles, tools of occult practice, magic tricks, and mathematical probability models—even, at times, as currency and as a medium for secret messages. This process amplified previous errors. Years later, Bostock tells me, card makers added corner indices numbers and letters , which told the cardholder the numerical value of any card and its suit. Card playing became so widespread and disruptive that authorities banned it. Even so, these cards preserved much of the iconography that had fascinated 16th-century Europe: astronomy, alchemy, mysticism, and history. But how to account for the use of clover, acorns, leaves, pikes, shields, coins, roses, and countless other imagery? In his book The Game of Tarot , the historian Michael Dummett explains that a ordinance forbade card games on workdays in Paris. Latest Issue Past Issues. Diamonds, by contrast, could have represented the upper class in French decks, as paving stones used in the chancels of churches were diamond shaped, and such stones marked the graves of the aristocratic dead. The ace rose to prominence in , according to the IPCS. Skip to content. Pallas, Judith, Rachel, and Argine variously ruled each of the four suits, with frequent interruption. Yet another hypothesis argues that nomads brought fortune-telling cards with them from India, assigning an even longer antiquity to card playing. In the process, decks of cards reveal peculiarities of their origins. Fanciful, highly specialized decks offered artists a chance to design a kind of collectible, visual essay. To this day, the ace is boldly designed to stand out. The innovation offered advantages. As such, cards became a feast for the eye. But the gamblers were responsible for some of the most notable features of modern decks. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic. As printing spurred rapid reproduction of decks, the integrity of the original artwork declined. When printing blocks wore out, Paul Bostock explains, card makers would create new sets by copying either the blocks or the cards. The king of hearts offers another curiosity: The only king without a mustache, he appears to be killing himself by means of a sword to the head. Playing-card manufacturers produced decks meant for other uses beyond simple card playing, including instruction, propaganda, and advertising. The ace was stamped to indicate that the tax had been paid, and forging an ace was a crime punishable by death. For nearly years, the backs of cards were plain. While collectors favored ornate designs, gamblers insisted on standard, symmetrical cards, because any variety or gimmickry served to distract from the game. We want to hear what you think about this article. Card names, colors, emblems, and designs change according to their provenance and the whims of card players themselves. A furtive glance offered the skilled gambler a quick tally of his holdings, that he might bid or fold or raise the ante, all the while broadcasting the most resolute of poker faces. They are cultural imprints that reveal popular custom. Historically, pips were highly variable, giving way to different sets of symbols rooted in geography and culture. Everybody played cards: kings and dukes, clerics, friars and noblewomen, prostitutes, sailors, prisoners. But the disparity in pips from one deck to the next resists such pat categorization. Some historians have suggested that suits in a deck were meant to represent the four classes of Medieval society. That was the year England began to tax sales of playing cards. Today, the public might know how to play blackjack or bridge, but few stop to consider that a deck of cards is a marvel of engineering, design, and history. The birthplace of ordinary playing cards is shrouded in obscurity and conjecture, but—like gunpowder or tea or porcelain—they almost certainly have Eastern origins. From stars and birds to goblets and sorcerers, pips bore symbolic meaning, much like the trump cards of older tarot decks. Perhaps because they were so prized, cards were often repurposed: as invitations, entrance tickets, obituary notes, wedding announcements, music scores, invoices—even as notes between lovers or from mothers who had abandoned their babies.