Now, more than ever, playing cards have become a staple in households around the world. Normally, we may only see these bad boys when it’s time for a drinking game or if the WiFi’s on the fritz. But during this quarantine era, a pack of cards may as well be a godsend to treat the boredom we’re all plagued with.
Think of the versatility! You can play solitaire by yourself, you can build a house of cards, you can practice your sleight of hand. And that’s after you beat your partner in three rounds of gin rummy.
Though the design of a deck of cards can vary -- I even have a waterproof deck -- there’s always some consistency: 52 cards, black and red, four suits. Do the suits (clubs ♣, diamonds ♦, hearts ♥, and spades ♠) seem arbitrary to you? Well, that’s because they kind of are.
No one can figure out exactly when playing cards first became a household necessity, but it's fairly widely accepted that they spread from the East to the West. Whether that’s China, India or Arabia, all of the above used what we know today to be playing cards in some capacity: games, tarot, etc.
When they eventually made their way to Europe, every country seemed to have their own ideas for what the suits, or pips, should be. The pips were constantly changing, especially since decks of cards, at the time, were hand-painted. Anything from swords, coins, leaves, bells or chalices were, at one time or another, suits of cards.
But because no two decks were the same, this also made them expensive. So expensive that they became an investment and would be repurposed, if need be. Back then, you might have received a playing card used as a wedding announcement or event invitation. Plus, they were taxed in England starting in 1765: The ace actually only exists at all because that symbol was the only way to know if the tax of a deck of cards had been paid. Forged ace cards became the norm, and now the ace lives on proudly in every deck henceforth, always the most cunning, standout card.
From Germany to France to England, the suits continued to be changed and updated everywhere they went, as per the local wealthy noblemen’s wishes, of course. The suits we know today are most closely associated with the French versions, which were designed to represent their social classes: spades for nobility or military, hearts for the clergy, diamonds for merchants and clubs for peasants.
Eventually, in the 19th century, Charles Goodall and Sons reworked the French design into the exact design we see on any old deck we pick up at Target or CVS.
Now, even though nobility were the ones to decide the suits, everyone played cards. But it was the gamblers of yesteryear, actually, who normalized certain aspects of a deck of cards so that they continue to be part of the modern design. The patterns on the backs of cards, for example, didn’t exist at first; once gamblers figured out they they didn’t reveal smudges as easily, making them better able to play, they kept making them like that. And you know how each card face and suit can be seen just from the corner or a card? The players liked that, too; it meant they could more easily hide their hands from prying eyes.
So, anyone for a round of Kings?