The History of Playing Cards

The History of Playing Cards

When you grab a deck of cards, you probably don’t think too much about the motifs and designs of each card, as you’re used to the standard design of a 52-card deck with two Jokers. That said, while playing cards seem normal and simple to most players, their history is anything but that.  Playing cards had evolved for centuries and changed a lot before they adopted the recognizable standard all of us know today.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the history and evolution of playing cards to see how these simple yet specially prepared cards have changed over the centuries to become what they are today.

The Origins of Playing Cards – Asia and Egypt

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact year or even century when the first playing cards were invented. Many art historians agree that the first playing cards originated from China and were created in the 9th or early 10th century. 

What’s certain is that in the 10th century, people were already playing cards in some parts of Asia. There’s even some evidence in this period that hints that card players of the time played cards as a part of a drinking game and even used antiquated versions of today’s gambling chips.

By the end of the 11th century, the playing cards spread through the Asian continent and were introduced in Egypt. This was when the first Mamluk playing cards were thought to be invented. Although there’s no precise historical data going this far back, the oldest surviving cards from Egypt date to the 12th and 13th centuries.

The First Playing Cards in Europe

As the playing cards traveled with pilgrims and merchants through Asia and Egypt, they finally reached the first European countries in the 14th century. The first documented origins of playing cards in Europe show that card games first gained popularity.

That said, while everyone enjoyed playing cards in Asia and Egypt, they were very much reserved only for the upper class in Europe at the time. They were hand-painted with luxury design items and weren’t widely available.

But, as playing cards began to spread north and west of Italy, they became huge in Germany. The biggest game-changer that came out of Germany was the introduction of printing methods for playing cards. German printers were able to produce many decks of cards far quicker than artists who drew the cards by hand.

laying cards soon became a big German export, which sped up the popularization of these cards in Western Europe, primarily France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In 15th century France, the four suits that we use today were introduced.

Moreover, at that time, French card developers presented another revolutionary feature. They divided the suits into red and black, with uniform and simplified symbols, albeit named differently than today’s ones. It didn’t take long for the popular French deck to sweep Europe and become the standard.

Playing Cards Spread to England and the US

It’s thought that playing cards were brought to England from France or Belgium. While this is a bit uncertain, like all other countries that playing cards passed through, England and the rest of Great Britain left their mark. Most notably, by introducing the names, spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs when referring to the suits.

Compared to the rest of the world, playing cards came relatively soon to the US. As the US was a colony of Great Britain at the time, the first playing cards came to North America through imports from the home country. It was especially popular for poker games and quickly spread over the continent.

That said, even though the history of playing cards in the US is fairly young, we still credit it for inducting another vital aspect of the deck we recognize today. In the mid-19th century, US card innovators added the Joker cards to the deck.

The history of playing cards is too long and interesting to be summed up in one blog post, but hopefully, we’ve brought this exciting topic a bit closer to you. 

While playing cards have undoubtedly changed over the thousand years they existed, you can still relish that you’re playing the same game that your ancestors played in the 15th century. That carries some historical weight!