Playing Cards. Reprinted from The Times of Dec. 3rd, 1874

PLAYING CARDS.[1]

[Reprinted from The Times of Dec. 3rd, 1874.]


In entering upon a brief discussion of the subject of cards—a subject surrounded by points of historical and embryological interest—we feel that a respectful apology may be expected front us for taking as our text the common-place aphorism of there being "nothing new under the sun." The force of this homely dictum, however, is enhanced when we peruse page upon page of recondite results arrived at by the wise men who, season after season, hold congresses for the investigation of all subjects. As yet, the subject of cards has not achieved the importance of a topic for a congress. Professor Max Müller has cogently placed before the public the fact that to the East must we look as being the cradle of modern arts, sciences, languages—indeed, of every thing. To this Eastern source, therefore, we shall have to refer when we discuss the merits, as a novelty, of the International Playing Cards which Messrs. De La Rue have recently published. The idea of International Playing Cards as now carried out in this production was recently originated by Mr. Felix Summerly, with the aid of Mr. Reuben Townroe, an artist whose originality in design and its varied forms of treatment is testified to by the ornamental terracotta work on the exterior of the Royal Albert Hall and many decorative works at the South Kensington Museum.

At first glance, if we overlook the aces, the cards have the appearance of the modern stereotyped form of cards—a style which we adopted from the French cards made at Chartres, in 1702; but, on closer inspection, we find his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales doing duty as the King of Diamonds, the King of the Belgians as the King of Hearts, the Crown Prince of Prussia as the King of Spades, and the King of Italy as the King of Clubs. The likenesses are fairly good, especially that of the King of Italy. We learn from M. Bullet, in his "Recherches Historiques sur les Cartes à Jouer," published in 1757, that the four symbols used on cards—the heart, the diamond, the club, and the spade—were each invested by the introducer of them with a certain meaning. Thus, the heart or coeur "marque les gens d'Eglise, parce qu'ils sont souvent au choeur;" the spade or pique represented "les gens de guerre;" the diamond or carreau, "les bourgeois, parceque les salles des maisons sont carrelées;" and the club or tréfle, "les laboureurs et les gens de la campagne." This theory was propounded at great length by the Père Menastrier, and subsequently questioned by the Père Daniel, who held different views on the subject. Whet the precise result of this controversy was, or whether the higher ecclesiastical authorities stepped in and forbade further discussion on a matter somewhat irrelevant to religious doctrines, we have not carried our inquiries far enough to ascertain. In any ease it will be seen that the present allotment of great personages is free from any little harmless personalities which the connecting of hearts with one, diamonds with another, and so on might have suggested. The aces are allotted to the greatest potentates—thus, Her Majesty, as Empress of India and Queen of the United Kingdom, appears as the Ace of Hearts; the President of the United States is the Ace of Spades; the Emperor of Russia is the Ace of Diamonds; and the German Emperor is the Ace of Clubs. But Mr. Felix Summerly, with perhaps a pardonable penchant to pay an irreproachable compliment, has allotted to her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales the high office of Queen of Hearts, while to the Crown Princess of Germany he assigns the dignity of Queen of Clubs. The Queen of Greece appears as Queen of Diamonds, and the Empress of Austria as Queen of Spades. The four knaves have a more original character about them than the other Court cards. The square and blocky conventionality is maintained, although the actual details are totally different from what are used in ordinary playing cards. A Scotch piper, with distended cheeks, vigorously blowing his pipe, utmost determination of purpose shown in his features, appears as Knave of Hearts; an officious and splendid functionary, obviously gendarme, is the Knave of Spades; a yellow-bearded Swiss guide, with his rope over his shoulder, and clenching a spiked staff, is the Knave of Clubs; while Spain is represented by a keen-eyed and carefully-coifed matador as Knave of Diamonds. As a number of portraits, some of the cards are less successful than others. Looking, however, to the restrictions as respects attitude and form which were imposed on the designer, Mr. Reuben Townroe, we must congratulate hint upon the success he has obtained in his portraits of Her Majesty the Queen, the Emperors of Austria and Russia, the Princess of Wales, King Victor Emmanuel, the King of the Belgians, and the Crown Prince of Germany.

The idea of making cards the vehicles of portraits is not novel. Père Daniel, to whom we have referred, speaks of the changes in portraits which occurred in France on the occasion of a new succession to the Throne. The portraits, were, however, always of some French Kings, Queens, and distinguished people. Such cards were, therefore, not indeed international, but national cards.

In England, during Charles II.'s reign, a pack of cards was issued by Randal Taylor, near Stationers' Hall, which was purchaseable from most booksellers at 1s. per pack, "forming a history of all the Popish plots that have been in England, beginning with those in Queen ElizabethElizabeth I of England's time and ending with the last damnable plot against His Majesty Charles II., with the manner of Sir Edward Godfrey's murder." Other cards relating to subjects such as heraldry, geography, history, politics, grammar, sciences, &c., were also published. The style of drawing adopted was not fettered by any conventionality, and, except for the insertion of the well-known heart, spade, club, or diamond, the designs might have been mere little pictures and nothing else. Somewhat of earlier date are the cards which we fed figured in Ottley's volume of "Etchings by Early Masters." Here the usual symbols are supplanted by swords, goblets, fruits, trees, &c. In Germany, hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns were generally adopted; in Spain, swords, cups, batons, and coins prevailed as devices for cards.

Various materials have been adopted in the production of playing cards. At South Kensington Museum, besides cards printed from etched steel and copper-plates, wood blocks, and by lithography, we find a pack of silk embroidered cards. A pack of white metal engraved cards were shown at this institution, if we remember rightly, some year or so ago. The Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris also possesses, as does the British Museum Library, rare and curious specimens of cards. And no doubt in many of the numerous Continental museums similar relics are preserved. Some time since Mr. Pettigrew showed interesting packs of old English political cards, like those above mentioned, at the Society of Antiquaries.

The use of cards seems to be of very ancient date. Poupart, the Treasurer of Charles VI. of France, made an entry in his accounts of certain "jeux de cartes." In 1387 an ordonnance is said to have been issued by John I., King of Spain, against card playing, while in 1379 the gambling which arose from cards in Italy is recorded by Feliciano Bussi, in his "History of Viterbo," as having caused much distress; the game, it is said, "comes from the country of the Saracens, and is with them called Naib." Here we approach questions of Eastern origin as well as the entrance of a very lengthy etymological vista, the culminating point of which has been assailed by men of erudition, such as Mr. Chatto, Sir Wm. Jones, Mr. Singer, and many distinguished foreigners. M. Boitteau d'Ambly quotes Count de Gebelin, an antiquary of note in the last century, to support his opinion that cards were first imported into Europe by the wandering tribes who migrated from Mongolia and settled in large numbers in Bohemia. As early as 1120 the Chinese had a certain kind of cards for gambling purposes. Breitkopf, who has written on the subject of cards in a masterly manner, considered that there was a self-evident affinity between chess and cards, and the slightest thought in regard to this thesis of Breitkopf will convince those who bestow it, that the affinity exists. Chess is of Oriental origin. The game of the four kings, or Chaturagi or Charter Nawaub, is similar to chess. The employment of the four kings with other minor elements of this game suggests cards; and it may be a question if the word "card" be not in its technical sense derived from chartur—the Hindoo word for four. In its ordinary sense its etymology from carta or charta is obvious. But there are other considerations which to a great degree may be held to support the theory of the Hindoo etymology. The Italian name for playing cards is naibi and the Spanish naypes—both words from one source. We have already quoted Feliciano Bussi, who speaks of the game of the Saracens called "naib" This seems to be the parent of the Italian and Spanish words. The Hebrew word naibes means sorcery and fortune telling, and its resemblance in form to the Hindoo word "Nawaub" is remarkable. Mr. Chatto thinks that naypes and naib, were derived from the Latin mappa, and that an "n" was substituted for the "m." On the other hand, Breitkopf and Mr. Singer incline to the Hebrew origin.

Hence we have been forced back to the East for information about so comparatively light a matter as cards. But our text, the well-worn adage as to the non-existence of novelty under the sun, does not altogether apply to the International Cards, since we find that although national, political, and educational cards have been produced, the notion is original of making International Cards. In giving effect to this idea it is satisfactory that the general appearance of the cards is not sacrificed to the temptation of rendering them confusingly picturesque. The leading conventional features of ordinary Playing Cards are retained, while an interesting cachet of the period of production is given to the International cards, which will not, as might be apprehended, distract the most solemn of whist players.


  1. International Playing Cards. Published by De La Rue & Co.