Look at these jokers! I virtually stumbled upon the playing cards of Utrecht art student Felix Blommestijn, and was immediately charmed and curious about this genre of ephemeral art. Playing cards are very ancient, but it turns out that jokers are a fairly recent (later nineteenth century) American addition to the pack. To me, these cards look both very modern and very old, my favorite aesthetic.
Another relatively recent addition to the standard card deck is the jack, which replaced the earlier knave. Knaves seem a little bit more intriguing to me, and there were all different kinds of them, depending on which country or “master” produced the cards. Below are 15th and early 16th century German knaves of the hares and acorns (Victoria & Albert Museum), followed by more familiar knaves of diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades from the early modern era:
Once we get into the mid-nineteenth century, chromolithography, industrialization, and consumer demand combined to create infinite varieties of playing cards, many of which were marketed in series of collectible cigarette cards like the “beauties” below.
Another development from the mid-nineteenth century were “dedicated deck” card games, and Salem’s own W. and S.B. Ives Company issued the first popular proprietary game in 1843, Dr. Busby. The Ives Brothers had a successful (multi-generational) printing, publishing, and stationary business in Salem and developed games as a sideline, but I think the sideline became the most profitable part of their business. In addition to Dr. Busby, they also issued the first American board game in 1843, The Mansion of Happiness, and less than a decade later they came out with the very collectible tie-in card game to the recently-published abolitionist novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which is no surprise, as Mrs. William Ives was the President of the very active Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society at the time). In 1887 the Ives Company was sold to Parker Brother of Salem, and its games began reaching an even larger market.
Dr. Busby 1843 game box and Dr. Busby card; Uncle Tom’s Cabin cards from the University of Virginia’s Multimedia Archive: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture.
Even with industrialization, playing cards continued to be hand-produced as an art form rather than merely merchandise, just as they are today. One of the most charming examples of vernacular production is the “Nursery Rhymes” suite, produced around 1880 by an unknown maker. The Jack of Hearts is pictured below, just after he stole the tarts.
February 27th, 2011 at 10:00 pm
Interesting, once again. My favorite historical playing cards are from McKay’s book on the South Sea Bubble.
February 28th, 2011 at 9:42 pm
Thanks for your links, Brad: I didn’t expect to be hearing from you this particular weekend!!
February 27th, 2011 at 10:05 pm
Also, if people want to read some of the documents (well, excerpts of them) from the Salem Anti-Slavery Society, they can find them here: http://landmark.salemstate.edu/abolition.html
February 28th, 2011 at 10:14 am
Fantastic post, please keep up the great work. Education and distributing knowledge is never quick or easy, and your dedication to providing both on this post is very apparent. Thank you for this contribution to my own knowledge.
February 28th, 2011 at 9:41 pm
What a nice comment, thanks Ian.