Playing Cards Present and Past

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:

Master of the PW, Cologne c. 1500

Early 17th Century Knave of Diamonds, Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum


Early 18th Century Knave of Hearts, Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum


A Knave of Clubs card from the era of the Scientific Revolution, Parsons Collection, NYPL Digital Gallery

Knave of Spades, c. 1827, Victoria & Albert Museum

 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.



5 responses to “Playing Cards Present and Past

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: