Shuffled and Misplaced: The Illustrious and Forgotten History of Playing Cards

You know playing cards. It’s a deck of 52, with suits of spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds. You’ve probably played them after dinner with your family, or after the power goes out during a thunderstorm. The cards and the games you play with them seem pretty set, as if they couldn’t be anything else.

But the habituated commodity rests at the end of an erased history. The current popularity of the deck of 52 comes from France and its 19th-century card makers. Not that the deck hadn’t existed beforehand–its lineage goes back to the 15th century. But it had contemporaries. I would bet literally all that I’ve paid for college tuition that you’ve never heard of the cards I’m going to tell you about.

Here they are:
The Mantegna Deck
The Wilhelm Tell Deck
The Neapolitan Deck
The Sicilian Deck
The Spanish Deck…

You get the gist. The thing is, these lost cards evoked iconography so much richer than what the French deck uses. On top of that, many of the cards listed above often belonged to specific regions (e.g. Neapolitan, Sicilian) and represented local iconography. Why did these cards evaporate?

The decline of more intricate cards probably came from the ‘simplicity’ of the French card designs. History gets a little murky, but around the end of the 19th century, France exported its culture and, along with, its cards. The currently-used deck overtook regional decks because of 1) ease of production and 2) ease of ‘reading the cards.’ It’s thought that, because the printing templates for the French deck are so minimalist, their production flourished. This simplicity apparently encouraged players to adopt these decks over regional cards…because the regional decks were hard to understand?

Pictured here is a version of the Wilhelm Tell deck. It was produced in Hungary during the late 19th century. Granted that the suits are different (this deck includes bells, leaves, hearts, and acorns), the cards’ values and suits aren’t much harder to identify than in the French deck. And though the designs of these cards might be more intricate and harder to produce, they’re far more beautiful. Not to mention that they¬†actually signify something about the culture which plays with them. In this way, it’s one of the greatest things about Hungarians playing with the Wilhelm Tell deck. The Swiss myth deals with political self-determination. Especially on the eve of WWI, it’s understandable that the Hungarians would resonate with such a story. They too, as a people, could throw off the shackles of their Austrian oppressors and be their own nation.

And altogether, I think it’s a powerful thing that such high aspirations incarnate into everyday cultural objects. That was the notion that first started my investigation into playing cards and their iconography. And there’s an insane history to get to.