The History of Playing Cards - Travelling down the Timeline

The history of playing cards is a subject not discussed very often.

In this contemporary era wherein we have so many comforts, luxuries and privileges at our disposal, do we really take time to stop and wonder when and how these amenities came into being?

Take for example playing cards that seem to be everywhere and are viewed by all age groups across the world as an indispensable form of entertainment.

But if asked about their origin or history, not many users would be aware of the answers.

To trace the origin of a particular object or concept, a method that is commonly employed by historians entails picking up the thread in the present era and working backwards step by step until the other point comes into the vicinity.

Unfortunately this technique did not prove to be very effective in the case of playing cards because somewhere along the way the thread itself was lost, leaving researchers with little choice but to guess where the other end might be.

While it is common knowledge that in the history of playing cards, cards surfaced in different parts of Europe all at once during the 14th century, how they reached this part of the world is a matter of conjecture.

Some of the plausible theories floated in this regard point towards China, Egypt, Holy Land and the nomadic tribes of Continental Europe as being responsible but owing to the lack of concrete evidence none of these theories have ever been seriously acknowledged or accepted.

However, a fact that did emerge from all the investigations was that the division of a pack of playing cards into 4 suits, each comprising 13 cards, was existent even then.

The only difference was the manner in which the four main suits were represented and the earliest style is believed to comprise of polo-sticks, coins, swords and cups.

It was also discovered that each of these suits consisted of ten numbered cards led by three court cards namely king, vice-king and second vice-king, thus implying that the deck of cards handled today is part of an age-old legacy.

History of Playing Cards

Probably the most interesting phase in the history of playing cards was towards the end of the 14th century when the French decided to use them as an expression of creativity.

There were several deviations during this time period, like the inclusion of the fourteenth card, namely the 'cavalier', in each suit and each card being hand-painted to the point of being treated as a work of art.

Evidence of five suits being used instead of the usual four has also been found as has the induction of clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds, which has endured until this date.  Appearance of the Queen following the King and the replacement of the Vice-King by the Jack also occurred at this time.

England adopted the same system of playing cards as France but credit goes to the Germans for daring to be different.

While the suit system used in France and England was interpreted as being representative of the social divide namely royalty, militia, clerks and peasants, Germany switched over to a more imaginative system of hearts, bells, leaves and acorns.  Germans were also the first to indulge in large-scale production of playing cards which was seen as being instrumental in heightening their popularity around the world.

From then until the present 21st Century, Germany has retained its unique depiction of four suits while it is the French-British system which is accepted as the norm on a global scale.

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