Fancy faces for a familiar deck

It used to be that it was only the number of spots on the pasteboards that mattered, but the ladies have now become the principal buyers and users of playing cards, and some strange and exotic things have happened
September 16, 1962

Women are buying the playing cards _ these days, and buying them in unprecedented numbers. One of the results, for better or worse, is that after several centuries of peaceful evolution there is now a sort of revolution in the design and decoration of what used to be a very simple piece of pasteboard. Walk into almost any store and you can now purchase the kind of lavish, spectacular, attractive and different decks of cards shown at left. The Cavendish Club may recoil in shock and bridge leagues be appalled, but the ladies are showing their hand.

There is a certain amount of historical irony in this, for one of the earliest records of the use of playing cards is found in a Chinese work of about 1120 A.D. It credits Emperor S'eun-Ho of Cathay with inventing cards for the purpose of keeping his concubines amused at times when the Emperor was otherwise occupied.

During most of the centuries intervening, it was men who bought and used cards. Except for an occasional fortuneteller, women rarely played until the 19th century. In all these years the evolution of the playing card was so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and a sure road to business failure was to come up with a bright idea for change. It is only since women took their seats at the card table that a few major innovations have been tried.

On the theory that the Kaiser's unpopularity had doomed monarchy everywhere, World War I era playing cards were introduced with soldiers, nurses and sailors replacing the kings, queens and jacks. They didn't last. Soviet Russia found it far simpler to overthrow the entire Russian ruling class than to remove the royalty from the faces of cards. Every previous attempt to depose the legendary monarchs of the Houses of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs has had to buck such long-entrenched habits that sales have been made largely as souvenirs or curios.

Even some good ideas have failed. At least two attempts have been made to change clubs to blue and diamonds to orange, in order to make cards easier to sort and to help prevent mistakes in following suit. Where are they now? Round cards, popular more than 500 years ago, are back on the market again. About 40 years ago, when they were also reintroduced, expert cardplayers admitted they were easy to shuffle, deal, sort and read—and refused to play with them.

I confess to being responsible for at least two innovations and one story about cards. I had decks made with the point value shown under the indices of honor cards, so that bridge players could more easily count the point value of their hands. Nobody but beginners liked this idea, and not many will long admit to being beginners. I also designed cards with big indices, like those used in my TV show. These are now on the market generally and are fine for the nearsighted. They are also, no doubt, popular with those who like to get a look at their opponents' cards. It may be that they will catch on in some circles, especially for exhibitions. But I must report that the experts who use them on the show find them somewhat disconcerting.

My card story concerns the World Bridge Olympiad in Turin, Italy where, with the cooperation of the United States Playing Card Company, I was able to present 1,400 decks with my signature as a back design for use in the tournament. Now, playing-card manufacture in most European countries is a heavily taxed monopoly. So permission to bring the cards into Italy was granted only on condition that every deck be taken out of the country after the tournament.

It was assumed that it would be possible to present an occasional deck to those who wished souvenirs by bringing out of the country a few 50-or 51-card decks. But the Italian government had thought of that, too. It warned that it didn't want to count decks when we left, just aces of spades. Needless to say, all the decks that went into Italy were brought right back out.

High taxes and the monopolies on playing cards abroad are responsible for the invention of plastic cards, which have been on the market here since 1934. In Austria, where the plastic card was invented, the tax was so high that decks were manufactured oversize, with huge margins. When the edges got dirty the decks were trimmed down so that they could still be used. Even at their selling price of $10 per set, the plastic cards could have put quite a dent in the monopoly's business—so the latter quickly bought out the plastics manufacturer and his processes and scrapped the operation. The inventor came to the U.S., where he persuaded Ely Culbertson to put his cards on the market, and they have had some measure of success.

The "invention" that made a patent on the plastic card possible is closely tied to the reason why playing cards are called pasteboards. Nonplastic cards are printed on pasted-together boards, or sheets of paper; otherwise, if you sat with the light behind you your opponent could read your cards through the backs. Originally this problem was solved by pasting a sheet of brown paper between the two outer layers. Later the problem of translucency was resolved by the use of a black paste. The inventor of the plastic card created neither the plastic, nor, of course, the idea of the playing card. He simply created a way to make the plastic opaque.

Opacity is only one of the difficulties in making what superficially appear to be very simple things. Pitfalls are numerous. There was, for example, the printer who thought he could revolutionize the industry. Instead of printing a full deck, or two full decks, on one sheet, as is normally done, he planned to print all of the aces of spades on one sheet, all of the kings of spades on another, etc. Then he would collate 52 sheets, and in one die cut he could get more than 100 decks.

Beating the sharpies

A few hundred years ago this scheme might have worked, since cards were printed on one side only and the backs were left white. Today, with the back design an important part of every card, the printer learned he could manufacture nothing but marked decks. No matter how carefully printed, the separate sheets would have gradations of color that would soon become apparent enough for the sharp player to "read" each card from the back. The problem of uniformity is so important that several years ago the United States Playing Card Company had to recall and destroy 300,000 decks. The back of one of the cards had been found to have a hairline imperfection.

Yet printing is a mild headache compared with the difficulty of cutting and assembling a deck. Since the deck is all on the same sheet, the sheet must be cut into strips and the strips fed through a kind of biscuit cutter that stamps out the individual cards. Simultaneously, the edges of each card must be pressed into a feather edge. This edge, invisible to the eye and scarcely perceptible to the touch, is the reason why the cards can be shuffled without fraying. The nature of the machines that do this work is among the most jealously guarded of trade secrets. There is no secondhand market; when the machines are scrapped, they are smashed with sledgehammers.

Recently one of the country's largest printers of greeting cards decided to bring out a playing card line and encountered two ambushes that prevented more than moderate success. The company imported its cards from West Germany. But the German cards, it found, had slightly different faces from American ones and, as we have said, card players don't relish change. Almost as important, the cards were a fraction of an inch wider than standard American decks. This meant they would not fit into duplicate-bridge boards.

Of all card games, bridge has had the widest effect on the playing card business, and not merely because of the volume of packs bought for that purpose. Bridge caused the width of cards to be changed from 2½ to 2¼ inches, in order to facilitate the holding of thirteen cards—especially, one might add, in the smaller hands of women. And it was women who got bored with the conventional geometric designs that had been the bestsellers and still remain so in the gambling houses and the high-stake card clubs. That's why you can buy cards with Mona Lisa smiling from the back, or find yourself staring fixedly at a still life of pink asters as your partner takes you out of a business double.

Important, too, is the effect that bridge and women have had in giving the playing card new respectability. No longer called "the devil's picture book," rarely the object of religious sermons, the deck of playing cards has become part of the entertainment equipment in millions of homes.

Yet the grand old legends and the mystery still persist, relics of a day when cards were solely the implements of the fortune-teller and the gambler. The ace of spades remains the death card; the queen of spades is the dark lady; the four of clubs "the devil's bedposts," because it looks like the top of a fourposter. Finally, there is the nine of diamonds, called "the curse of Scotland," for any of half a dozen fanciful reasons, ranging from the possibility that it derived from the nine lozenges in the coat of arms of the Earl of Stair, loathed in Scotland for his connection with the Massacre of Glencoe, to the highly improbable theory that Cumberland, "the Butcher of Culloden," wrote the orders for that battle on the back of this card.

Now, that's about the only thing the ladies have not thought of putting on the backs of their cards—battle orders for a massacre.


Americans are buying 65 million decks of playing cards a year, in the largest choice of shapes and sizes, patterns and faces ever. There arc jumbo cards, 5 by 7 inches, called, naturally, a Texas deck (11, Georg Jensen $4) and miniature cards, 1¾ by 2‚Öù inches (9, made in West Germany, Lord & Taylor $1.25). There are round cards (10, "Rondo," made in England, Lord & Taylor $2) and slender cards (like the Mona Lisa and antique autos, 7), a quarter inch narrower than a poker card, and cards with big numbers (4, Bergdorf Goodman $3 a double deck).

A set of American Civil War Centennial cards is made in Spain, with spade and diamond suits representing Union heroes, and hearts and clubs portraying Confederates (3, Lord & Taylor $6 a double deck). France produces a Renaissance-era set of 12,000 numbered copies. The face cards range from Bluebeard and his wives to an allegory of love (5, "Le Florentin," Georg Jensen $15 a double deck). "St. Hubert" (13, made in France, Lord & Taylor $4.50) depicts elegantly attired knights and ladies hunting game. The gods are represented in a set of Spanish cards (12, "The Classic," Bergdorf Goodman $6 a double deck), with Venus a heart and Pluto a spade. An import from Britain shows dreamlike figures in muted colors (8, Bergdorf Goodman 56 a double deck), and Sweden makes a harlequin-backed card, "Comedia," with stylized, dashing, medieval figures (1, Lord & Taylor $5 a double deck). Hallmark manufactures "Confetti" (6, Lord & Taylor $3 a double deck). As curiosities, rather than for actual play, Chicago Playing Card Collectors has put out a "Fact and Fancy" set, limited to 600 copies, which spoofs six centuries of famous card-players (2, Marshall Field and Co. $3.50). At bottom is Wild Bill Hickok, lily in hand, after a bullet ended his final game. Above him is "La Pique Dame," Pushkin's Countess Fedorovna, who sold her soul to the devil for the secret of the three winning cards at faro.

Eagle (-2)
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