Playing cards have been around for thousands of years. In fact, its origins are still hotly debated. Some of its ancient history even predates written records. Naturally, such a long-spanning history will carry a few mysteries with it.
Here are some less known facts about playing cards:
The 52-Deck Mystery
The current 52-card deck parallels the Roman calendar year in many ways. There are too many links for this to just be a curious coincidence. The dead giveaway is, of course, that the four suits are the four seasons. But moreover,
- The two colors, red and black, correspond to day and night.
- The 52 cards correspond to the 52 weeks in a year.
- The 12 court cards are the 12 months.
The four-suit deck we use today also represents the medieval social hierarchy. The four suits correspond to the four pillars of a feudal structure that we saw in many different cultures until the late middle ages. The hearts parallel the holy clergy. The Spades are the non-religious state authority, i.e., the nobility and the military. The diamonds are the mercantile class, and the clubs are the peasantry.
The vast number and variety of playing cards throughout different stages of history across the world make them a popular type of collectible relics. As recorded by the Guinness Book, the biggest card collector in the world is Liu Fuchang. Residing in Fugou county in Mainland China, this man had a whopping 11807 different decks in his collection as of November 2007.
The Joker Craze
On the other hand, many antiquarians also chase cards of the one particular type – such as Donato De Santis from Rome. Donato’s library has over 8500 Jokers, all with unique designs. And some of these Jokers hail from extremely rare decks which contain 6 Jokers!
Playing cards have a lot of use outside card rooms and casinos. For example, law enforcement and prison systems in the U.S. have manufactured ‘cold case cards’ from time to time. These cards contain photos and details of cold case victims or missing persons where they would otherwise have the pip or artwork. One can buy these at both prison canteens and public markets, with the intent that it may spark some new person of interest to provide new leads down the line.
Playing cards are a popular pastime among soldiers. It saw peak usage in the World Wars among U.S. battalions. The USPCC even produced cheaper decks, specifically for soldiers. In World War II, there may have been more than what meets the eye about these cards. USPCC’s popular deck brand, Bicycle, had manufactured special decks with special cards. A joint effort between the USPCC and American intelligence agencies, these cards would reveal a fragment of a map when peeled asunder. Once arranged, these would often chart routes that traced an estranged group of soldiers back behind Allied lines. European POWs would also receive parcels from the Red Cross during Christmas, with escape routes hidden within.
The King of Hearts is the ‘suicide king’ because his traditional design depicts him to be impaling a sword into the back of his own head. The earliest design variants show that in the original design, it was an axe.
In medieval England, churches saw playing cards as breeding grounds for delinquency. Gambling, vagrancy, drunken antics, lechery – you name it. Due to the church crackdown on playing cards, the manufacturers’ recourse was to get the state to sanction their cards. In other words, King Charles I (by some accounts, Queen Anne) slapped a hefty tax on selling cards. The merchants would pay the tax for each deck of the card before it could become legally tradable. The mark of a deck being ‘legal’ was that it bore a stamp designed by the crown. The Ace of Spades was the card chosen for this because firstly, it had the most empty space and secondly, it was usually the first card on the deck once the wrappings were removed.
The Role of Jack
‘Jack’ was called ‘Knave,’ i.e., ‘servant’ up till the 19th century. On the contrary, the meaning of Jack is ‘everyman.’ It caught on mostly due to practical reasons – Jack could be abbreviated to ‘J,’ while ‘Knave’ and ‘King’ had the same initials.
Origin of the Joker
Unlike other court cards, the Joker is not related to tarots; neither does it have any ties to ‘The Fool.’ Instead, it came originally from a game called Euchre.
This only scratches the surface of the rabbit hole that is the arsenal of trivia about cards. There are many more bizarre facts and unheard truths about playing cards being uncovered regularly. Our long history of playing cards has brought a lot of secrets to them.