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Playing Cards - More Than a Game

In the early hours of a cold winter morn, a young woman steals her way into the grounds of the local convent, a bundle clutched tightly in her arms. She barely has the strength to carry the child, who in turn is weak from hunger and doesn’t make a sound as he is placed carefully, lovingly on the doorstep. The woman takes the ace of hearts from her shawl and re-reads the message written there. A message she had agonised over for hours. Is the wording right? Will it explain enough? Is she doing the right thing?

Allowing herself a moment to breathe before doing the unthinkable. She leaves the card tucked into the swaddle with the child and disappears into the night, afraid to look back in case her resolve should leave her.


A Very Brief History of Playing Cards

As a lover of ephemera, playing cards are among my favourite pieces of memorabilia. They are pocket-sized, colourful and have a variety of uses. My love of playing cards probably appeals to my very obvious Peter Pan complex. The youngest in my family by a good few years meant that I was a bit of a solitary child (and yes, you can bet your ass that that pun was intended!) Rainy days were spent building card houses, being taught to play games by my card-shark mother, or my cousin who showed me “how to tell the future” with a standard deck (for which I’ve left a handy little infographic at the end of the article). It all appealed to me. The designs on the deck also fascinated me in that childlike way of being curious but not actually putting any effort into figuring out why the King of Hearts is stabbing himself in the head.*

King of Hearts
Image by Gina Janosch from Pixabay

*After much research the general consensus is that it was probably a printing error - sometimes it’s better not knowing, because the truth can be quite boring.

A deck of cards consist of 52** cards, said by some to represent the 52 weeks of the year, 4 suits, to represent the 4 seasons, two colours that represent night and day, and 13 cards per suit to represent the 13 lunar cycles of the year.

**The joker wasn’t introduced into the deck until sometime in the 1800s in the United States.

The origins of playing cards are often disputed, although most agree they probably came from “the east” (which is an incredibly broad term. Did they come from east of Dublin or east of Moscow?). What we do know is that they arrived in Europe sometime around the 13th Century, and the suits would change depending on where you were playing. For example, in Spain and Italy diamonds were coins. In Switzerland and Germany they were bells.

Evolution of suitmarks through countries

The Play(ing Card) is the thing

As well as the Peter Pan complex I alluded to above, I also love playing cards due to their multitude of uses.

According to Gejus van Diggele, a collector with over 6000 repurposed playing cards and author of The Secondary Use of Playing Cards,

a single playing card (or a few cards) that were produced to play games have been used for other purposes. These cards may be cut, trimmed, torn, folded, pinned, glued or pasted. On one or both sides there might be additional manuscript or printed text, drawings, paintings, doodles, musical notations or any other alteration of the original card.

Still today cards have a multitude of secondary uses - they have been used to construct elaborate structures, to do magic (one of my favourite forms of magic is the card trick), they are used in art, and children use playing cards by pinning them to the spoke of the wheel of a bicycle to turn their 5 speed into a roaring Harley Davidson.

Even the authorities use playing cards to try to solve cold cases. In 2007, the Florida Department of Law and Enforcement developed a deck of cards that had the details of unsolved crimes on them. They were then distributed within prisons. The hope was that it might jog the memory of inmates who may have any information that might help the solve the crimes. Within 3 months 3 cold cases was solved. This has led to other states developing their own sets of cold case cards.

The “Huh - that is interesting” reason why the Ace of Spades is different.

In a standard deck, the Ace of Spades is usually considered the highest valued card (depending on the game). It even has its own song (I can’t imagine Motörhead writing a song about “The 3 of Clubs”). That's one thing that makes the card special, but there's also a much more clerical reason...

Ace of  Spades Image by L Gould from Pixabay
Ace of Spades Image by L Gould from Pixabay

Playing cards were essentially very cheap and easy to create. So if people were making them themselves, governments weren’t making any money on them. To counteract this, a law was put in place in where you had to pay a tax on the Ace of Spades. Card makers would pay the tax and a special stamp was used to print on the Ace of Spades as proof of payment of the tax. (The use of stamps to prove tax payments is also where we get the term stamp duty).

See I told you it was interesting... you should learn to trust me more.

Just like today, some people wanted to avoid paying taxes and one such card maker, Richard Harding, would go on to meet his own maker at the Old Bailey where he was hung in 1805 for forging an Ace of Spades. Well, there are two certainties in life am I right?

In some cultures, superstition has been attached to the deck of cards with the Ace of Spades in particular believed to be unlucky (it certainly was for Mr. Harding). Indeed, a very famous Irish ghost story revolves around a game of cards and the Ace of Spades.

In Loftus Hall in County Wexford, it is claimed that one night in 1775, a strange man called into this fine manor house and was made welcome. That night while playing cards with the family, the daughter of the house dropped the Ace of Spades. When she bent down to pick it up she saw that the stranger had cloven hooves for feet. She screamed that he was the devil and he burst into flames and caused a hole in the roof. (Being a lover of all things supernatural I visited Loftus Hall and even saw the hole in the ceiling… although whether or not the devil caused it remains to be seen.)

If this kind of story is to your liking then you are in luck dear friend because Loftus Hall is for sale.

Loftus Hall is a reportedly haunted mansion in the South East of Ireland.
Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford, Ireland. - Picture Credit - Sarah Lally

Playing Cards as Identification

There is one very specific use of playing cards that I would like to focus on a little bit and it is one of heartache and destitution.

In the Netherlands, during the 18th century, destitute mothers would leave their babies at the local convent in the hopes that they were giving their child a chance at life. Playing cards were often the cheapest form of paper a mother would have been able to find. On this she would leave details about the child, and sometimes a message.

If she was optimistic she would leave half a playing card with her small, malnourished bundle. She would play the other half close to her chest, closest to her heart, with the hope that one day she would return with her half of the card to reclaim her child, once she had the means to take care of them both.

If the card was left whole with the child, she had already lost hope.

Half a playing card found with a child who had been left at a religious institute
Half a playing card found with a child who had been left at a religious institute

This card reads: “If God has heard my prayer, [my son] will not die. I have no more food.”

Playing cards have many different connotations to millions of people across the globe. To some they are a way to pass time, either alone or with friends. They are used for drinking games, gambling, fortune telling and magic tricks (and regular tricks - how many of us have been victim to the 52 Card Pick Up?). They have been used in art, as IOU’s, for random scribblings even for escape maps during WWII. However, the next time you see one, spare a thought for the women who used them as a symbol of devotion, hope and the ultimate act of love - ensuring their child had a fighting chance.

DIY Fortune Telling

So after all that heartache, let's turn to a little fun. Below is a handy little infographic to show you how to read your fortune using a standard deck of cards. Here's a link to a virtual deck if you fancy reading your fortune while pretending to fill out those spreadsheets that should have been done yesterday.

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