The History of Playing Cards

Have you ever stopped to think about playing cards? They seem so commonplace, yet you may be surprised to learn that they have a rich history. They are so much more than just a game but reveal much about culture.

The Standard English deck of cards we know today includes 52 cards made up of four suits (clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds) of 12 cards each plus two jokers. Other countries have their own local versions and different numbers of cards in a deck are used depending on the game being played.


Nobody knows for sure, but it’s thought that cards originated in China during the Tang Dynasty from the 9th century where historical records mention Princess Tong Cheng playing the “leaf game”. Suits first appeared in China during the Ming Dynasty and featured variations on coins – bearing out the paper currency idea. Cards spread through Asia and to Egypt by the 11th century and the oldest surviving fragments of cards date from the 12th and 13th century. Mamluk suits consisted of cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks


Cards arrived in Europe via the Islamic Mamluks in the 14th century, first emerging in Italy and Spain and used very similar suits: cups, coins, swords, and clubs (more familiar to the Europeans than polo sticks). There was some opposition to cards from the church and a number of ordinances banned or limited cards during this time in more than one country.

The first playing cards were beautifully hand painted making them a luxury item, owned mostly by the rich. Germans replaced the Latin suits with their own: acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells reflecting their interest in nature and rural life. In time, the popularity of cards led to them being produced in larger quantities using woodcuts.

In the early 15th century, the French developed the suit icons we commonly use today, calling them coeurs, piques, carreaux, and trefles. They also divided the suits into two red and two black allowing printing with stencils and vastly increased the rate of production. From 1440, the Gutenberg printing press replaced traditional printing techniques with a way more efficient mass production method.

Cards made their way to England via Belgium. Due to high taxation in France, many card makers emigrated to Belgium and Rouen became a centre of production, exporting to the rest of Europe. The English defined their own names for the suits: hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs.

The United States

The US was a rather latecomer to playing cards. Initially they relied on imports from England, but eventually began printing their own from the 1830’s. The New York Consolidated Card Company is credited with introducing corner indices to the English pack, making it possible for players to hold and recognize a poker hand by just fanning the cards slightly. The Americans are also responsible for introducing the joker.

Now that you know more about their history, when you play cards today, take a moment to savour the fact that you’re part of a long and distinguished tradition dating back centuries.