A Brief History of Cards: From Playing cards to Pokemon

Cards have been a staple of entertainment for centuries. From the earliest roots as generic games to collectibles and to the modern trading card games of today, their history is long and in depth.

Some of the first cards used for entertainment date back to the Tang Dynasty in China. Around 600-900 AD, early wooden cards marked with suits were used to play drinking games. Outside of China, many middle eastern civilizations had their own card games. Mamluk cards were common in Egypt and spread through into other continents, especially Europe. Mamluk cards are the earliest representatives of what we know to be playing cards with 4 suits and 52 cards in each deck, and used to play trick games. The designs on Mamluk cards were often intricately patterned instead of bearing designs of people. The suits were also representative of common Mamluk pastimes.

These earlier card games and their influences are challenged; it is a common belief that European cards developed individually from outside games, originally beginning in the 1300s. Ancient manuscripts speak of a variety of card games and cards. These along with other gambling related activities were a target of religious condemnation. At this point the existence of the 52 card deck is confirmed with suits changing depending on region. Generally suits were some variation of cups, clubs, swords and coins, the Latin suits.

The idea of the king, queen and jack were seen as early as the 14th century in Italian decks, where the Jack was known as the knave (a royal servant). In Spain, the decks miss number 8,9 and 10 leading to decks being 40 cards in total, a common sight still today. Germans introduced their own unique set of suits: acorns, leaves, hearts and bells, in references to their common pursuits. A unique deck structure was also introduced, with no queen, two knaves and an upper and underman; resulting in a 48 card deck. Another German addition to these cards were the techniques for their creation. Engravings on blocks were used to make large quantities of these cards and export them through Europe.

In the 15th Century what we know as our modern suits appeared in France. The coeurs (hearts), piques (now spades), carreaux (now diamonds), and trefles (now clubs) along with the King queen and knave comprised the French deck. Alongside these changes came the choice to simplify designs and make two suits red and two black, which made production of the French cards much easier and cheaper - particularly with the use of stencils. With the Gutenberg press, and other advances in printing appearing in the 15th century, the older handmade wood block printing was phased out in favour of the high volume printing seen in the French versions.

As time passed, slowly more additions were added to the cards to bring them closer to what we know today. In England to impose tax on playing cards more simply, the crown mandated that all Aces of spades on new decks must be marked with a special insignia to ensure that duties had been paid on it. Americans had their own additions such as adding smaller symbols to the corners of the cards to improve clarity when fanning the cards. However the most important and permanent addition to the deck is the Joker, which was meant to trump all the other cards.

Outside of playing cards, the origins of trading cards start with cigarette cards. Cigarette cards were used in packs to serve double duty as case backs while also spreading advertising to customers with each purchase. Eventually the cards were printed with designs of a variety of topics. These cards started to be collected, most often by children. The success of cigarette cards prompted other brands to start producing trade cards which were meant to be distributed by hand to advertise products or included in whatever product was sold. Among the numerous designs included in cigarette packs were cards of various sportsmen which began in the 1860s with baseball cards included in Allen & Ginter tobacco; the first trading cards. Around the turn of the century Thomas Ogden began the production of a variety of sets which would revolve around certain themes such as cricketers and in 1906 football (soccer) players. Football and cricket cards stayed as the most popular cards for countries outside of North America. In 1910 Imperial Tobacco Canada released a set of 36 hockey cards to celebrate the first NHL season.

During World War II most card production had halted to help with severe paper shortages. Cigarettes and trade cards would never fully make a comeback after the war. Afterwards, candy and gum companies were the main distributor of trading cards, these included Topps (originally a tobacco then chewing gum company), Bowman Gum, O-Pee-Chee (a confectionery company). Topps began producing cards in 1952 and packaged it with their gum. As their card division grew eventually the gum aspect was scrapped much to the liking of collectors.

Quickly the sports card market was saturated, changes had to be made in the cards to expand interest. Artificially inflated rarities, autographs and game worn memorabilia became commonplace in the sports card space. Autographs specifically have greatly increased card values as they are certified to be authentic.

Outside of sports collectible card games (a.k.a. Trading card games, TCG) became quite large with the introduction of Magic: The Gathering. Cards from these games were not only to be collected but also played. Games such as Magic: The gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokemon are amongst the most popular TCGs today. Prior to Magic, there were a number of games to be played with specialised cards such as the Baseball card Game by Topps, however these games did not often include the collectible aspects which define TCG’s as we know them today.

20th May 2023

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