Arts & CultureHistory

Where did playing cards come from?

Who hasn’t enjoyed a round of cards over the years? Whether you’re a hardcore poker player or just enjoy a friendly game of Gin Rummy, almost everyone has tried their hand at that deck with 52 cards made of four suits and two jokers. But did you know that although those cards are pretty standardized now, this wasn’t always the case? And if you’ve wondered how playing cards were invented, you can set your mind at ease because we have the answers!

Murky origins

Front and back view of an antique playing card design, circa 1900
Credit: Whiteway / iStockPhoto

No one knows the specific date when playing cards emerged, but historians can all agree that some time between the late 1300s and early 1400s, the iconic game pieces began popping up around Europe. But according to scholars, they didn’t originate on that continent. Experts agree that most likely, playing cards were an import, brought to Europe by traders from Asia. This is based on the fact that cards with similar suits dating back to the 12th century were found across Asia in places such as China, Korea, Persia, and India. Depending on who you talk to, some experts believe that the original playing card was invented in China during the 9th century under the Tang Dynasty.

Up close view of casino gambling table with cards on display
Credit: switas / iStockPhoto

It seems that after playing cards were invented, gambling soon followed. Even in the early days of card-playing during the 9th century in China, there was evidence that each card's face could represent a specific amount of money. So, in a way, playing cards was a way of keeping track of earnings — or losses.

But even in Europe, cards were quickly associated with gambling. There’s clear proof that many religious sermons centered around the dangers of gambling and listed specific games that should be avoided because of their risk of encouraging the participants to sin.

The evolution of playing card designs

Front and back view of antique queen playing card design
Credit: Whiteway / iStockPhoto

There’s a direct link between the iconography on a deck of cards and the culture or era in which they were found. For example, playing cards that were found in Egypt from the Mamluk era featured common artistic objects that were popular during that dynasty such as gold coins, goblets, swords, and polo sticks.

As the cards made their way west, the designs began to change. Although the basic suit designs stayed similar, court cards were updated. You might know these cards as the king, queen, and jack (although during the 14th and 15th century the jack was known as a knave or prince). And variations depended on the country. For example, Spain was known for having playing card packs that had only 40 cards. This is because they omitted the eight, nine, and 10 cards. For the curious, a popular Spanish card game was Ombre, and it didn’t need those three cards. And instead of a king, queen, and jack, they removed the queen and replaced it with a knight.

A game for all people

Up close view of playing cards arranged in royal flush against a green backdrop
Credit: Hendra Su / iStockPhoto

When playing cards first emerged in Europe, they were almost exclusively for the nobility and royalty. The cards were designed by hand and featured ornate drawings, making them expensive to acquire. But as time progressed, playing cards became more popular and newer (and more efficient) printing methods developed in Germany made cards accessible for people from all stations of life.

The ultimate change came when the French decided to differentiate suits by shape and color. The modern red hearts, black spades, red diamonds, and black clubs as we know them today originated in 15th century France. However, they were known by their French names “rouge coeurs,” “noir piques,” “rouge carreaux” and “noir trefles.” Instead of using more ornate iconography for the numbered cards, they opted for simplified symbols, which also translated to easier printing methods.

So, the most direct link between the modern deck of 52 playing cards comes from 16th century France. While many playing card designs circulated during this era, for the court cards (J, Q, and K), the styles we see today came from France. And when playing cards finally became popular in England, the suit names were changed to their English versions as we know them today.

The Americans jump into the mix

Assortment of modern playing cards mixed together and sprawled out on table
Credit: malerapaso / iStockPhoto

For the most part, playing cards remained unchanged outside of minor design edits until the Americans began printing cards in the 1800s. The two final major design changes were the addition of corner indices and jokers. The corner index is the suit value that is printed in the upper left and lower right corners of the cards. This invention first appeared in 1864 but didn’t become mainstream until 1871. Most importantly, it made it easier for people to recognize the value of their hand without having to spread out their cards.

And according to historical records, the joker appeared on the scene around 1860 and was invented as a trick option for the popular game Euchre. Several years later, the joker became a wild card in poker. And the rest, as they say, is history.