Duck Duck Book

37 – antique playing cards
10.1.2006, 2:09 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Antique playing cards : a pictorial treasury / Henry René d’Allemagne ; selected and arranged by Carol Belanger Grafton. 
Mineola, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 1996.
[MCL call number: 795.4 A424a 1996; three copies, no holds]

Somehow it never occurred to me, on my own, that playing cards might be culturally determined objects — which is perhaps commentary on the pervasiveness of my own culture.  As a child, I only came across standard English cards (hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades), and the tarot deck (no good for games, only for boring grown-up fortune telling).  Later, in adulthood, I was very surprised to find that other decks almost the same but with different details do exist, and have been around for a long time (longer than, for example, decks of playing cards with a different naked lady on each one).  Antique Playing Cards provides examples of many of the different ways playing cards have been imagined in recent European history.

The collection includes line drawings and color facsimiles of European playing cards, and functions somewhat like a clip art book (although its publishers reserve copyright, and do not give the blanket permission for use that is standard in books of clip art specifically intended for artists).  The book reprints selections from a French work on playing cards of the 14th-20th centuries, Les Cartes à Jouer du XIVe au XXe Siècle, by Henry René d’Allemagne (Paris, 1906).  No doubt because the source is a French book, most of the cards pictured are French, but there are a few sets of cards from Spain, Germany, and England included as well.  Here are some of my favorites: 

  • cards in the suit of clubs, from a set of cards made during the English Revolution and depicting events related to the Spanish Armada of 1588 (one hundred years earlier) — each has the suit and number along the top, an educational illustration in the middle, and a caption below, eg. “The Pope gives a Million of Gold to Help the Spaniard” (page 51)
  • face cards from a Revolutionary-era deck made in Paris, which have elements, seasons, and agricultural workers rather than kings, queens, and jacks (page 69)
  • a 19th century fortune telling game showing personages such as Amour D’Argent (Money Lover), Génerosité (Generosity), and a very evil-looking Méchant Femme (Evil Lady) (page 70)
  • an uncannily beautiful set from post-Restoration France with each suit represented by the army of a different nation and illustrated with appropriately attired soldiers of artillery, with the suit and number indicated by the number of soldiers pictured and the number of wee clubs, hearts, diamonds, or spades on their martial little flag (page 75)

The book includes many sets of cards reflecting a specific political ideology or reality.  Several decks produced in France’s Revolutionary period eschew the notion of royal suits, replacing them with uplifting social ideas instead (see above), and others show contemporary royalty or important figures in a nations past.  Many decks intended for use in fortune telling are included as well.  The publisher’s note at the beginning of the book gives a very terse history of playing cards, which is somewhat helpful in interpreting the images in the main section.


2 Comments so far
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Did you know that in Europe tarot cards are still used for playing actual card games similar to spades and euchre! In fact, tarot decks were originally made for game playing and the fortune telling stuff came about much later. The players these days are using more modern decks that look somewhat like regular playing cards and the trumps have different pictures than the fortune telling decks.
If you like tarot cards and games then go to Google and search “jeu de tarot” or “tarock”

Comment by Robin Banks

I too collect different playing card decks as well as unusual tarot cards. I shall certainly be looking up the book you review here.

Comment by Greeting Cards

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